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Thank-yous: the dos and don’ts

in The Way We Live Now

Pissed-off Toff explores the etiquette of thank-yous in today’s world, and wonders whether the thank-you letter is doomed.

Perhaps until as late as the 1950s, mid-morning in Belgravia saw the society hostess propped up in bed, breakfast tray nearby and telephone at the ready. With her husband out of the way in the Foreign Office or at his merchant bank, she must manage their social life; and convention required that the first call of the day should be to the provider of the previous evening’s entertainment. “Thank you so much, darling!” she might gush to one of the women in her extended circle. “The whole evening was sheer bliss! And you were looking simply divine!” 

* * * * *

That world has disappeared. But not so long ago, when I lived in a large flat in London, with a little cash in the bank and a lot of time on my hands, I started to entertain quite regularly, and I soon realised that it mattered to me whether, in the days that followed, an expression of appreciation arrived. 

After all, these events – lunch parties and dinner parties, mainly – involved considerable effort and expense. First, a well-laid table, with flowers, candles and decent silver. Then champagne on arrival; a good starter, perhaps even foie gras; and a main course and pudding cooked by myself; with appropriate wines for each course. 

A well-laid table, with foie gras as a starter

Indeed, from when I sent out the thick cardboard invitations accompanied by a map showing how to get to the flat, till when I finished clearing up, such operations involved several days’ work and a hefty cost. This with everything being done by myself acting as PA, cook, waiter, housemaid and plongeur; because if I had called in others to do the same job, the bill would have been astronomical.

I was aware, at the time, of doing something that few had the wherewithal or inclination to undertake. Indeed, although a high-brow cousin of mine was happy enough to attend one of the grander of these dinner parties, she made it clear to me that only layabouts and ne’er-do wells had the time to indulge themselves in such a way; and that she was far too ‘busy’ to bother with anything so frivolous. 

Nevertheless, the question remains as to what nowadays constitutes a proper thank-you …

* * * * *

Among those of my generation (I recently turned 60, and I am still struggling to accept the reality of what my passport announces) … among those of my age, a dinner party with all the trimmings surely requires a thank you. The same applies to a lunch party. I’d say that whenever it is clear that the host has made a real effort, or has opened his wallet in notable manner, a thank-you is de rigeur.

When I was giving dinner parties of the sort described above, I could expect to receive thank-you notes from all the guests (or, in the case of couples, from one of the pair); so much so that the non-appearance of an envelope posted first class was something that registered. The same was true for the extended boys’ lunch parties which I also gave during the same period.

But what of a drinks party? I have always thought that a thank-you is not required for these. But not all agree. Listen to this chap who gave a lavish reception to celebrate the engagement of his daughter. “Not only did I not get a single thank-you,” he fumed afterwards, “but some of the younger guests even walked off with my champagne!”

* * * * *

What form, then, should the thank-you take?

If your host puts together a nice event, a text message in thanks is so lazy and so deficient that it would be better to send nothing at all. As for a telephone call, it is increasingly difficult to know what anyone will be doing at any given time of the day, and thus when a telephone call might or might not be welcome. 

Furthermore, increasing numbers of people hardly bother to answer their mobiles at all. So I now have only one friend who, come 6 pm, can reliably be assumed to be settling down by a log fire, whisky and soda in hand, and ready to take calls of a social nature. As a result, he hears from me more often than he might wish. Otherwise, I can expect to leave what I have learned to call a ‘voicemail message’. So by and large, the thank-you telephone call is a thing of the past.

* * * * *

Which leaves us with emails, or something sent by post. 

I suppose a nicely-worded email might just do, after generous hospitality has been provided. But ideally, the thank-you should take tangible form: perhaps a well-chosen post card for a lunch party, and a proper letter for a dinner party.

In any case, the point of the hand-written missive is two-fold. It shows that the sender recognises that you have made an effort and is correspondingly grateful. And it also shows that the same sender values you enough to spend a little time at his bureau, fountain pen in hand. Indeed, the more time taken, the better … so that if any recipient of my hospitality were to send a mounted herald to blow a horn outside my residence before delivering a decorated scroll into my hands with many a courtly flourish, I would be entirely happy.

