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Personal, Tangible Greetings: Why and When to Send Them

When is the last time you sent a card or note to a business associate? If it’s that long, read on for a nudge and some inspiration.

The Case for Tangible Messages
Thousands of unread messages fill my email inbox, and more drop in by the minute. My response: Delete. Delete. Delete. Messages from friends and associates have to compete with L.L. Bean and Claire McCaskill for my attention, and sometimes I overlook them. Facebook messages have the same fate.

In contrast, my husband, Michael, called out to me a moment ago: “Just junk mail.” That’s what he found in our U.S. mailbox.

It would have delighted me to receive a personal, tangible greeting today from a friend, relative, or business associate. I would have left this computer and gone to find out which thoughtful person had sent me what.

That delight is the reason to send such greetings. People–even tech-absorbed millennials–enjoy getting personal messages. According to an April 2018 U.S. Postal Survey, 75 percent of responding millennials said that receiving personal mail makes them feel special.

It can also feel good to send personal messages. In a recent New York Times article, “We Could All Use a Little Snail Mail Right Now,” author Susan Shain cites a study in which a professor found that his students who wrote “letters of gratitude” experienced “higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction” with each letter.

Back in 2009 I wrote a short blog post, The Power of a Personal Note, and the note’s power has only increased with the shrinking number of personal messages. According to Susan Shain, U.S. households receive just 10 pieces of personal mail each year, not counting holiday cards and invitations.

What makes personal greetings special is not only their rarity, but the obvious effort that goes into them. Rather than just a few quick clicks on a device, they require a card or stationery, an envelope, a pen, a mailing address, and a stamp, along with a handwritten message–or at least a signature–and a trip to a mailbox.

When to Send Them
Below are some of the many occasions to send handwritten notes and cards to your business associates and others. See whether you can find one to act on this week.

  • Birthdays
  • Work anniversaries, personal anniversaries (both joyous and sad)
  • Death of a friend, a family member, or a pet
  • Congratulations: for school acceptance, graduation (check your calendar in May, August, and December for possible graduations), passing an exam, a new job, a new business, a new client, a promotion, retirement, writing, publishing, making a presentation, winning a prize, becoming a citizen, getting ordained, getting good PR, engagement, marriage, new baby, another baby, new home, second home, etc.
  • Illnesses, operations, convalescences
  • Thank-yous: for gifts, opportunities, meals, advice, interviews, job offers, thoughtfulness, helpfulness; for providing a service, buying a product, making your day, teaching a great course, exceeding your expectations, consistently meeting your expectations, being a special pleasure to work with, etc.
  • Holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, New Year’s Day, etc.
  • Positive updates: on your job search, career change, health issues, etc.
  • Meeting follow-ups: after conferences and networking occasions (these are typically by email, but a tangible card makes a great impression)
  • No occasion at all–just because you have been thinking of someone


How to Turn When Into Often
If you want to send an occasional handwritten greeting, just do it! But if you’d like to make sending personal, tangible messages an enjoyable habit, gather supplies and use a toolbox to hold them. I began with an accordion-file folder of cards separated by labeled dividers, but many years ago a decorative wooden box, a gift from my husband, replaced it. The box includes a pen, postage stamps, and cards for many occasions.


Writing toolbox

When I need a printed thank-you, birthday, get-well, congratulations, or sympathy card, I just walk over to my toolbox. I also have many blank cards, that is, cards without a greeting that I can use whenever I want to remember someone with a short note. Some are art cards from galleries; others are my own photo cards of flowers, landscapes, etc. A luxurious, plain notecard can be right for professional messages too.

You don’t need a fancy wooden box, of course. An accordion-file folder in your filing cabinet, or a cardboard or plastic storage box that fits on your bookshelf can work fine. Just fill it with stamps and cards as you find them.

Contact Information–In a given situation, all you need is the address of the person you want to reach. But having a complete contact list makes the habit of sending cards and greetings easier.

If you have a sophisticated contact management system that helps you track your communications, I’m envious. I have a Word document that includes all my clients’ physical mailing addresses (and other documents for other groups of people). Typically at the end of each year, I update the document before sending out new year’s cards.

Word addresses


Calendar System–When you remember their birthdays, anniversaries, and other special occasions, people will be touched by your thoughtfulness. But it’s challenging to actually remember such occasions, especially as your list of contacts grows. That’s why you need a system that “remembers” them.

Add special occasions to an electronic or a paper calendar. Microsoft Outlook makes annual reminders easy: You just set the recurrence of an event as annual, and it appears each year on your calendar. The appointment reminder on my Android phone does the same, but it requires more of an effort to get it to remind me a few days in advance. And your appointments may not transfer when you get a new phone.

To use a paper calendar, you normally need to sit down around each New Year’s Day, and add special occasions to your new annual calendar. I had a friend who used to have a party for that purpose–everyone brought a calendar and celebrated the new year while updating calendars together. Very social and retro.


Last week I sent a long thank-you letter and card to an old friend who is ill. I told him how much I appreciated him and what a difference he had made in my personal and professional life. I feel great having let him know how much he means to me.

The personal, tangible message–how do you feel about it? If you have tips and observations, please share them.

My book Business Writing With Heart shares detailed advice and examples of thank-yous, sympathy messages, holiday greetings, and more.


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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

8 comments on “Personal, Tangible Greetings: Why and When to Send Them”

  • Thanks for the great column. And now I know what I’m going to do with my leftover supplies after I’m finished writing #PostCardsToVoters.

  • Thanks for the inspiration! I was just at Papyrus last night smiling over all the beautiful notecards, and wondering if I would use them if I bought them. Maybe I will!

  • Thanks for your comments, Cecilia, Rebecca, and Michele.

    Cecilia, yes! yes! yes!

    Rebecca, good thinking!

    Michele, sometimes I don’t use a particular card for a couple of years, but then it’s the perfect one. I love having a collection to choose from. Go for it.


  • Great advice! I’ve observed in my work place that a particular leader has earned a wonderful reputation for sending thank you notes. Staff display them proudly and with appreciation. In return, everyone is eager to assist that leader and her team. The notes spread joy and appreciation and also promote productivity and collaboration between teams.

  • I’ve sent cards for all the occasions you have listed. Some people will tell me they got my card and thank me. My older relatives love my cards and many times it’s their kids who tell me how much my cards are appreciated. I send cards because I like doing it and when I know the receiver likes getting them it makes my day too.

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