The true relevance of a Thank You note.


My local Target showcases 68 varieties of Thank You card sets. I discover this statistic today as I stand helpless in the stationery aisle, one leg tucked behind the other, red basket in hand, staring at a wall of fluorescent-lit gratitude. I have not composed a Thank You card since I had a reason to thank birthday party guests for the "kaboodle makeup case! It's really nice!"—a task I dreaded annually, not because I wasn't thankful, but because the whole process felt insincere. We wrote the cards because our mothers made us; we all knew when we received one in the mail that a parent had overseen the process and perhaps even edited each response before dutifully licking and sealing the perfect little envelope. The only genuine aspect was the silent commiseration we may have experienced knowing we would all have to endure a childhood's worth of obligatory appreciation. I am now free from parental observation and purchasing Thank You cards because I recently defended my master's thesis, and I am epically grateful for the feedback and support I received from a variety of people along the way. I have decided that Thank You cards are ideal because the format will democratize and simplify my notes, limiting me from the ramblings that would inevitably unfold in a thank you letter. The card challenges me to the confines of space and, more importantly, theme—the ever-present THANK YOU on each card face—which governs all composition within.

While I anticipated the problem of choice, which now shadows all consumer decision-making, I find this array of options gratuitous. I search for something simple, tactful, colorful without exploiting every possible color. I rule out cards that are geared toward children, senior citizens, or people who think they have a charming sense of humor. I avoid exclamation points, smiley faces, and photography. I want to make a choice that says something between "I am so thankful I don't care about card design" and "I am so thankful I carefully considered this card design with your card-receiving experience in mind."

My eyes settle first on a cover design with simple cherry blossoms that I find aesthetically unoffensive, but the price proves my aesthetics are too in vogue. My second choice is a card whose design mimics an old airmail envelope, but something about the font doesn't feel right. An employee appears in my peripherals, straightening stationery boxes. She does not ask if I need help because my plight is not extraordinary—the wanderer stuck in the card vortex, nursing the best of intentions. I pick up some more boxes and scoff at the cacophony of each message: THANK YOU. It leaves no space for interpretation. "You," it says, "will accept my indebtedness whether you like it or not. And I will be relieved of some burden." THANK YOU. The words begin to defamiliarize themselves the way words do when you stare at them for too long. THANK YOU. I fall away from the present and recall the name of a mediocre Asian restaurant I went to once with an old boyfriend: THAN THAO. I am in a foreign land. "THAN THOU for all of your generous feedback on my thesis."

This would not be an issue, I think, if I wasn't so concerned with other people's opinions. Do I care less about expressing gratitude than I do about my vehicle of expression? I realize I want the card to say something about me. I do not yet realize that the nine minutes I spend in front of the stationery at Target says more about me than I am able to sort out. I know, beneath the fog of my indecision, that my choice makes no difference, but this thought is not comforting, it is nihilistic. I begin to think I cannot make this decision because I am actually thankless. Perhaps a truly thankful person would gloss over the selection once, eyes brightening at the obvious choice, and move on. Guilt curls up for a nap inside my gut.

The intercom projects a godlike voice over the store and I ignore the entire message except the last two words—thank you—which trigger a weird sensation and convince me, for a second, that my thoughts are so loud they have poltergeisted their way into the speaker system. I feel something between dizzy and cross-eyed and I force myself on a box of blue cards with no cover art, only huge block letters spelling out those magical words in a few concordant hues. Forthright. Transparent. Nothing to confuse my audience. Nothing for me to hide behind. All the ways in which I strive to operate.

Once I commit to that box I know I have made a bad choice, not on this style but on investing in a custom with which I don't entirely agree. It is not a bad impulse to express gratitude; it is a bad impulse to feel as though you must do so in a socially prescribed manner. Thank You cards feel insincere because all formalities feel somewhat insincere. As I load my items onto the conveyor belt I am embarrassed with my lack of ingenuity, but I don't put the cards back. I vow to redeem myself by filling their insides with candid messages that implicate me in a Wayne's-World-We're-Not-Worthy kind of way.

A girl whose face I will forget within minutes scans my purchases. I thank her. My words are weightless. Can gratitude even be expressed? It occurs to me that Thank You cards, and possibly all written and verbal forms of gratitude, may be entirely self-serving.  Am I making a huge mistake? Will these cards really be any different than the ones I suffered through as a child with my mother nearby, helping me think of adjectives other than 'nice'?

But Thank You cards are exactly that: nice. Knowing someone carved out a slice of their day to handwrite you a thank you note is nice; it makes you tilt your head and smile to yourself and consider saving the card for a few days or weeks before it makes its way to the recycling bin. These simple gestures hold an important spot in the hierarchy of correspondence. Perhaps some messages need to be nice so others can be profound. When I worry that I just wasted $4.99 on thoughtless paper goods or that my intentions lack originality and substance, I remember that by partaking in the Thank You card experience, I am helping to maintain the natural order of things.