Chapter 4.Self: Virtues of Character


How To Write An Effective Thank You Letter

Life continually requires that we write down a few words of thanks: for holidays, meals, presents or people’s place in our hearts. However, too often, our messages end up flat or somewhat unconvincing; we say that the dinner was ‘wonderful’, the present ‘brilliant’ and the holiday ‘the best ever’, all of which may be true while failing to get at what truly touched or moved us.

To render our messages more effective, we might take a lesson from an unexpected quarter: the history of art. Many paintings and poems are in effect a series of thank you notes to parts of the world. They are thank yous for the sunset in springtime, a river valley at dawn, the last days of autumn or the face of a loved one. What distinguishes great from mediocre art is in large measure the level of detail with which the world has been studied. A talented artist is, first and foremost, someone who takes us into the specifics of the reasons why an experience or place felt valuable. They don’t merely tell us that spring is ‘nice’, they zero in on the particular contributing factors to this niceness: leaves that have the softness of a newborn’s hands, the contrast  between a warm sun and a sharp breeze, the plaintive cry of baby blackbirds.

The more the poet moves from generalities to specifics, the more the scene comes alive in our minds. The same holds true in painting. A great painter goes beneath a general impression of pleasure in order to select and emphasise the truly attractive features of the landscape: they show the sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees and reflecting off of a pool of water in the road; they draw attention to the craggy upper slopes of a mountain or the way a sequence of ridges and valleys open up in the distance. They’ve asked themselves with unusual rigour what is it that they particularly appreciated about a scene and faithfully transcribed their salient impressions.

Some of the reason why great artists are rare is that our minds are not well set up to understand why we feel as we do. We register our emotions in broad strokes and derive an overall sense of our moods long before we grasp the basis upon which they rest. We are bad at travelling upstream from our impressions to their source, it feels frustrating to have to ask too directly what was really pleasing about a present or why exactly a person seemed charming to have dinner with.

But we can be confident that if our minds have been affected, the reasons why they have been so will be lodged somewhere in consciousness as well, waiting to be uncovered with deftness and patience. We stand to realise that it wasn’t so much that the food was ‘delicious’ but that the potatoes in particular had an intriguing rosemary and garlic flavour to them. A friend wasn’t just ‘nice’; they brought a hugely sensitive and generous tone to bear in asking us what it had been like for us in adolescence after our dad died. And the camera wasn’t just a ‘great present’; it has an immensely satisfying rubbery grip and a reassuringly clunky shutter sound that evokes a sturdier, better older world. The details will be there, waiting for us to catch them through our mental sieve.

Praise works best the more specific it can be. We know this in love; the more a partner can say what it is they appreciate about us, the more real their affection can feel. It is when they’ve studied the shape of our fingers, when they’ve recognised and appreciated the quirks of our character, when they’ve clocked the words we like or the way we end a phone call that the praise starts to count. The person who has given a dinner party or sent us a present is no different. They too hunger for praise in its specific rather than general forms. We don’t have to be great artists to send effective thank you notes: we just need to locate and hold on tightly to two or three highly detailed reasons for our gratitude.

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