Something similar did in fact once happen to me. I had had a French couple to stay in Rome and had looked after them as well as I was able. Not long afterwards I received in the post a photocopy of the front cover of a Paris-based society magazine. The central image I recognised as a more youthful version of myself, standing on the balcony of a chateau in Normandy and dressed for a wedding that had taken place some time previously. How on earth had the magazine got hold of this? The images surrounding it were photos of the recent weekend in Rome, and from the accompanying words I learnt that I had been elevated to the peerage. It took me some time to realise that this was a custom-made token of appreciation of the most flattering sort.

* * * * *

What happens, though, if you don’t send an appropriate thank-you? After all, some people just don’t put pen to paper. The more charming and entertaining guests might get away with it indefinitely; but others might be less lucky. 

Take, for example, a City type of my age who often stayed for weekends with a friend of mine and his wife in their house in the country. He would arrive bearing gifts; but he could never be bothered to write. In the end, my friend’s wife banned him. “After I’ve spent the whole weekend slaving away in the kitchen, I want a proper thank-you,” she told her loving spouse. This same friend also tells me that some hosts go so far as to ring up those who fail to write and ask why they have not received a thank-you letter.

Oh! I almost forgot. What of the two priests, one with a highly developed social sense and the other his ever-present assistant, who together officiated at a memorial service which I recently attended? Feeling that these servants of Our Lord deserved something better than my performance of some of Bach’s more showy preludes at the grand piano during the reception that followed, I subsequently delivered two bottles of champagne to their London residence not a million miles away from Harrod’s. 

This was an entirely un-necessary gesture, and – I says it who shouldn’t – a generous one. But I received no thanks. So either the genial Irish porter who took delivery of my bottles enjoyed himself at my expense; or the House of God does not ‘do’ thank-yous. 

And as always we return to the same thing: although a thank-you might not always be essential, it is never a mistake to send one.

* * * * *

Turning to the younger generation, things change entirely. (When I say ‘younger generation’, I suppose I mean anyone who could be a child of mine; which gives an alarmingly broad range of ages.) For many of them, the idea of sitting down and writing a thank-you letter is considered not just a little antiquated, but sort-of – like – weird.

Ten years or so ago I posted a £50 note to a niece for her birthday. I know that she got it, because I somehow discovered that it was delivered into her hands by the headmistress of her convent, who – her mind straying temporarily from matters divine – noted and approved of the Buckingham Palace post mark. 

Silence ensued. Having mulled over the pros and cons of doing so, I rang her father, and was taken aback by the response: “Just don’t give her anything else again,” he said. There was no suggestion, in my brother’s reply, that his girl should have written, or that it might be useful for her to understand that a simple ‘thank-you’ goes a long way.  

But no. Just: ‘whatever’ and ‘get on with it’.

Another time, I bought a large and expensive historical atlas of the world to give to another niece as a confirmation present. Just the sort of thing that I would have loved to keep for myself. Later, I received a single sentence of thanks in handwriting that I recognised as the mother’s, but as though from the girl. From the girl herself, nothing. 

And another time, after I took a young cousin out to a meal, no thanks were forthcoming. No letter or email, certainly; nor even a text message. Perhaps it was fussy of me to take note of this. But I did.

These are random examples from my own family; and it would be unattractive to continue. But looking further afield, I have lost count of the times when well-intentioned acts – generous or not particularly generous, spontaneous or planned – have received, from those a generation or so below me, not just no thank-you, but on occasion a display of complete indifference. 

Nor is it just me. A friend of mine and his wife recently hosted a dinner party in their house for twenty-odd friends of a son of theirs. A good time was had by all; so much so that the morning afterwards, the place looked like a bomb site. The subsequent tally in terms of gratitude expressed in writing was four thank-you letters and two emails addressed to the parents; and a number of text messages sent to the son.

And in a more dramatic vein, I recently heard of a man who, having given some engraved cufflinks of his to a young relative, was so annoyed by the lack of appreciation that he promptly demanded them back.

* * * * *

One result of what appears to be a generational divide is that when anyone much younger than myself expresses appreciation of any sort for some gesture of mine made in a giving spirit, I am almost overwhelmed. Indeed, when the time comes for me to share out my worldly goods among those who remain after me, I will remember who once seemed glad to be at the receiving end of my modest generosity, and who didn’t. 

All of which prompts me to wonder who will get the solid 18-carat gold pens which even today’s iPhone-obsessed young drool over, and with which, in antedeluvian manner, I write letters that travel through the post inside lined envelopes of my own making, with first class stamps attached …

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