Is the Thank-You Card Obsolete?

Dear Helena,
After going to a dinner party I always send a thank-you note in the mail. I think it's elegant and classic and simple, and of course people like getting handwritten notes by mail. However, with email and texting and all of today's instant communication, it seems rude not to thank the host immediately, the following day. In fact, I've had a couple of hosts email or text me the day following a dinner party, saying, "Hope you had fun," or something, the subtext being, "How come you haven't thanked me?!?!" So then of course I reply, but it looks like I had forgotten to thank them. Little do they know that a paper card is already in the mail to them. Do you have any thoughts on this?
—Old-Fashioned Good Manners

Dear Old-Fashioned Good Manners,
You should always send a paper card to thank your host for gala occasions. For instance, a few months ago, four of my friends threw me a baby shower that included a three-layer strawberry cake and a specially devised cocktail with my favorite ingredients (alas, I had to drink the virgin version). It would have been ungracious to thank them with a sloppily spelled text message.

But while handwritten notes are never incorrect, it's a little excessive to send one every time someone cooks you dinner—like always showing up in a three-piece suit. In any case, paper cards are so unexpected these days that, as you've discovered, when your host doesn't hear from you immediately after the dinner, he assumes that either you didn't have fun, or you have no manners. You could send a "pre–thank you" by email or text, indicating that a card is in the mail. But that feels like too much work.

Besides, once you've responded to your host's text or email, there's nothing left to write in your note anyway. Anne Zimmerman, author of An Extravagant Hunger: The Passionate Years of M. F. K. Fisher, loves to send paper cards but finds that these days she often doesn't get the chance. For instance, she wanted to thank her boyfriend's mother for taking them out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, not to mention footing the bill for a bunch of cheese and wine at Whole Foods. "But then [his mother] started a whole email train in which she wrote to me and my boyfriend, and he responded, and then I had to in turn respond or look bad."

Also, these days ecoconscious types are not always overjoyed to receive thank-you notes. Bea Johnson, creator of the blog The Zero Waste Home, strives to keep her household trash output to a single bag per year. When she receives a note, "I am like, 'Shoot, it's another piece I have to recycle.'" She prefers an email or even a phone call. It might seem curmudgeonly in the extreme to complain about the carbon footprint of a thank-you card, but all the little bits of paper we use add up, from the transfer we take on the bus to the strip of paper we tear off the Netflix envelope in order to seal it up (a pet peeve of Bea's).

So for most thank-you purposes, an email is appropriate. Now that people use text messaging so much, email has some of the old-fashioned cachet that paper cards have. This is even truer if you use a service like Paperless Post to create a virtual thank-you card.

And remember, a thank-you note is as much about the content as the medium. You can make a thank-you email special with specific compliments on the homemade gnocchi (a recipe request is always flattering). It's also nice to send photos if you took any, or follow-up links to the conversation. "By the way, you were right! The Boston Molasses Disaster killed 21 people! Who knew molasses could be so dangerous?" That shows you enjoyed the conversation enough that it still resonates with you. Your host will appreciate that more than a scrawled Hallmark card he tosses straight in the recycling bin.

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