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The Lost Art of the Thank You Note

23 May

Playing in the annual MidSouth Fourball this past weekend at Hattiesburg (Miss) CC–a course I could play everyday–I had an interesting conversation with my playing partner (some ASGCA members may know him as “The Wizard”) regarding the lost art of hand writing thank you notes. Emails and texts are much easier, but there’s a certain feeling you get when someone takes the time to write a hand written thank you note. That reminded me of the following article I wrote in 2008 for an online golf publication based out of South Africa (the name of the publication escapes me now) and later updated in 2013 as part of a promotion for my book “LIPOUTS, The Best I Could Do From the First Two Years.”  

The basis of the story still holds true today, so I thought I’d post it once again here. Let me know if you agree (or if you don’t)…

“The Lost Art of the Thank You Note”

We live in an electronic age and there’s no doubting that fact. If you live within a driver and a 5-iron of any degree of civilization on this planet, chances are that you can find at least one person with a cell phone and a TV. And the more plugged in you become, the more wired you feel. We have become so acclimated to instantaneous information on demand that we become addicted to our gadgets. From those addicted to multitasking by updating their Facebook status as they upload photos to Instagram (while driving to work) to the millions of Tweets flying through the air above your head through the ether as you read this (didn’t think about that did you?), how much is too much and at what cost to normalcy? Imagine what the air above your head would look like if you could actually see the millions of pieces of digital data flying back and forth around you! Okay, so technically you wouldn’t be able to actually read it if you could see it because it’s moving too fast. It would probably appear more like a band of blurry code comprised of 1’s and 0’s circulating in the lower atmosphere than actual words and sentences, but what if you could? Is the constant barrage of digital this-and-that cluttering the world like unseen pollution? Probably not, but is has cluttered our lives.

The act of taking one’s cell phone onto a golf course has actually been banned by some clubs, but in reality there are too many business deals made on golf courses for them to be kept off every course. I must admit that I take mine with me too—but I do turn the ringer off to keep from disturbing other golfers. Why do we feel the need to be connected at all times in all places? You know that feeling you get if you arrive at the office only to realize that your cell phone is at home? That feeling like you are naked in a public place or that some part of you is missing? To quote Any Rooney, “Why is that?” And of all places to NOT have a cell phone, it seems that a few hours enjoying the great outdoors on a golf course would be the ideal place. Unplug and unwind, relax and enjoy.

But are cell phones on golf courses and electronic gizmos intertwined in our everyday lives really the problem or more a symptom of a more problematic epidemic sweeping the civilized world? Remember life without a microwave? How about caller ID? Most of us don’t even remember life without some form of television. My children don’t know what a vinyl record is and they’ve never seen a television with knobs on it! What kinds of stories will I tell them when I’m old? “Why I can remember when I was a little boy we’d have to get up and walk all the way across the living room to change the channel! Two, three feet of snow! We’d have to go all the way around the coffee table and turn the knob. And then your grandmother would yell at me for turning the UHF knob too fast between channels.” And then we got cable television and you no longer had to wait for the news. There was a 24 hour news channel with nothing but news all day long. It didn’t matter that it was the same news (more or less) all day long because it was the news and you could watch whenever you wanted—so long as you knew how to flip the switch and work the buttons on the converter box that had to be patched into the TV and sat on top like some electronic deity doling out entertainment manna to the lowly masses below. But now you can get movies on demand, weather at your finger tips, and more news than you can shake a “botoxed” news anchor at without leaving the comfort of your sofa! It’s all about now, right now, and how much faster can I get it then instead of now. Eventually, you’ll be watching the news BEFORE it happens so you’ll have time to check your email, IM your BFF, update your Twitter timeline, and nuke a meal in the microwave without missing any of the day’s events.

