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In an age of instant messaging, hand-written notes are refreshing

If you want to cause a stir, put two experts on the social graces together and bring up the subject of thank you cards. You know, those little notes your mother told you to write that you thought were a waste of time and postage?

“My friends and I all roll our eyes about this generation,” says Ellen Prague, owner of The Paper Shop, in Winter Park, Fla. “These kids don’t care about any of that. You’re lucky if you get a text.”

“If the Baby Boomers don’t teach the next generation, this will be a dying art,” laments Maureen Hall, owner of Maureen H. Hall Stationery and Invitations, another chic stationery store in town.

“Parents need to start early,” Hall adds. “Teaching the next generation the art of proper correspondence goes along with teaching them the other social graces like proper manners and proper grammar.”

As someone in constant pursuit of more gracious living, I have to say, at the risk of sounding like Miss Thistlebottom, I wholeheartedly agree with these women.

Expressing your gratitude in writing is not only proper etiquette, but in this digital age of instant messaging, handwritten notes are a refreshing personal touch. “They elevate you,” says Prague.

“I’m seeing more young professionals who didn’t come from homes where they learned about the finer points of living,” said Prague. “They come in waving a hand-written correspondence card they received from a colleague and say, ‘This is cool, I need some of these.’”

To kick your gracious-living level up a notch, start by getting nice stationery. (See last week’s column.) “Fine stationery falls into the same category as fine linens,” Hall says. “It’s something every proper home should have.”

Now use that stationery. Here’s how, according to these experts:

  • When to send? Write a personal note when someone has shown you a kindness, said Prague. Perhaps they had you to their home for dinner, referred you a customer or gave you a gift. “You don’t do this to get business; you do this because someone has put themselves out for you.” Also send notes of congratulations, encouragement, sympathy or just to tell someone you’re thinking of them.
  • Be timely. Write your note within 24 hours, or as soon as possible after the event or receiving a gift. However, sending a late note of thanks is better than not sending one at all.
  • Do not apologize. If you are late with your note, don’t say, “Sorry this is so late,” said Prague. “Just write the note as if it were on time.”
  • Keep the back clean. If you can avoid it, try not to write on the back of a folded note or correspondence card, said Prague. On a folded card, write on the bottom half of the card first, then on the top half if you need more room. On a correspondence card, try to keep all your writing on the front. That said, both experts agree, the world won’t stop turning if you have more to say, and need to write on the back.
  • Always handwrite. No typewritten, cut and paste notes, please.
  • What to say? Be sincere, and make it about them, not you, Hall said. The note can be short and simple, but should be specific. Start by saying “Thank you for … ” and fill in the rest. Next, mention the gift specifically. (Don’t say “the gift,” say “the beautiful yellow silk scarf.”) Then say how you plan to use or wear it. Add a sentence about the next time you hope to see the person, and sign off.
  • It’s the thought that counts. If the idea of writing a note is paralyzing, Hall said, “Get past that, and realize that any note is appreciated. Remember, it’s not what you say in the note, but rather the thought that went into writing it that others value.”
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