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The Art of Thank You’s

The other day, I was talking with a colleague who studies gratitude, Patrick Dwyer. In the midst of chatting at an event we were attending, we got to talking about the art of thank you cards. I asked Patrick if he was aware of any research on gratitude that focuses on the effect of thank you cards. Patrick is a social psychologist, and I am a sociologist. Naturally then, we both began thinking about the social effects of reading thank you cards, which led us to conjecture that the kinds of sentiments expressed in thank you cards, and the ways those sentiments are expressed, vary widely. Thus, we began to hypothesize, the effect of these cards could also vary widely. Patrick relayed that one could conduct experimental research to study the effects of different thank you card variants, focusing on which particular sentiments were most effective.

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The event we had just come from featured service learning, and we began to think about ways that thank you cards could be integrated into a class activity. This led us to discuss two related ideas. First, we wondered how students learn the art of thank you cards, and we both reflected on experiences with some students who were impressive and inspiring in their ability to write compelling thank you cards, whereas for others thank you cards did not appear to be part of their regular activities. How and why do some students learn the art of thank you cards?, we wondered.

I then shared a personal experience that led me to reflect upon the importance of thank you cards. Namely, I was talking with a colleague in education policy, Jeff Dean, about the practice of teaching handwriting in K-12 schools. Given the rise of technology mediated communication, I asked Jeff whether he views teaching handwriting to be a worthwhile activity in contemporary schools. We reflected upon the pros and cons of teaching handwriting, in particular as a graded activity, since many students will likely not engage in handwriting as the dominant medium for their professional communication. However, personal communication is different, we thought. We both relayed the personal significance of receiving handwritten notes, such as thank you cards. Since much of the communication we receive today is electronic, do handwritten notes actually matter more now?

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Sharing this reflection lead Patrick and I to thinking about fundraising, and the importance of thank you cards in fostering and maintaining donor relationships. No doubt this was related to the fact that we had both been talking with Gene Tempel, former dean of our school and also former president of the IU Foundation. Gene underscored the importance of gratitude in donor relationships, which got me reflecting on how donor fatigue, a subject of an earlier blog, could be a byproduct of low gratitude, aka not enough thank you cards.

As it happened, our historian colleague, Tyrone Freeman, was walking by, and we shared our discussion. Tyrone then began reflecting upon the ways thank you card dynamics may have changed over time, and he relayed that one could conduct archival research to investigate ongoing communications among people, viewing exchanges between people to document communications leading up to a thank you being sent, and also viewing documents regarding exchanges after a thank you card was sent.

More generally, this experience made me reflect on why I love being part of the multi-disciplinary group of people involved with the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. I recently joined this school, and one of the most unique features of the school, relative to my prior experiences in more traditional sociology departments, is the ease of access to people from a wide variety of disciplines. From social psychology and experiments, to fundraising and thank you cards, to historians and archival research, all in the span of time it took me to eat my appetizer and walk back from the service learning event. Now that is impressive!

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