I know in writing this I sound at least 2.5 times my real age. The point is that as I write this, Y2K (that was when a bunch of bad stuff was supposed to happen in the year 2000, for those of you too young to remember) is further and further in the rearview mirror (that was also the name of a song by Pearl Jam about that same time) (oh, and Pearl Jam was a band that was popular in the 1990’s). Yet it feels at times like the things that were invented to bring us closer together are actually isolating us even more. How many times have you been typing on your computer while someone in the same room was talking to you and you responded “Huh?” when they stopped talking? You don’t know what they were saying, but you can sense that they are done because that constant white noise of conversation has ceased. So rather than be rude by not responding at all, a guttural grunt seems to suffice. Granted, men have perfected this into an art form over the past million or so years with the obligatory “Yeah, sure” “She said what?” and “Whatever you think, honey” while we watch football, basketball, or—back in the day—mastodon races. It requires no in depth involvement to keep the conversation going, just a simple amoebic awareness that there is some type of communication going on that we are involved with and it has ceased—and thus we need a cover. And though married men everywhere have effortlessly adapted to this form of spousal communication throughout history handed down like a worn pocket knife from generation to generation, other timeless forms of communication have slipped by the wayside and may never be seen or heard from again. One in particular is the thank you note.

There’s something about a thank you note that makes the recipient feel special. Not a text message, an email, a word-processed note, or even one typed by your secretary that you scribble your name onto…but a REAL thank you note. The fact that someone actually cared enough to take the time to sit down and handwrite a note to you is a feeling that cannot be replicated by any machine. No text message, email, or voice mail can take the place of a thank you note. When was the last time you received a personal thank you note? I received one a while back from a client following the re-opening of the golf course we renovated. I remember thinking “Wow, what a nice gesture.” So much so, that I went out and bought a frame for it and it now sits in my office as a reminder that perhaps personal communication is not dead. For the longest time, I thought I was the only person who still sent handwritten thank you notes—though I admit I too have fallen out of practice lately. When I was younger and working as an assistant golf professional, I worked for a pro who insisted that his staff write a personal thank you note to the professional of any course gracious enough to extend to us the courtesy of playing their course at no charge. I think it was partly because he wanted us to begin networking with other professionals, but also because he did not want his young assistants to feel entitled to a free round—or anything else for that matter—simply because we were in the business. He was keeping us humble…and it worked.  

My staff likes to kid me because I end most conversations with clients and others on the phone with “Thanks” instead of “Good Bye”—even when the conversation does not warrant it. It may seem strange to others and I don’t know how it became such a subconscious habit. I do know that years ago it occurred to me that people don’t say thanks enough and that it would be nice to thank more people, whether they necessarily deserved it or not, and that’s when I started thanking people more. If someone does something for you like holding open a door or picking up change you dropped while waiting in line, they deserve a thank you. But don’t you think more people would be thankful if they heard it more often? Much like holding doors for ladies and removing your hat indoors, the thank you note itself is a holdover from a time when people took the time to ask about other people and made an effort to remember the details. One of my favorite “life” stories (whether it is actually true or not) is of a young Arnold Palmer who had just burst onto the professional scene as a young superstar and one of the elder members of the professional tour had taken him under his wing to show him the ropes. They arrived at the site of a Tour event for a practice round on a Monday and the older pro asked of the golf shop staff what the course record was and who held it. After leaving the clubhouse, Palmer stated he knew why he would ask the course record, but wondered why they should care who holds it? The pro looked at his young protégé and said “If the club pro holds the record, I don’t want to break it in a practice round because this is his club and he works here all year long. We’re only here for a few days and his record means more to him than breaking it means to me.”

My wife insists that we address our family Christmas cards by hand. I used to think it was a waste of time, but as I get older I actually look forward to it each year. Much like the thank you note, a hand-addressed Christmas card or wedding invitation just seems more personal than one with a label slapped on it. So try this exercise and see how you fare. Go to the stationers or an office supply store and buy two or three boxes of Thank You notes with envelopes—they usually come 20 or 25 to a box. See how long it takes you to use them all. Hopefully not very long. And it doesn’t have to be because you closed a big deal or signed a big contract. Thank someone for lunch. That means more than thanking someone for a big contract because it is unexpected. I guarantee that most of the people you send one too will be pleasantly surprised by the fact that you sent a handwritten thank you note the old fashioned way. And let me know your opinion on the lost art of thank you notes. But you don’t have to send me a hand-written note, just let me know on Twitter @lipouts. Oh, and one last thing…Thank You!

Copyright 2013 Nathan Crace. Nathan Crace (on Twitter @lipouts) is an award-winning golf course architect and member of the American Society of Golf Course  Architects (ASGCA), a published author, and a member of the Golf Writers Association of America. You can purchase his book “Lipouts, The Best I Could Do From the First Two Years” from Moonbay Media on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and in the iTunes Bookstore. 

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