Archive for March, 2010

Presidents and handwritten letters

Today, I read a lovely piece in the Washington Post about Americans’ letters to the President. The story is a touching read, with moving narrative about Jennifer Cline, a young woman who recently wrote a handwritten letter on lined paper to the President. She wrote a few pages on her son’s spiral-bound notebook about losing her job and ballooning debt, and sent it off to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I was encouraged to read that Jennifer and other Americans still believe in postal mail, sending nearly 5,000 pieces to the White House each day.

I was even more encouraged to read that the President personally reads ten pieces of mail and responds to a few each week. Cline’s letter was one of those ten letters back in January, and the President found her letter worthy of a response. The President knows how to write a good note:

After Obama read Cline’s letter, he took out one of his custom-made notecards — thick slabs of white paper cut to the size of postcards, with the presidential seal embossed at the top.

He had always preferred to write by hand, using a yellow legal pad to craft sections of his autobiography and his campaign speeches. Now he took out a black fountain pen and started to write in the top left corner.

“Jennifer,” he began.

Obama had made a habit of keeping his responses short: one sentence that expressed gratitude for the letter, and one or two more that tended toward encouragement instead of advice. “Dream big dreams,” he wrote to one teenager. “I’ll try to do better for you next week,” he wrote to a detractor.

(from “For a look outside presidential bubble, Obama reads 10 personal letters each day,” by Eli Saslow, Wednesday, March 31, 2010, Washington Post)

Clearly, written correspondence is still as significant part of our country.

Presidential correspondence is nothing new. Reading this story about Cline reminded me of a letter that President Abraham Lincoln wrote during the Civil War. When he was told that a certain American mother had lost all five of her sons to the devastating war, he wrote the below letter. His humble efforts to console are inspiring. The beauty of the aged paper and ink are beautiful and historic.

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln



Birthdays are fun. I love my special day in December, and I know a lot of people enjoy their birthday too. In the days leading up to my birthday, there is nothing I love more than a mailbox stocked with colorful birthday cards. Cards from long-lost friends, a sweet and note from gramma, maybe a package or two. Since moving away from home, mail on my birthday has become an important part of celebrating with friends and family who are far away.

For all the fun of birthdays, helping others celebrate their birthday requires a little bit of extra work and care. There is always the agony of what to send.  Does this friendship merit a gift or a card? Should I buy an expensive Hallmark card or just jot of a hand-written greeting on my own notecards?

Keep in mind how you feel when others help you celebrate your birthday and do your best to reciprocate. It is all about recognizing a birthday, even just with a card. Remember that the few moments it takes to write out a birthday card and drop it in the mail truly tells a friend what you mean to them.

Don’t be afraid to send a blank, non-birthday card from your favorite box of artsy notes. Individual cards can get expensive, and the words you write can be much more meaningful than stock poetry. Make an effort to get creative with your words or share a special memory. Birthdays are a great time to let friends know how much they mean to you. Don’t forget to add some flair to the card, like tea or confetti.

I have to say that I’m not the best at remembering others’ birthdays and helping them celebrate properly. There are so many birthdays to remember. Facebook reminders are insufficient. My Outlook calendar doesn’t tell me about the birthday until the day of. And my memory constantly fails me. I welcome reader suggestions for remembering these important days.

Subject lines

E-mail subject lines are tough. In the ol’ days, there was no need to title a letter. If Holly Hobby was writing a letter to Gramma, she began with “Dear Gramma.” There was no reason to write a title at the top like “how my dog ran away and then I found him in the barn.” Well, those days are gone. When you send an e-mail, the subject line suddenly defines the whole correspondence. And to add to the stress, the subject line defines your recipient’s reply too. Even not including a subject titles the e-mail “[no subject].” What a struggle!

For all the difficulty, we should embrace subject lines and use them well. A few words at the top of an e-mail should give the recipient a good idea of what they are about to read. People who receive many e-mails per day would certainly prefer to know if their next on in their inbox is worth opening.

Avoid vague subjects like “hello,” “hey there,” or “hi [name]!” as these can often be mistaken for spam and offer no context.

Try to keep subject lines short and sweet, giving the reader a good summary of the e-mail they are about to open.

If you are sending an invitation, include the date and name of the event.

In casual conversation with a friend, using [no subject] is okay, but avoid using it for more professional e-mail or a cold reach-out.

It is amusing to write half of your first sentence in the subject line, and finish it in the body of the e-mail (see below example). But don’t do this in a professional setting.

In short, I think subject lines are important, even if they are often difficult to write. Try not to agonize over them too much, but know that they are an important part of e-mail correspondence.

A dentist thank you note

This is a good thank you note. I referred a friend to my dentist and received the following thank you note.

Thank You for referring Sarah to our practice. You have paid us the nicest compliment possible. We appreciate your confidence and trust.

Simple, well-worded, kind. Clearly, my dentist understands the value of a quality thank you note and how far it can take the practice. The note card was a little hokey, but I was able to ignore it because of the words. I appreciate that the dentist’s support staff takes the time and postage to thank patients and keep them coming back. I’ll gladly refer other patients to them, not just because of the quality service, but also because of their attentive customer service.  Well done Dr. Shannon!

Tea’d up

Freshen up your notes with a pretty sachet of tea. Tea is the perfect way to add a little something a note. Here’s why:

First, one bag of tea is flat and light, so it will not require extra postage.

Second, it is a nice little surprise in the envelope.

Third, they are colorful and unique.

Fourth, they smell delicious.

Fifth, they add character to any notecard, and your recipient will remember what a lovely note you sent.

Sixth, this is an opportunity to share a unique tea with a friend. May I recommend TWG tea from Dean and Deluca (a bit on the high-end, but worth the splurge), or Good Earth Sweet and Spicy tea found at Trader Joe’s. But really, any tea besides a bag of Lipton is acceptable.

A friendly reminder

How often do you hit the send button, only to regret a biting comment or long diatribe? Do you hope the smiley-face at the end of a sarcastic remark will get your point across? It is easy to start clacking on your Mac to release frustration, but I wonder if e-mail is the wisest place to air our deepest thoughts.  While grammar and spelling are always a concern, so is the content of our e-mails.

REAL SIMPLE‘s etiquette maven, Julie Rottenberg, discussed this very topic in her most recent column, “The Perils of E-mail.” She has a fairly extreme rule, that gives me pause:

Never put anything in an e-mail you wouldn’t be happy to have read on the evening news (or The Daily Show).

Well said Julie. Before you send an e-mail, not only should you check for spelling or grammatical errors, but remember that your words can be forwarded on to anyone. Also, an e-mail is a print record with no promise it will be permanently deleted. In fact, many workplaces keep all e-mails on record. Julie’s advice should be heeded:

If you are angry or upset or want to apologize for something, resist the temptation to unload it all into an e-mail. Instead, pick up the phone or speak in person.

I have to be honest, I don’t adhere to this as best as I should. E-mail is such an easy medium to hide behind when communicating with others. However, this is a kind word to you and me, dear readers. Keep the e-mails nice, or dial the phone and work it out. Some times to best e-mail you can send in frustration is “call me.”

Return address image

At the request of a few readers, here is what my return address stamp looks like on an envelope. Expressionery suggests the stamp is too large for the address side of the envelope, and should be placed on the back flap. I disagree. The crowded front of the envelope has a certain appeal, and as you may remember, the postal service asks that return addresses be on the same side as the sender address.

Here's my return address, minus the details.

The irony of the day? I received an envelope of March of Dimes return address labels in the mail yesterday. They will be going in the shredder. I’m not heartless, I just love my stamper.