When to send a thank you note

There was a time when social etiquette required us to go through the somewhat formal exercise of putting out a thank you note or card as a basic gesture of gratitude for a good deed. These days, it’s still very much fashionable to send a thank you note or card in situations where a text or e-mail falls flat, and that’s what we’re going to identify today. While it’s important to know when to send a thank you note, it’s also important to say the right thing; not too much, or too little. We’re also going to talk about what to write in a thank you note.

Some History

Thank you notes have been around for about as long as paper, originating in Chinese and Egyptian culture, where small messages of goodwill were exchanged. The concept of exchanging actual thank you notes was refined in 15th century Europe, and was later brought to North America in the 1800s.

The Art of the Thank You

Knowing when to send a thank you note or card can make all the difference in a personal or professional relationship. Not only will the recipient begin to value their relationship with you more, getting into the habit of sending this delightfully classic correspondence will lead to a better life for you, the sender.


😍 I just got your thank you note in the mail …
Oh yeah? What’d you think?


There are three functions of a formal thank you, according to Associate Professor of Social Psychology at the University of North Carolina, Sara Algoe. Giving thanks:

  • Prompts the initiation of new social relationships
  • Orients people to existing social relationships
  • Promotes maintenance of and investment in these relationships

In other words, if you’re looking to keep existing friends and win new friendships, knowing when to send a thank you note can be an incredibly classy and strategic move toward that goal.

You can take advantage of the seemingly over-the-top formality of a handwritten thank you note to wow and delight your relationships, and keep them fun and personally rewarding. Really lean into the fact that it’s not expected.

This is one of the few situations in life where being a little over-the-top is not only warranted, but recommended.

If you’ve ever received a thank you note, you know they’re incredibly joyous and will draw a smile on your face from ear-to-ear. You’ll want to contact the sender right away just to tell them you got it. People love to be acknowledged for a job well done, and as we get older, it becomes increasingly important to do so. The following are lists of traditional scenarios where a thanks is definitely in order.

The Classic Scenarios

  • For life events
    Whether someone gave you a gift or simply showed up to these events, it’s right to send them a thank you for doing so. Even by today’s standards, sending a thank you in these scenarios is critical, yes, even if you didn’t necessarily enjoy the gift. Don’t miss these opportunities to write a thank you card.

    • Wedding
    • Bridal shower
    • Baby shower
    • Birthday party
    • Bar / Bat Mitzvah
    • Graduation
    • Going-Away

    What to say: The format of a thank you note for a gift is simple and straightforward.

    • Thank the gifter by naming what they gave you.
    • Give at least one sincere example of how you will use the gift, or better, how it has already benefitted your life.
    • Lastly, if they made it to your event, thank them for being your guest. If they weren’t there, thank them for the kind gesture.
  • After a job interview
    Despite what you may have heard, the post-interview thank you note or card is not dead. In fact, it’s the most strategic uses of a thank you in this list. As mentioned earlier, it serves to bind the recently established relationship, and can be an opportunity to clarify information. What sets one thank you note apart from others is the level of sincerity. Saying too little or too much can come off as either checking a box or a desperate attempt at salvaging the wreckage. If you’re on the fence, consider this: Would you rather be the only one who didn’t send a thank you or the only one who actually did?
    What to say: Brevity is key here. It might be helpful to tear a sheet of paper in half and write a rough draft there. Consider writing the following:

    • Thank them for their time. Say this or say nothing at all. Say you know their time is extremely valuable, and thank them for giving you an opportunity to meet.
    • Mention at least one highlight of the conversation. This isn’t an opportunity to recap every 3 minutes of the conversation. Pick one moment that stood out to you. Better: Quote your interviewer, and turn what they said into something that was profoundly helpful.
    • Clarify any misinformation. Mistakes happen, and it’s rare you get any opportunities in life to correct verbal ones. Keep it very brief. This isn’t a letter of apology.
    • Talk yourself up. Be careful not to come off as pompous. Remember, this is supposed to be thanking them for their time. Say you know you would make an excellent addition to the team, and are excited at the opportunity ahead.
  • After an overnight stay at someone’s place
    Having guests over for dinner is hard enough even for someone who fancies themselves a seasoned entertainer. Having you or your family over for a night or multiple nights is a major undertaking, and should be reciprocated with a sincere thank you. It should also go without saying, if you’re staying overnight with your significant other, it would be odd to send a thank you note.
    What to say: Say you deeply enjoyed their hospitality and mention at least one specific thing you enjoyed about their home. Say you would happily return the favor by opening your place up if they were in town.

