By Patricia Snell Herzog, Ph.D., and Patrick Dwyer, Ph.D.
The other day, I was talking with a colleague who studies gratitude, Patrick Dwyer. In the midst of chatting at an event we were attending, we got to talking about the art of thank you cards.
I asked Patrick if he was aware of any research on gratitude that focuses on the effect of thank you cards. Patrick is a social psychologist, and I am a sociologist. Naturally then, we both began thinking about the social effects of reading thank you cards, which led us to conjecture that the kinds of sentiments expressed in thank you cards, and the ways those sentiments are expressed, vary widely.
Thus, we began to hypothesize, the effect of these cards could also vary widely. Patrick relayed that one could conduct experimental research to study the effects of different thank you card variants, focusing on which particular sentiments were most effective.
The event we had just come from featured service learning, and we began to think about ways that thank you cards could be integrated into a class activity. This led us to discuss two related ideas.
First, we wondered how students learn the art of thank you cards, and we both reflected on experiences with some students who were impressive and inspiring in their ability to write compelling thank you cards, whereas for others thank you cards did not appear to be part of their regular activities. How and why do some students learn the art of thank you cards, we wondered.
I then shared a personal experience that led me to reflect upon the importance of thank you cards. Namely, I was talking with a colleague in education policy, Jeff Dean, about the practice of teaching handwriting in K-12 schools.
Given the rise of technology mediated communication, I asked Jeff whether he views teaching handwriting to be a worthwhile activity in contemporary schools. We reflected upon the pros and cons of teaching handwriting, in particular as a graded activity, since many students will likely not engage in handwriting as the dominant medium for their professional communication. However, personal communication is different, we thought.
We both relayed the personal significance of receiving handwritten notes, such as thank you cards. Since much of the communication we receive today is electronic, do handwritten notes actually matter more now?
Sharing this reflection led Patrick and I to thinking about fundraising, and the importance of thank you cards in fostering and maintaining donor relationships. No doubt this was related to the fact that we had both been talking with Gene Tempel, former dean of our school and also former president of the IU Foundation.
Gene underscored the importance of gratitude in donor relationships, which got me reflecting on how donor fatigue, a subject of an earlier blog, could be a byproduct of low gratitude, aka not enough thank you cards.
As it happened, our historian colleague, Tyrone Freeman, was walking by, and we shared our discussion. Tyrone then began reflecting upon the ways thank you card dynamics may have changed over time, and he relayed that one could conduct archival research to investigate ongoing communications among people, viewing exchanges between people to document communications leading up to a thank you being sent, and also viewing documents regarding exchanges after a thank you card was sent.
More generally, this experience made me reflect on why I love being part of the multi-disciplinary group of people involved with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I recently joined this school, and one of the most unique features of the school, relative to my prior experiences in more traditional sociology departments, is the ease of access to people from a wide variety of disciplines.
From social psychology and experiments, to fundraising and thank you cards, to historians and archival research, all in the span of time it took me to eat my appetizer and walk back from the service learning event. Now that is impressive!
This article was originally published on Herzog’s blog.
I was mesmerized by the tradition of writing thank-you cards when I arrived to the U.S. in August 2016. In Hungary, we don’t practice it, or at least not as much as here in the U.S. While the first few times it was challenging for me to write meaningful ones because I don’t like clichés, I learned to love doing it. Once I got my first thank-you card from one of my colleagues at the school, I fully understood why thank-you cards are so important.
So when I was able to attend the Fulbright-Amizade service-learning week in West Virginia (7 international and 6 American Fulbrighters) in Spring 2017, I bought 15 thank-you cards before departure. We were visiting nonprofits and community leaders to learn more about the challenges and opportunities the Appalachian region has faced in the last couple of decades. And once I met our amazing program coordinators from Amizade, I told them: I would like to give thank-you cards to all organizations and individuals that were going to host us. Indeed, my idea was, that everyone (13 MA students and young professionals) should write at least one card and hand them out to our hosts.
Everybody liked the idea, and all participants agreed to do it. So we signed the thank-you cards in advance (2 cards every night for the organizations we would visit the next day), and the person who was supposed to deliver the card wrote a few sentences after our visit, right before we departed in order to make sure that our cards were meaningful, personal, and relevant. Sometimes it included drawings, sometimes it included Spanish, French, or Hungarian sentences; and sometimes, we needed to find one or two people who accidentally forgot to sign the card the night before… 🙂
Throughout the week, we successfully delivered all of the 15 cards to our hosts and organizers. Both the Americans and the international participants enjoyed doing it – at least they told me so. I felt that I was able to share a piece of philanthropy with my amazing friends and show them why writing a thank-you card is indeed a piece of art. But, to be honest, I was also surprised that writing thank-you cards was not a common practice during such activities, while also seeing how excited the organizers and participants became once I shared my small idea. But it is a good example of how we can share the practice of philanthropy and remind people that our kindness can have a positive impact on others’ life/work.
Patricia Snell Herzog
Thank you for sharing that Kinga! It is incredibly interesting to hear about your experiences. I admire how this brings forward at least two other aspects to consider: how thank you card practices, and expressions of gratitude more generally, vary across cultures and what the impacts are of interventions designed to teach the art of thank you’s. I am inspired by the ways that you shared with your colleagues your insights about social norms that may have otherwise been invisible. It sounds like that had a tremendous impact on their experiences, and also likely impacted their connections with their hosts and organizers. Appreciate you sharing this and hope to continue the discussions.
Thanks for sharing this great post.It is very helpful and informative.