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Nana would be so disappointed in me.
January 21, 2009 1:29 PM   Subscribe

Etiquette-filter: sending thank-you notes late (like, ridiculously, months-to-years late)? Specific questions within.

So, I've got a chronic procrastination problem where thank-you notes are concerned. I think I'm a grateful person, but I hate to write and suck at putting feelings into words-- with the result that I tend to postpone necessary thank-yous until so much time has passed that it seems impossibly awkward and embarrassing to send any note at all. (To give some idea of the scale we're talking about here, a few of the items in my current "debit" column include notes:
  • to three close friends, including a bridesmaid, for wedding gifts 16 months ago (all the "form" notes were easy, but the heartfelt ones... not so much so)
  • to an old prof for good advice and mentoring 6 years ago (he gave me a decidedly cold shoulder at a conference recently, so I'm guessing this one's dead in the water)
  • to a good friend re: travel souvenirs given back in September
  • to my academic advisor for rush-mailing a rec in November
and so forth.) I think if I could think of things as fixable (as opposed to being Forever Spoilt By My Rudeness), then I might occasionally be able to sack up and write the belated note, instead of spiralling down into endless guilt and avoidance. But assuming I'm facing a thank-you note that's been put off months or years past when it should have been sent,

1. How profusely and grovellingly should I apologize for not writing sooner? Should the apology be made in the note itself, or in a separate communication, like a cover note?
2. Does the thank-you itself need to be extra-effusive and/or accompanied by some sort of gift, to "make it up" to the recipient?
3. Is there ever a time limit past which it simply *is* just too late to send a thank-you at all, particularly for relatively small items? Or is some acknowledgment always better than nothing, even years after the fact?

Some helpful suggestions here, but everything seems to be specifically wedding-related; I'm wondering how all this works when applied to thank-yous for professional assistance, or more casual gestures and gifts.
posted by Bardolph to Human Relations (14 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's never too late to write a thank you note; no matter how small the gift. It will be appreciated. Apologize with a single line -- "So sorry it took me so long to get around to this." Then get with the thanking.

Every thank you note has three elements: past, present and future.

'Past" = you recall the joy and the circumstances of getting the thing you got. ("It was so nice seeing you at the wedding -- your date seemed like a swell guy")
"present" = Something specific about the thing you got and how much you lurved it or appreciated it.
"future" = make some vague plans about getting together, or reference existing plans, or happily anticipate something good you know is happening to the recipient soon.

That's it. Don't overthink it. The fact of the note is more important than the contents of the note.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 1:38 PM on January 21, 2009 [11 favorites]


I do this all the time, for everything. Just yesterday I sent out a thank you note for Thanksgiving dinner. Better late than never.

I try to not to be overly effusive or apologetic; if you know me, you know that late thank you notes are just an irritating, unavoidable thing I do. Same may be true for you.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 1:43 PM on January 21, 2009


For friends, write a chatty, cheerful card with general news and friendship-y stuff. Then say:

"I just realized I never properly thanked you for your generous gift of.. blah. In fact, I used the [steak knife, handcuffs, egg timer] just this morning, and I was reminded of that time we [made eggs hollandaise, were arrested...]. I wanted to make sure that you knew how grateful I am for the gift, and for your friendship."

For the academic / professional stuff, a heartfelt letter with an update on what you're now doing and a sincere thanks for your help would be very appropriate. My academic adviser loves to receive notes and postcards from his former students, who often end up being posted to weird places all around the world.

I know exactly how you feel about putting those kinds of emotions down on paper. Chin up and do it, though, you'll feel better!
posted by charmcityblues at 1:49 PM on January 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


A good friend of mine just sent a thank-you note from an item given 20 years ago. Unsurprisingly, it was greeted with bemusement and much affection.

I think if I could think of things as fixable (as opposed to being Forever Spoilt By My Rudeness), then I might occasionally be able to sack up and write the belated note, instead of spiralling down into endless guilt and avoidance.

Something I remind myself when I am forcing myself to suck it up and write the notes even when I'm horribly late: This is for the recipient, not me. It's not about my guilt, my pride, my anything. It's about recognizing someone else being kind or generous.

I'm still late on cards, and I still procrastinate or get distracted. But when I sit down to write the notes, I have resolved to stop torturing myself and focus on making the other person happy. And after all, it's only three sentences or so.
posted by desuetude at 1:50 PM on January 21, 2009 [5 favorites]


I think the way you need to think about it is imagine how you would feel if you got a thank you note out of the blue for something nice you did for someone.

One method might be to say "I realised that I had never actually set down on paper how much that meant at the time" (for the non wedding ones). For the wedding ones, you could admit that you are a bit embarrassed at never sending them a thank you card, but you wanted to make sure they knew how much their gift had meant. Tell them about how you've used the gifts, e.g. a crockpot (we used it at our first thanksgiving together), and how you think of them when you do.

Again on the academic front, I have just been teaching for the first time this semester. At the end of my class one of the reliably 'nice girls' has said, 'Thanks very much' on their way out. It is a wonderful feeling - we don't need much to feel good about ourselves!