Less Obvious Scenarios

They did it just for you

These are situations where a thanks is in order because someone did something very kind for you.

  • To your dog sitter
    If someone watches Fido while you’re out on vacation for less than 4 days, send a thank you at a minimum. Believe it or not, it’s weird to open your home up to another species, cute and fuzzy, or loud and feathered. If more than 4 days, a bottle of their choosing is in order.
    What to say: Write the note from the perspective of your furry friend.
    Beloved members of the Nicholas family,
    I wanted to take a moment to thank you for the wonderful time I had at your place. Your hospitality continues to be unmatchable. I appreciated the elaborate dinners, entertainment and attention you provided me.
    Day-to-day life just isn’t the same without you. You have earned a lifelong friend.
    Please let me know if and how I can return the favor.
    — Fido
  • To your dinner host
    If you have dinner at someone’s house, and they aren’t family or a significant other, it’s right to send a thank you. Hosting is a formal event, even among friends. You’re breaking bread. They cleaned everywhere for you. The least you can do is thank them.
    What to say:  Say it was your very good honor to be their guest. Say what was great about the meal, and ask about the recipe. Tell them the one word that describes the energy of their place, as far as you’re concerned.

Someone had to do it

Send someone a thank you note for things they didn’t have to do, or more interestingly, something they had to do anyway, and didn’t realize how much you appreciated it.

  • To your co-worker
    When a co-worker did their job well, and made your life a little easier, send them a thank you note.
    What to say: First, say they’ve been doing phenomenal work as {{insert job title here}}. Mention specifically why they’re a crucial team member, and how they recently played a role in your personal success. Say it’s your honor to work alongside them, and you’re excited at the opportunity of continued collaboration.
  • To a good friend
    Send a thank you to the friend who showed up to a party and made it a bearable experience for you, because you’d otherwise suffer from crippling social anxiety (May or may not be speaking from experience). If that’s too specific, try to think of the role your friend plays in your life, and thank them for being who they are, and for doing their part.
    What to say: Say you don’t get enough chances to thank them for their friendship, and you want them to know how crucial this alliance is to your life. Thank them for the role they play in your life. Maybe it’s a partner in crime; a mentor; a loyal, trusted advisor; a beacon of reason and truth; an open ear. Say you’re there for them, too, and you’re looking forward to where the friendship goes in the years to come.

The Hometown Hero

Thank you, neighbor who pays for Wi-Fi and doesn't set up a Wi-Fi password, for also paying for my Wi-Fi.

Send someone you barely know a thank you note for something they didn’t necessarily do for you, but you cared about it. You can even use this kind of a thank you strategically. It’ll make them feel heroic. This is about building community.

  • To nurses and doctors
    Each of the nurses and doctors who helped your friend get healthy again need to receive a thank you, but only after your friend is well. Getting thanks before something is complete can further guilt if something goes wrong. Remember, this isn’t a customer review, and isn’t an opportunity to mention the things you didn’t appreciate. That opportunity has another time and place. If you’re going to thank them, actually thank them.
    What to say: Say you wanted to express your deepest gratitude for the care they provided to your friend. Be sure to mention the names, both of who was being cared for and the names of people who provided exceptional care. Say you want them to know their kindness, competence and professionalism did not go unnoticed. Say you’re proud and feel safer to live in a community with such a capable team of experts.
  • To a teacher
    Thank your child’s teachers for educating your son. Hanging out with little Eddie all day, nurturing his eager mind, is hard work, and you know it.
    What to say: Mention the specifics up front, i.e. the name of your child and the school subject in question. Say you can’t possibly thank them enough for the job they do every day. Let the teacher know how much faith you have in their ability to provide an outstanding education for your loved one. Lastly, ask the teacher to let you know about any way you can get involved in your child’s education, or make their job as a teacher a little easier. Educators love to know they are trusted and parents are fighting on their side.

Pro Tip: Stay Prepared

One of the reasons it may seem too formal to send a thank you note outside the scope of the classic gift-related scenarios is there’s so many steps involved, and the materials just aren’t on hand when the thought occurs. You can get around this by getting having a variety of cards ready to go (Cardigan makes this easy!). It may seem strange to keep cards, envelopes and stamps ready for sending, but it’ll be the difference between you sending them or not.

When a thank you is in order, timeliness is key. Send it as soon as possible. Although very thoughtful, getting a thank you card loses some of its meaning and sincerity if long overdue.

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