Personal Growth

People Appreciate Thank-You Notes a Lot More Than You Think

Surely you know the feeling. Somebody has just done something very kind for you — donated to your Kickstarter, or given you a job recommendation, or once again rescued you from Lex Luthor while your lousy journalist boyfriend was nowhere to be seen. You want to write a thank you note, but you're just not sure that they would even care. It might even make things awkward! Better not. Well, forget those worries. Go get your pen and your Superman stationery, because science says thank-you notes go a long, long way.

Random Acts of Gratitude

In a study led by Amit Kumar and Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business, recipients of thank-you notes turned out to be much more touched by those notes than their senders believed they would be. In their experiment, they recruited hundreds of people through the school's psych lab and via Amazon's Mechanical Turk website. Each participant was asked to write a letter of thanks via email to a person who had touched their life in a meaningful way. In those letters, they had to describe exactly what the other person had done and how it had affected their life.

In the other part of the experiment, the letter writers had to estimate how their expression of thanks would make the other person feel. Finally, the researchers would get in touch with the recipients of those letters and discover how accurately the grateful parties could guess their benefactors' feelings. The answer? Not accurately at all.

Letter writers thought that the recipients of their thank-you notes would feel less happy upon receiving them, less surprised by their contents, and more awkward about their relationship than the recipients ended up really feeling. What's more, in a follow-up experiment, letter writers also vastly underestimated how competent they were at actually expressing their gratitude: Letter writers rated their competence at about 7 out of 10, on average, while the recipients rated it at a 9.3. "These results suggest that the first thoughts that may come to mind for people when deciding to express gratitude — their ability to competently articulate their gratitude — may be an unwarranted barrier to expressing gratitude more often in everyday life," the authors wrote.

Pro-social Connections

Maybe it makes sense that sending a thank-you note would make a person feel a bit self-conscious. If you take the time to acknowledge the people who helped you when you needed it, it can bring you back to a time in your life when you felt incapable of handling your responsibilities. You might find that your feelings of reluctance stem more from your own self-consciousness than any feelings of awkwardness on the part of the recipient. At the end of the day, everybody appreciates being appreciated — and if the person you're thanking plays a mentorship or senior role to you, you may find that their estimation of you actually grows after you acknowledge their impact.

This bears some similarity to another study carried out by Epley that showed another social behavior that feels awkward but pays off big: talking to strangers. In that study, participants were divided up into two groups. Members of the first group were given one of three sets of instructions: to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the train, to sit alone on the train, or to behave as they normally would. The second group was merely asked to imagine doing one of those three things. When they later reported on their assignments, the people who had actually spoken to strangers earned higher happiness scores than any other group, but the group that was asked to imagine speaking with strangers said that sounded like the worst possible option. It just goes to show you: Humans really are social creatures, even if that socialization makes us feel anxious sometimes.

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Want to master the art of writing a professional thank-you note? You need Jeffrey Seglin's "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas August 1, 2018

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