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Newport Manners & Etiquette: The Importance of The Handwritten Note

Wednesday, April 13, 2016


The keyboard rules, nobody handwrites thank-you notes or letters of condolence anymore. Do you still have to write a letter when you've offered your condolences in person or expressed your appreciation for a recommendation via email, text, phone, or in person? All questions to Didi Lorillard this week at NewportManners.

Q. A good friend's last remaining parent died and I've been trying to be as helpful as I can. Do I still need to write her a personal note? Or would that be just another note she'd have to acknowledge? Should I send her a condolence card or do I have to write a letter? She asked me if she needs to write to 150 people who 'Liked' the photo of her parent that she posted on Facebook to announce the parent's death or can she just 'Reply' with a quick 'Thank You'? If she thanked friends in person for their flowers at the funeral, does she still have to send a sympathy acknowledgement?  E.H., Boston

A.  Handwriting is the most elegant form of communication. The whole exercise of expressive note writing whether in sympathy or gratitude -- even a few lines on a commercial condolence card and finding a stamp (who has those any longer?) -- is part of the mourning process. You can send your friend a handwritten note on your best stationery (even if its left over from your wedding) or a thoughtful greeting card.

Trust me. It will make you happier to write her a note. In many instances, including that of the survivor, writing is cathartic for mourning. There is a de-escalation process where the survivor reciprocates, acknowledging in writing the death of their parent to friends and family; when she sends acknowledgement cards that include a short message she's accepting her grief. Expressing the loss of that relationship is therapeutic for the writer as well as the survivor

Hopefully, these simple guidelines will make it easier to understand:

With the case for handwriting your message, the evidence is evident. We now know from recent brain scan studies that early handwriting helps kids to learn how to read, and that keyboards don't have the same effect. Forming the letters with a pen/pencil enables children to break the code by producing more brain activity than merely viewing letters on a keyboard. There's more evidence that handwriting lecture notes, compared to typing on a laptop or iPhone, improves learning for college students.

The gratitude letter that your friend would be writing in return is positive psychology. It is written as a specific expression of thanks to a person who has been especially thoughtful, kind or important to her. Apparently, 99% of the time the gratitude letter works. And why wouldn't it?

As I said before, handwriting is the most elegant form of communication. It makes you happier, smarter and more endearing. In most instances, handwriting is another tool for thinking, expression, creativity, and communication.

A good handwritten letter

  • is personal and is personalized (when you send a tweet, email, text, or FB message, you should still follow up with a handwritten note or card when you know the person well.)
  • represents the writer's undivided attention (unlike an email or phone call while multi-tasking at work.)
  • is a thoughtful gesture appreciated for its effort, time spent writing it and finding a stamp. People remember who wrote a heartfelt letter and who sent a text.


The gratitude letter

  • for a gift of any kind or any occasion acknowledgement is appreciated in order. It sustains the relationship. If I spend half a day making a meatloaf and  cherry pie to bring you while you're recuperating from a knee replacement, I am grateful to receive a handwritten message of appreciation.
  • is appreciated when someone goes out of their way (again, spending time on you) to introduce you to someone who becomes your boss, mentor, investor, or business partner; or pulls strings for you.


A condolence letter

  • can be sent anytime, the sooner the better, however, there are no rules or time constraints.
  • should never include unhelpful phrases (see below).
  • is NOT about being profound.
  • is all about acknowledging a death and expressing genuine sympathy.
  • is not the place to compare losses (saying you've experienced the same loss could annoy the person)


What not to say:

  • It's for the best.
  • I/we know how you feel. (You don't know how they feel, no matter how well you think you know the person.)
  • He lived a full life.
  • My mother had ______, too.
  • How are you? Obviously, they're hurting  
  • It was the right time -- because she may have been let go.


What to AVOID:


  • Don't promise to help, if you're not sure you will.
  • Don't go on too long, because brevity is key.
  • Don't go into the drastic circumstances of the deceased.
  • Don't say anything even vaguely religious, unless it is appropriate.
  • Don't sign off with just Sincerely, which sounds cold.


When you don't know the person well, how to sign off in closing:  

  • With sympathy,
  • Please accept our condolences,
  • Our sincere sympathy,
  • With caring thoughts,
  • With deepest sympathy,
  • Warmest condolences,
  • With deepest sympathy for your loss,


When you know the recipient well:

  • With love,
  • With loving memories,
  • Thinking of you,
  • Our thoughts are of you, our hearts are with you,


Add the deceased's name in the closing -- even if it is a pet:

  • Stella will never be forgotten,
  • Toby will live on in our hearts,
  • Louis will remain in our hearts,
  • We will never forget Elaine,


Didi Lorillard researches etiquette at NewportManners.

Main Photo: Flickr/WilliamArthurFineStationery


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