When Is It Okay to Send a Thank You Email?

published Oct 21, 2016
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In the olden days, a thank you note was a handwritten note, sent through the mail on actual paper. Of course you’d send a card — what else were you going to do? Send a pigeon? It was a simpler time then, and a more lucrative era for the USPS.

Now, we have email. I love email! Everyone can be connected all the time, for free, and you can get so many 40% off Gap coupons. Truly, I have no complaints with email except this: It has made the etiquette of thank you notes a virtual minefield.

When is an emailed thank you note appropriate? When do you really (really) need to send a card? If you choose wrong, will you derail your whole life? Probably not, but sometimes I worry.

If you, too, are a worrier, here are three times an email is totally fine and three times it’s not, according to San Diego etiquette expert Elaine Swann.

3 Times It’s Okay to Send a Thank You Email

“Email is definitely appropriate in some instances,” says Swann. Or, if you want to step it up a little, but not too much, she isn’t opposed to e-cards.

  • You’re saying thank you for a digital favor: If you’ve been corresponding electronically, and the favor took place electronically, then an electronic thank you makes total sense. Did someone do an X-meet-Y email introduction for you? Did they send you a referral, a reference, or a job lead? Excellent. Email them.
  • It’s a belated thank you for a casual favor: Did someone do a nice thing for you, but you didn’t/couldn’t/forgot to say thank you at the time? You were running late and a fellow parent picked your kid up from school, or your neighbor picked up your package so it wouldn’t sit all day in the rain? Great. Email them. Just a quick “Thanks so much, you’re a lifesaver” lets people know you appreciate them, Swann advises.
  • You’ve just been on a job interview: Immediate follow-up is essential, says Swann. You want to express your gratitude (and reiterate your interest in the gig), and you want to do it fast, because that is the pace of life now.

3 Times It’s Not Okay to Send a Thank You Email

There are also times in life when an email, even if it is very gracious and charming, won’t quite cut it.

  • Someone gave you a real (non-virtual) present: “Anytime somebody gives you something, whether it’s something formal, like a wedding gift, or something informal, like they brought you back something from their trip, then you should respond with something in kind,” Swann says. Tangible gifts should be met with tangible thanks.
  • You’ve just been on a job interview: Didn’t we just discuss job interviews? Why yes we did. But while Swann says you should definitely send an email, she advises you send a handwritten note, too. This is controversial: Some hiring managers say they don’t want a card, some people say you have to send a card, and still others say it totally depends on the industry. Swann’s take is that doing both works in your favor. The email is most important — again, time is of the essence here — but, she says, following up with a handwritten note can work in your favor. “That way, if they are seeing further candidates a little bit later in the week, you’re bringing yourself back to the forefront of their mind.”
  • You’re a guest at someone’s house: Probably, there are exceptions to this, because ours is a fickle world, but in general, you don’t want to send a card or an email — you want to bring a gift. “That’s your pre-thank you,” Swann says. “You go with a hostess gift, you say thank you at the end of the night, and you’re covered.” (If you want, though, you can still follow up with a bread-and-butter note, sent after the fact — it’s not necessary, but then, that is what makes it special.)
  • P.S.: If you’re staying with someone overnight, or for many nights, you have even more options: you can still bring a gift, or you can treat them to dinner/another experience of your choice, or you can send some kind of follow-up gift-like thing afterwards. Bottom line: “At some point in time, whether it’s before, during, or after, you want to make sure you extend your thanks,” says Swann.

Tell us about your thank you note dilemmas! What are occasions we missed, and what did you do about them?