You receive an unexpected gift in the mail—is it good enough to shoot out a quick “thank you” text, or is it time to pull out the stationery for an old-fashioned, handwritten note?
“We have lots of choices to make in today’s rich communication environment,” says Daniel Post Senning, an expert from the Emily Post Institute and co-host of the Awesome Etiquette Podcast. “People will start taking cues about what you mean by how you communicate it.” An emoji-laden text is clearly more familiar and fun, while a handwritten note seems more formal and heartfelt. The best way to decide if you should text, write, or call is to evaluate the relationship—if you and your best friend are committed texters, then text messages will be the natural avenue for birthday wishes or heartfelt thank-yous. If you know your grandmother loves to hear your voice, skip the text and opt for a phone call (or a visit if you can!).
Each scenario requires some nuance, but the rule of thumb for thank-you notes is that you can never thank someone too much, says Catherine Newman, Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnist and author of Catastrophic Happiness. You should never worry about redundancy, only about sincerity.
“If you know in your heart of hearts that the person feels super thanked, that’s all etiquette is about,” says Newman. “You don’t need to be tripped up by rules if you are confident that you are expressing gratitude. In every scenario, that’s going to be the most important thing.”
We came up with a range of scenarios—from apologies, to condolences, to job interviews—and asked Newman and Senning to weigh in on which communication type they would choose. Spoiler: The answer is rarely to send an email.
Scenario 1: Your close friend gives you a birthday gift.
The etiquette standard, says Senning, is a warm, in-person thank you. “If you’ve had a chance to do that, a written follow-up is not obligatory,” he says. Eye contact and a personal display of gratitude in the moment (“I love this, I can’t wait to use it!”) is enough. That said, for more formal relationships—like your grandparents or your boss—it’s nice to go “two tiers,” says Senning. Send a text as an immediate thank-you, and then follow up with a handwritten note of thanks. “I think the rules are changing,” says Newman. “I personally would send my closest friends a note but that’s me, and that’s the culture.”
Scenario 2: Your aunt sends you an early gift for your new baby.
Special occasions—like new babies, graduations, and weddings—require a personal handwritten note of thanks. “They’re brief,” says Senning. Make sure to personalize the note and express gratitude, to demonstrate that you’ve made an effort.
Newman agrees: “She’s going to expect a note,” she says.
Scenario 3: You just left a job interview—and you really want the job.
“Thank them twice, maybe thank them three times,” says Senning. You’ll want to thank your prospective employer as you’re walking out the door and follow up with a handwritten note. If you’re nervous that “snail mail” moves too slowly, send an email a few hours or day after the interview to emphasize your interest and appreciation for their time.
“It’s an opportunity for distinction,” Senning says of the handwritten thank-you note. “The reason people have done it for so long is because it’s such a powerful tool when you’re hunting for a job. You want to take every opportunity you can to distinguish yourself in a world where we have a lot of communication choices, and they’re increasingly casual and informal.” As a bonus, says Senning, you can also send thank you notes for positions you didn’t get or didn’t accept.
Scenario 4: Your grandfather passes away, and your coworkers send you individual condolence cards and a fruit basket.
“The etiquette standard is that you do acknowledge sympathy cards or funeral gifts,” says Senning, and you do so for each person. “It can be tough when it’s a group gift, but you do your best to thank everybody.” Even notes should be acknowledged. If there’s an enormous volume of sympathy gifts coming your way, Senning says that friends and family can help send out thank you notes.
Scenario 5: You want to wish your friend from college a happy birthday.
When it comes to birthdays, Senning advises using whatever medium is most familiar or most used in that relationship. He himself has used Facebook often to connect with old friends, or a text.
“My family is the family that calls and sings happy birthday into your voicemail,” says Newman. “As long as you know that you’re doing something that will make that person feel loved and appreciated, it’s good enough.”
Scenario 6: Father’s Day is around the corner… do you send your dad a card, or give him a call?
“The greeting card holidays require cards,” says Newman. That means major holidays, like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day necessitate a card to your immediate family or partner. For Father’s Day, you don’t have to send a card to your husband, uncle, grandfather, father-in-law, and brother-in-law—just sending it to your own Dad is enough.
Scenario 7: You inadvertently excluded a friend from a party or event and owe him or her an apology.
When it comes to apologies, “don’t use email or texting to avoid a difficult or awkward situation,” says Senning. “Avoid the chance that someone might find your apology insincere. Give them a call.” His rule of thumb: If you can’t say it in half a sentence via text or email, pick up the phone.
Scenario 8: You host a housewarming party, and your friends were thoughtful enough to bring wine.
The one time it’s redundant to thank someone is when it’s for a hostess gift. “It puts you in a Hall of Mirrors,” says Newman, where you are thanking them for thanking you.
If you’re hosting a dinner party, your guests will likely check in with you before they leave. You can give them a hug and a heartfelt, in-person thanks for coming over, and that is enough, says Senning.
Scenario 9: Your friend hosts you at her lake house for the weekend.
Remember: “a hostess gift does not count as a thank you,” says Newman. While you should send a quick text or email on your car ride home, Newman suggests also following up with a thank-you note. Her favorite: “Go to Shutterfly and upload your best picture from the weekend onto one of their card templates. Type in a note, and send it,” she says. “It’s fun, they get a picture, and it takes five minutes to do it.”