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Etiquette Tips: The Written Note

The rules of etiquette have evolved and are not quite as formal as they once were. Nevertheless, there are still situations that require us to acknowledge an event or situation in writing. Nowadays, we depend more on verbal and digital communication than the handwritten note. Whether it is a message of condolence, a thank you note or an RSVP, it is often difficult to know what to say or even how much to write.

One thing to keep in mind when you have to write any of this type of note is that it doesn't have to be long. Two to four sentences are sufficient; you may write more if you wish, but a short, concise note expressing your sentiments is perfectly acceptable. Knowing that it doesn't have to be long takes some of the pressure off what to say.

Sympathy Notes

These are probably the type of note that many people feel most awkward writing, not knowing just what to say. This is natural. Our first reaction might be to rush to a store and buy a card with a sentiment already in place. This is absolutely fine, and makes a good starting point. Nevertheless, this is a situation that requires more than just the addition of your handwritten signature.

There is no formal format that must be followed here. The Emily Post Institute, one of the leading experts on the subject of the rules of etiquette, advises to be sincere and say what you feel. You only need to write a simple sentence or two expressing a genuine feeling. Optional additions would be to share a personal memory of the deceased if you had a personal relationship with him or her, or to offer some sort of practical help.

When confronted with the dilemma of what to say, here are some samples to help you get started. Tailor them according to your closeness to the deceased or the family.

For a general note:
I was saddened to hear of your recent loss. Please know that you are in my thoughts and prayers at this difficult time. With sincere condolences,

My heart goes out to you on hearing of your recent loss. If there is anything that I can do for you and your family, such as [house sit, run errands, babysit], during this difficult time, please do not hesitate to reach out and ask.
With deepest sympathy,

On the loss of a family member:
My sincere condolences go out to you on the loss of your [mother/father/husband/wife/child]. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your entire family.
With deepest sympathy,

I was saddened to hear of the passing of your [father/mother/husband/wife]. He/she was a very special person and his/her loss is deeply felt by my whole family. I will always remember the good times that we had together. Please let me know if I can run any errands or help you out in any other way. My thoughts and prayers are with you.
With sincere sympathy,

On the loss of a beloved pet:
To many people, their pets are as much a part of the family, and their loss is as sorrowfully felt as the loss of any other family member.

I am so sorry to hear of [pet's name] passing. I know how much joy and comfort he/she brought to you and that his/her loss will be deeply felt.

Thank You Notes

Thank you notes are a bit easier to compose. These are the obligatory messages that should be sent to acknowledge gifts, especially wedding, shower and baby gifts, or to acknowledge someone's hospitality or kindness. These may be written on personal stationery or using a preprinted notecard; if using a preprinted notecard, here too, you must also add a handwritten message. It is also good form to mention the specific gift, hospitality or kindness. If the gift was in the form of cash, check or gift card, you need not mention the actual amount, but might mention how you will use it.

[____ and I] wish to thank you for the lovely [name the item] that you sent us for our wedding. We are very excited to set up our new home together and your gift will certainly be useful when we entertain family and friends.
Again, thank you so much.

Thank you so much for your generous wedding gift. It will go a long way toward helping us complete purchasing the things that we need for our home together.
With grateful appreciation,

I just love the baby onesies and other clothing items that you gave us for the baby. They are super cute and certainly will be put to good use many times over. It was wonderful seeing you at the shower. I was so surprised by it.
Again, many thanks for your kindness and gifts.

Thank you for the gift basket of practical necessities that a new mother will need for her baby. Your experience as a mom certainly shows. I especially like the [name a specific item]. We are so looking forward to the baby's arrival.
Again, many thanks for your thoughtfulness.

Thank you for the [gift card/check] that you sent for [the shower/my birthday/graduation/Christmas]. I plan to use it to [purchase (X) – mention a specific item that you wish to purchase] [put it toward (Y) – mention something that you are saving up for such as tuition, a vacation or other big-ticket item].

RSVP Notes

These are simple notes that convey either acceptance or regrets. Unless otherwise stated in the invitation, you need to let the host know if you can or cannot attend. If you are unable to accept the invitation, you need not make an excuse as to why, but you can let the host know a reason if you wish.

Thank you so much for your invitation to [name the event and date]. I/we shall be delighted to attend and are looking forward to it.

Thank you so much for your kind invitation. Regretfully, I/we are unable to attend.

Thank you for your invitation [to dinner]. Unfortunately, we have [a previous commitment on that date] and will not be able to join you.

These are just a few samples to help you say what you need to say. Keeping it short and simple helps to remove the awkwardness of not knowing what say.

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