“Manners are the happy way of doing things, each one a stroke of genius or love.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
For some time now, Becky and I have talked about doing a regular etiquette feature. After all, Southerners are the epitome of manners. So much so we’ve been deemed the capital of hospitality. It’s our very nature. Now, I’ve had my share of modern rudeness, in and out of the South. But folks know us Southerners as polite, hospitable. For heaven’s sake, that’s where the phrase “Southern hospitality” came from. Let’s keep that signature quality!
To this end, we’ll be periodically addressing a topic of modern concern in the world of manners and etiquette. Everything from cell phones to tipping, entertaining to wedding attire, business to letter writing. If you have a topic, let us here it! Feel free to leave a comment anytime, or write to us via email. There’s a good chance we’ll do our research, and then brush up together on those manners.
We’re by no means experts. I’ll leave that to Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt. But all us Southerners should count ourselves among ambassadors to the little kindnesses that keep our society civil and well-mannered. Simple etiquette is no more than this.
I had a dear neighbor throughout high school who was gracious, lovely, and a friend to our family. Upon my high school graduation, Mrs. Mandy gave me a Complete Book of Etiquette. I tore through it, devouring every little tip, and reading every word more like a novel than a reference book. It was the perfect gift for a girl, entering the world of university as a young woman. Now I’m a bit of a collector. I’m always scouring antique stores for old copies of etiquette books, partly for their aesthetic value, but partly because I just love to see the small ways the world has changed. While I’m infinitely glad you can wear patent leather all year around now, I still bemoan some things changing. It may be a quaint notion now, but I still think, and I believe most of you will agree, that we should care for each other, put other’s needs above our own. And the world might just be a more civilized place.
And selfishly, if I see one more person in pajama pants at the airport, I just might scream. So if we all learn a little something while we’re here, it’ll have been worth it.
I love the way Emily Post, queen of modern etiquette phrases it.
“Manners are a sensitive awareness of the feelings of others. If you have that awareness, you have good manners, no matter what fork you use.”
In other words, manners are not some old-fashioned way of doing things that are designed to make everyone feel worse. I’ve heard of gracious hostesses using the “wrong” fork, simply because she observed some guest choosing the wrong utensil, and wanted to make them feel comfortable in her own home, regardless of her own knowledge.
But manners allow us to be more comfortable in situations, since we know what fork most everyone will be typically be using. This way, you can ignore the forks altogether and focus on the company and conversation. I remember after my dad enrolled my sister and I to attend etiquette courses as a young girl, I felt confident in any situation. This confidence shouldn’t allow us to look down on others, but simply to be free to enjoy any place or situation fully that life might find us in. Do you see what I mean? It’s simply a matter of putting civilized society, and ultimately other people, above oneself. It’s the only way to be truly happy. And isn’t selflessness what we’re called to as humans after all?
With that little sermonette on the importance of manners out of the way, let’s talk a little about today’s topic. As we approach the New Year, what better way to start than to think about all we’ve been thankful for over the past season of our life. I’m certain, after the holidays, we all have so much to be thankful for. Our very lives, if nothing else. But chances are, someone else did something a little extra special, went out of their way to bring you a fresh plate of cookies, hosted a dinner or party in their home, or invited you along to a Christmas play or performance. If life got just a little too busy to send a thank you note, this is the perfect time.
While promptness is important, don’t forget the old adage, “Better late than never.” You’ll express more enthusiasm when you write right away, as the gesture will be fresh in your mind.
Rules vary slightly, depending on situation, whether business, a present, an invitation, etc. But the general rule of thumb is to open with a greeting, then thanks (and be as specific as possible about the item, or a detail you particularly enjoyed), followed by how you plan to use, or how you’ve benefited from the gift, signing off with a promise of future communication. Sign the note as affectionately as you feel comfortable, considering how well you know the person. “Love,” “sincerely,” or “fondly” are all appropriate closing sentiments. If the gift is money, you don’t have to mention the amount, just that it was appreciated, and what you plan to use it for.
This one is tricky at Christmas time, but you aren’t expected to write thank you notes when you’ve exchanged a gift with someone. That is to say, he/she gave you a gift, and you gave them one in return. That being said, if you received an especially meaningful present, it’s never wrong to express thanks.
Unless your handwriting is truly unforgivable, handwriting a letter makes it that much more personal. Of course, examples online abound, so use a general template if you need to get started, but be sure to use your own personal voice when writing. Almost any type of stationary is appropriate for a thank you (with the exception, of course, of possibly your grocery list pad), but if you’re writing letters for wedding presents, you might consider investing in more formal personal stationary, perhaps even coordinating with your colors or invitations.
If you’ve opened the gift in the presence of that person, such as in the case of a birthday or shower, be sure to offer thanks at the time, but follow up with a written note as well.
If you’re a bride-to-be, I know (trust me, I know!) that those letters can be overwhelming. Do your best to stay on top of your growing pile of thank you notes. Generally, you’re allowed three months of grace during this period of busyness, but they can pile up fast. How wonderful though, that you’re so surrounded by blessings of well-wishers that the worst of your concern is getting behind on expressing thanks! Don’t sign for your spouse. Sign only your name, and simply mention him in the letter, as in “Your toaster is a most appreciated gift. Matthew joins me in sending our thanks.” And what about if you’ve sent a gift, and have not received a thank you note? It’s perfectly alright to inquire, after a month or so, if the gift has been received. After all, it’s possible the store never sent it, or it somehow was lost in the mail. You’d certainly want to know this information!
If you receive a larger gift from a group, each individual should receive a separate thank you note of thanks. Of course, it goes without saying that married couples purchasing a gift together may receive one note.
If you receive a gift you don’t care for, there’s no need to mention plans to return or give away. Simply thank the person for thinking of you with the [insert tacky/pretentious/poor taste gift here].
Following a dinner, or other invitation, it’s proper to send a note thanking your host or hostess for the evening. If you are close friends, and the event was an informal one, a simple phone call will do.
After you’ve been a guest in someone’s home for an overnight visit, outside of a close family member, be sure to write a thank you letter as soon as you’ve returned home. Take some time on this letter, mentioning something specific that appealed to you during your visit, such as an activity you did together, or a specific meal made just for you. If you didn’t take a hostess gift with you when you arrived, it would be appropriate to do so at this time.
Should you ail, and receive tokens of well wishes by flowers or gifts, of course you may wait until you’re feeling well enough to pen notes. Your friends and family will certainly understand. Otherwise, be as prompt as possible with any thank you letters. Your words will ring sincere, and your manners will be appreciated.
Oh, and this post was extra long. You’re notes don’t have to be. If you need a good laugh now after our serious etiquette talk, pay a visit to a former post, and watch this video.