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A simple thank-you note is a powerful tool—and history proves it

How a humble expression of gratitude has persisted throughout history—and yet another reason why you should write one.

A simple thank-you note is a powerful tool—and history proves it
[Photo: Studio-Annika/IStock]

You know that obligatory thank-you note you write after a job interview? It could make or break your chances of landing the job. A recent report from iCIMS revealed that 63% of recruiters reported being more likely to hire someone who was angling for a higher salary but sent a thank-you note than someone who wanted slightly less money but didn’t bother to express gratitude. In fact, the research found that only 26% of entry-level job candidates typically send a thank-you note after a job interview.

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If you ever wonder where that practice originated, you’ll be surprised to find that its roots run all the way back to Ancient Egypt and Rome.

The Egyptians are well known for their reverence of the dead. Their careful attention to the preservation of bodies and the spectacular tombs that held them give us a glimpse into the practices that surrounded their belief in the afterlife. What is less well-known are the letters they composed to their departed relatives, which encompass the entirety of the history of that civilization. The way the Egyptians saw it, death didn’t end the conversations with those who had passed to the other world. They were just as accessible as they were in life. And their offerings of food and drink were held in bowls inscribed with petitions for favors and gratitude for those granted.

In one inscription, a husband tells his wife: “I have not garbled a spell before you, while making your name to live upon the earth.” And he promises to do more for her if she cures him of his illness: “I shall lay down offerings for you when the sun’s light has risen and I shall establish an altar for you.”

In a sense, these letters (some of which were also written on linen and papyrus) stood as some of the earliest examples of the best kind of letter you’d write to a hiring manager, reminding them of what you’ve accomplished and how that could help them in the future.

Ancient Roman soldiers’ letters also carry echoes the practice of sending thanks while angling for positions and promotions. Historians uncovered a trove of letters known as the Vindolanda tablets dating from around 100 AD that contain a trove of information about their daily lives and concerns. In one letter, a man named Cerialis appeals to a high-ranking official in hopes of getting a promotion from the governor.

I have gladly seized this opportunity, my lord, of greeting you, whom I dearly wish to be in good health and master of all your hopes. For you have always deserved this of me, right up to your present high office… greet Marcellus, that most distinguished man, my governor. He offers opportunity for the talents of your friends, now that he is here, for which I know you thank him. Now, in whatever way you wish, fulfil what I expect of you and… so furnish me with very many friends, so that thanks to you I may be able to enjoy an agreeable period of military service.

By the 19th century, the practice of letter writing was elevated to constant correspondence under strict social mores. The thank-you note was de rigueur, both for friends and family, as well as business. A formality of tone and proper etiquette were necessary, as were a careful selection of paper, envelope, and ink.

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In his 1876 book, How To Write Letters, English professor J. Willis Westlake lays out templates for proper letters. Almost 150 years later, his advice holds up:

Take pains; write as plainly and neatly as possible—rapidly if you can, slowly if you must. Good writing affects us sympathetically, giving us a higher appreciation both of what is written and of the person who wrote it. Don’t say, I haven’t time to be so particular. Take time; or else write fewer letters and shorter ones.

Indeed, a thoughtfully composed thank-you note, whether it’s designed to impress a hiring manager, or simply express gratitude to someone who helped you, shouldn’t be underestimated. Research indicates that simple thanks can make the recipient feel happier and more engaged while increasing the emotional intelligence of the person saying (or writing) it.

More recent research published in Psychological Science suggests that people still trip up on thank-you notes because they feel awkward about expressing gratitude in a way that will be appreciated by the receiver. Finding the right words shouldn’t be a problem, researchers say, as long as the expression is authentic. They also found that those who wrote the gratitude letters consistently reported being in more positive spirits, which underscores the existing research on the mood-enhancing effects of expressing thanks.

If you’re still struggling to find just the right words to say thank you, it may help to know that the history of the phrase itself. Derived from the word “think” in Old English, the Oxford English Dictionary finds that the meaning evolved from a “favourable thought or feeling,” to a “kindly thought or feeling entertained towards any one for favour or services received,” which is essentially what it means today.

“The broader message is that people should express gratitude more often,” study coauthor Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, said in an interview with Time, “and precisely how you go about doing that might not matter that much.”

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About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.

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