A search of my e-mail archive reveals that only 40 percent of the messages I’ve sent in the last year-and-a-half contain any version of the word “thanks,” and just 2.5 percent are identified as thank-yous in the subject line. These numbers seem embarrassingly low. Surely, in one way or another, the majority of my correspondents deserve my gratitude.
Lately I’ve been even worse at sending handwritten, snail-mail acknowledgments of meals, presents and other favors. Once upon a time I prided myself on mailing them the morning after receiving any benefaction. Now it can take me weeks.
Fatherhood is a big part of the reason for my delinquency now. In the form of baby presents from family and friends, it’s given me much to be thankful for, while robbing me of time for writing thank-yous. At least that’s how a chronic procrastinator thinks. In my more rational moments, I remember that writing a gracious note takes less time than even a casual phone call, and almost always gives the recipient more pleasure.
The modern master of the thank-you note is former U.S. President Bush. During his first national campaign back in 1980, one of his sons met a hotel doorman who showed him a handwritten note that George H. W. had penned more than ten years earlier. Something to the effect of: “Thanks for getting my trousers dry-cleaned on such short notice.” No handshake or tip could have meant nearly as much to that man.
I keep telling myself that story whenever I fall behind in my correspondence, but it’s not just a question of discipline; environmental influence plays a role. The drop-off in my thank-you output is partly a result of moving to another country. Italians, like other Europeans in my experience, write to say thank you far less often than Americans do. This difference has a lot to do with the relative quality of the postal service. For all their romanticism, Italians are a realistic people, and can’t see the point of mailing a note that might never arrive.
But the difference also reflects assumptions about manners and social position. In the New World, anybody can feel he has the right to act genteel. In the Old, most regard such formality as a pretentious nuisance. (Except when they’re on the receiving end, that is. More than once since I moved here, I’ve had someone effusively thank me for a thank-you note, leaving me tempted to write another in turn, just to see what would happen.)
Americans are a lot more polite than we give ourselves credit for — that’s something I appreciate more the longer I live abroad. Not that we couldn’t stand to improve. For instance, too many of us eat while walking down the street, which is not only unattractive but conducive to rampant obesity. But we are at least as polite as any other people in the way we ask for and receive things. How many nations have a national holiday devoted to saying thanks? (Okay, the Canadians. They’re even more polite than we are, but there are so few of them, and they have so much space.)
So let me take this opportunity to thank everyone reading this column, starting with my editor. Sorry it’s a day late. And please don’t feel the need to write back.