Catherine Toth Fox: Feeling Grateful? Send A Handwritten Thank You Note - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

In second grade I chose a pen pal from an elementary school in Colorado based solely on the name of the street she lived on: Garfield Street. At the time I assumed it was an homage to the lasagna-loving orange Persian Tabby cat from the Sunday comics — hey, I was only 7! But we started what would end up being a decades-long correspondence via letters, mostly handwritten.

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I still have her letters, bundled and buried in my closet, along with ones from my late grandma, a high school classmate who was getting treatment at Kahi Mohala, my bestie who now lives in Texas and childhood friends with perfect handwriting and origami-folding skills.

I sometimes read a few when I’m cleaning out the closet, transported to a time in my life in a way that only handwritten letters can do. I can hear their voices, see the imperfect curves and angles of their writing, feel the tension or urgency. You can’t get this from an email or text message, not even with emojis.

Handwritten letters are tactile and personal, down to what the letter is written on. My husband, for example, only writes to me on college-ruled paper — where he gets this, I have no idea — and my grandma penned her notes, in swirly cursive, on half-sheet notepads. My best friend from high school crafted elaborate collages on her letters, with magazine cutouts of John Cusack and her own drawings of the misanthropic Daria Morgendorffer.

There’s a permanence to them, too. They don’t get removed like Facebook comments. They don’t disappear when you update your OS. You can hold letters, keep them, store them, read them decades later (when you should be cleaning out your closet).

And they make you feel special, like you mattered enough for someone to find something to write on and a pen that works, then to sit down and put into words how she’s feeling. It takes time and effort — and at least a 60-cent stamp, plus a walk to the mailbox — to send someone a letter.

An article published by the etiquette experts at the Emily Post Institute extols the unrivaled benefits of the handwritten note: “There is simply nothing as personal as the handwritten note. In a stack of bills and flyers, it’s a treasure in a sealed packet, full of promise and potential. It is a visceral reminder of someone far away.”

Handwritten thank you notes Catherine Toth Fox column
A sampling of handwritten cards the writer has saved over the years. She keeps them by her desk in her home office. Catherine Toth Fox/Civil Beat

When my son’s preschool shut down in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, some of his classmates started mailing letters — OK, more like drawings — to each other. His face would light up when, as we would pulled envelopes out of the mailbox, he’d find one addressed to him, often in the adorable lopsided handwriting of another 4 year old. He loved these letters so much, he often took them to bed with him.

He couldn’t have done that with an email.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by the U.S. Postal Service — in the early days of the pandemic — 65% of respondents said receiving mail lifted their spirits and 60% said it means more to receive a card or letter than an email. The majority felt mail is “extra special” during a time of social distancing.

I want my son to remember that feeling, to understand that when he sends someone a letter — or a drawing of Charmander — it makes them feel the same way. Like they’re special, they matter, they’re important, they’re worth the extra effort.

It’s something we teach the queen contestants of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. They are required — yes, required! — to write personal thank-you notes to instructors and volunteers during their months-long training. We want them to stop and appreciate what others are doing for them, for the festival, for the perpetuation of the Japanese culture in Hawaii. Because it is personal — and the gratitude shown back should be equally meaningful and heartfelt.

“There is simply nothing as personal as the handwritten note.” — Emily Post Institute

It’s amazing what a sincere, well-timed thank you can do. I’ve felt more loyal to people who write me cards. I have a few taped to my wall in my office, one on my fridge and others in a folder near my desk.

They make me feel valued — something a lot of us need to feel right now. A study reported in the Harvard Business Review last year found that more frequent appreciation from colleagues and managers makes workers feel respected and results in reduced turnover and improved productivity.

We’ve all received a handwritten thank-you card in the mail, on our desk at work, from our kids. Maybe we didn’t keep it, maybe we even said to ourselves, “What in the world am I going to do with this?” but not before we thought, “Wow, that was really nice of them.”

To me, a thoughtful letter is one of the most valuable things you can receive. You are getting someone’s feelings, something many of us guard closely, and sharing that with you is a sign of trust, respect and genuine care.

So value the next handwritten card you receive. And consider writing back. You never know how that letter — or drawing of a Pokemon — can impact someone. Or how long they may keep it in their closets at home.


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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

This essay doesn’t mention one important fact. Handwriting—that is, writing by hand using a pen or other stylus and not by tapping ones fingers or thumbs on a keyboard—is something of a lost art/science. It is a "fundamental" not much taught in our school system any more so has become what I call an "exhibition skill," a special skill like painting or playing a musical instrument, something you use to make yourself special, or express yourself in uncommon ways. Writing someone a handwritten note also uses different skills, uses a different "voice" from texting/emailing. I have a friend who says she can tell what kind of wine I was drinking when I wrote a letter. You write without cutting, pasting, revising, or depending on the AI of sentence completion or spell check or auto-complete. It’s more "you" than you can be on a keyboard, and more you than you want to reveal sometimes. Will it be overly neat and expose hidden darkness of your psyche? Secret lusts or inadequacies? (Or special ignorance of spelling and grammar?) You have to be confident or foolhardy to write someone in your own handwriting. Or daring.

Doug · 3 months ago

I gave and/or sent 23 graduation envelopes in summer 2022. I received two handwritten thank you notes. To the two that sent me the thank you notes, your families trained you right.

take.care. · 3 months ago

Writing handwritten notes (including thank you). Actually each year, 1,100+ new "Plebes" (freshmen) a the U.S. Naval Academy (USNA) are writing handwritten letters to their families. Painful it May seems, they don’t have any choice. As part of their indoctrination to the military, all devices associated of being a high tech 18-19 years old such as cell phones, iPhone watches, laptops are taken away for six weeks. They do however are allowed three 30-minute phone calls (academy cell phones). Without speed typing the thoughts and words, my son’s handwritten notes revealed his true self with phrases such as "miss you," "can’t wait to see you," "love you." I discovered that he is an artist. Each letter contains a self-diagnosis anatomy drawing of a new injury. Lastly, each letter includes a 3x3 rough sketch drawing of a cat.

Srft1 · 3 months ago

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