Get on with the thanking, write one a night for the next few nights, take 15 minutes or so over each one. And quit beating yourself up about it for not doing it sooner...
posted by Augenblick at 1:50 PM on January 21, 2009


agreed with Flanders. some might get your late note and have some kind of negative wtf thought, but most people will appreciate the thought and getting real mail!
posted by misanthropicsarah at 1:52 PM on January 21, 2009


This may or may not apply (as you may have been delivered all of the gifts in person), is that some people may wonder (as I have, with wedding gifts gone unthanked-for in the past) if you ever received the gift. Getting a thank-you note would then be a relief.
posted by dreamphone at 2:01 PM on January 21, 2009


1. How profusely and grovellingly should I apologize for not writing sooner? Should the apology be made in the note itself, or in a separate communication, like a cover note?

You shouldn't apologize for not writing sooner—that takes the focus off them and what they did for you, and puts it onto yourself. Also, they know you haven't written, and they either care (in which case they'll be pleased to finally see a note) or they don't (in which case they will be pleasantly surprised to receive a note they hadn't expected).

2. Does the thank-you itself need to be extra-effusive and/or accompanied by some sort of gift, to "make it up" to the recipient?

No. A thank you note is a thank you note. That just creates a weird cycle where the person you are supposed to thank must then thank you for something.

3. Is there ever a time limit past which it simply *is* just too late to send a thank-you at all, particularly for relatively small items? Or is some acknowledgment always better than nothing, even years after the fact?

Some acknowledgment is always better. It is never too late to send a thank you note. (However, with the exception of big things like your professor's mentoring or things like wedding gifts where there is a truly high expectation for the sending of notes, I'd give yourself a clean slate for things older than 6 months. Sure, it won't hurt to thank someone half a year later for paying for your movie ticket, but obsessing about the fact that you never got around to it will. Give yourself a break.)

If you find it really difficult to put your thanks into words, perhaps, for the more important people (your bridesmaid, for example) you might do something like take them out to lunch or dinner. In your invitation, you can make it clear that the purpose of the meal is to thank them (meaning, therefore, that there will be no need for them to thank you by note for the meal).

For your professor, take the time to write a letter, not just a note, saying that you have discovered over time just how much his good advice and mentoring meant to you. Explain how it has gotten you where you are today. This may not alleviate the cold shoulder—you cannot control his response, or lack thereof. All you can control is your own action.

It really is never too late to write a thank you note. Don't worry about things being Forever Spoilt By Your Rudeness—they won't be.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:03 PM on January 21, 2009 [2 favorites]


Nthing everyone saying it's never too late. I would never look down upon someone sending me a belated (no matter how belated, honestly) thank you card. Acknowledgment of something you've done is always nice to hear.
posted by cooker girl at 2:04 PM on January 21, 2009


I n'th the suggestion that the thank-you should be hidden amidst a heap of other information.

a) To three close friends/bridesmaid for the wedding gift - I assume you thanked these people in person and/or have spoken with them since? If so, you can write a breif note about the gift itself and then go on to say how you appreciate the time, energy, effort they gave up to help your wedding go smoothly. This is likely what they consider the bigger "sacrifice" than the gift or the money the gift cost.

b) to an old prof for good advice and mentoring 6 years ago - Write a note informing him what you're doing these days and make specific mention of how his mentoring helped you achieve these goals. Provide your phone number and ask him to contact you so you can "catch up". This seems a more genuine approach than "oh, remember that thing you said 6 years ago" as he may not even recall clearly what happened. Offer to take him out to dinner if he lives in the area or mail/mention a book you saw that he might be interested in.

c) To a good friend re: travel souvenirs given back in September - This one might not require a note. Maybe phone them and say that you stumbled across the beautiful souvenirs and it made you think of them. Ask if you can return the favour by treating them to something (dinner, movie).

d) To my academic advisor for rush-mailing a rec in November - See answer to question B.

In summary, I don't think it's always necessary to send a written letter... but making specific verbal mention of the gift and how it helped you would likely be well-received.
posted by cranberrymonger at 2:26 PM on January 21, 2009


You're doing fine and people above have you covered. I suggest a minimum of grovelling (that places a weird obligation on the person you're writing to to somehow forgive you, the object is to thank them, not burden them) and think of a few things that have been going on lately that would be good to relate and couch your thanks in a longer chatty "hey how's it going, I was thinking of you" note abd then write, seal, mail, zipzipzip. Go.
posted by jessamyn at 2:33 PM on January 21, 2009


Is there something even more intimidating you can do this to avoid? :) This is my tactic for dealing with things that I've made this (unnecessarily) intimidating. Like clean out your entire closet or make a will or plan your mother's 50th bday party or something? If you can somehow make writing these thank you notes into some easy step only tangentially related to something much harder and much less clearly defined and much more important and scary, then they'll definitely happen. "I need to send people my business plan and ask them to loan me $40,000 to start my lifelong dream project. God, I really better write that business plan.... Man. This is hard. Oh hey! Thank you cards! I can't very well send them my plan until after I send thank you cards, can I? Maybe I can do that today."
posted by salvia at 2:45 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't overthank this plate of beans.

Any time is a good time for notes!
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:48 PM on January 21, 2009


I asked the original question you linked to. Even though the notes were really late, they were well received. It's true - it's never too late.
posted by bristolcat at 6:00 PM on January 21, 2009


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