Thanks but no thank-you letters

Everyone is either thanking someone or taking offence because someone hasn’t thanked them enough

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Please don’t bother me right now. I have to write a thank-you letter. At least I think I do. I was at this rather grand dining club last night giving a short speech, at the end of which the charming woman beside me took to the lectern and offered such a gracious thank-you that, well, it would be rude not to acknowledge her eloquent praise so I’m writing to say: Thanks, you shouldn’t have…

Oh God. Do I need to do this? I don’t want to suffer one of those awkward moments when we meet again and she says, “I notice you couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge my thanks…” At the same time, I’ve been wondering if we’re entering a new era of Otiose Gratitude, where everybody is either thanking someone else (usually more out of politeness than sincerity) or taking offence because someone hasn’t thanked them sufficiently.

Peter Florence, the genial and energetic convenor of the Hay Festival, will have gratitude on his mind this week. This literary-cultural extravaganza has grown over 20-odd years until it now features 700 events in 10 days. Most of the speakers at literary events aren’t paid to appear, because they’re usually attending in the course of a multi-venue publicity campaign paid for by their publishers. But they can choose which festivals to attend, so festival directors like Florence have to schmooze the talent, invite them and thank them afterwards for being so wonderful (darling).

Some festival bosses I’ve known have settled for a sincere “Thank you” and a handshake, which is hopeless. At Hay, a pretty girl used to appear on stage at the end of each event offering a single long-stemmed white rose of gratitude, which was charming. More recently, Hay guests have been given a case of wine for their trouble. I bet that, in the current climate, Mr Florence will find himself writing more than 700 thank-you letters, possibly on vellum paper. And woe betide him if anyone gets missed out.

I threw a birthday party last autumn, invited lots of people, spent a wedge of cash at Majestic Wine, got the caterers in. It was a riot. Several guests were kind enough to bring gifts, and the next day I sent thank-you letters to all of them. Sadly, one letter went astray – and six months later, I received a rather hurt-sounding email that said, effectively, “Look, I never got a thank-you letter for that birthday-present bottle I gave you six months ago. Does this mean our friendship is over?” I emailed back, apologising like mad. But I couldn’t help thinking: Seriously? We’re no longer friends because you didn’t get your thank-you letter?

I’m becoming familiar with a tone, in emails, of regretful admonishment that I haven’t behaved better in the to-and-fro of modern gratitude. That dinner last month, organised by a magazine, to celebrate a distinguished contributor? I contacted a senior member of staff weeks after it, and was told: “I’m glad to hear from you because I assumed from your silence that you hated the dinner with Godfrey and weren’t speaking to me.” Once again, I had to apologise, while thinking, hang on, the dinner wasn’t a private, personal thing, it was paid for by the company and therefore... but the minute you start whining internally like that, you know you’ve lost the argument.

One turns for guidance to Debrett’s Correct Form, and leaf through the pages about Thank You Letters. It tells you, in Jeeves-like tones that brook no argument: “A thank-you letter should always be handwritten and sent within a week to 10 days of an event or the receipt of a present… Remember that, in our digital age, a handwritten letter is always appreciated.” Blimey. (Handwritten? When was the last time I did that?) The guide has, sadly, nothing to say about the post-corporate dinner letter, how to respond to the Speech of Thanks, or when a party host should thank guests for showing up.

It did, however, assert that “Engraved invitation cards require a formal thank you letter”, whereas an “At Home” card “suggests a short letter or note”. But since I do not live in an E M Forster novel, I never receive engraved or “At Home” cards. I get electronic invites that you click open, before sending an RSVP on the electro-link.

I think there should be a rule about not getting cross over thank-yous. I know a chap who had a grievous falling-out with his beloved son because the son had failed to encourage his son (aged nine) to write a thank-you card for a Christmas present. Nothing would mollify the chap for this terrible sin of omission. I think he’s wrong to be so serious about a formality. Yes, parents should insist their children are polite to their grandparents. But there’s something intrinsically prim and perfunctory about the formal response. I wouldn’t expect my grown-up-and-living-elsewhere children to send bread-and-butter letters to me after a shared holiday. It would seem to them rather fake and distancing, as bread-and-butter communications often do to me.

We need something new to show our friends how much we appreciate their efforts, their invitations, their kindness; something, maybe, that goes beyond words. Bang on cue comes Jean-Luc Godard to show us how. He’s just released a wonderfully mad and baffling “Letter in motion” in reply to an invitation from Gilles Jacob, president of the Cannes Film Festival, inviting him to the opening press conference. The video starts off conventionally with “I thank you for inviting me” before lurching violently into clips from the director’s Alphaville and King Lear, snatches of Leonard Cohen’s “Take This Waltz”, pictures of Truffaut, snaps from the Havana Bar in Paris and lots of footage of dogs. Mr Godard’s new film is called Goodbye to Language. His video “thank-you” letter suggests how we might revolutionise a rather moth-eaten and troublemaking convention.

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