LIKE MOST MOTHERS, I have used threats and intimidation to get my children to write thank-you notes for the gifts they receive.
"You can not play with that toy until you have written a thank-you to Uncle Kenny."
"You will not spend a single dime of that money until you write a thank-you to Grandma."
"If you can't be bothered to write thank-you notes, then I will tell your relatives not to bother to send stuff to you."
So I shouldn't have been surprised when I received a few thank-you notes in the mail.
The surprise was, they were from other adults.
I received a note from a young couple thanking us for inviting them to dinner.
And another from a friend expressing her gratitude for being included on the guest list for a casual deck party.
And still another from a friend after I had dropped off a light supper on what I knew was a tough day.
It's as if we have all heard ourselves telling our kids that the world will think less of them if they can't write a simple thank-you note.
"Hallelujah," says Elizabeth Howell, director of public relations for the Emily Post Institute in Vermont.
"We certainly get tons and tons of questions about hostess gifts and thank-you notes.
"Maybe people are getting the message."
For the record, Howell says, a handwritten note, and a gift, are essential if someone has thrown a dinner party in your honor or if you have spent the night or the weekend.
"Otherwise, a hostess gift gets you off the hook. But who is going to turn up their nose at a handwritten thank you for the evening? Doesn't that make a great impression?"
Is a thank-you note required for the hostess gift, too?
"A thank-you for a thank-you? No," says Howell. "But if you didn't open it before they left, call them or thank them face-to-face when you see them."
(Another point to be made here: Do not bring a gift that will distract the hostess from all she has to do to entertain you, like flowers that require water and a vase. And never bring a side dish or a dessert unless you have cleared it with her first.)
There is no doubt that any of us should feel grateful for a night when someone else does the cooking.
"People know that it takes a lot of energy and work to entertain. You are getting the night off and there is not much else in this life that we appreciate more," says Howell.
Certainly a handwritten note is a modest enough response to such a treat. But there are other occasions that demand a thank-you as well, says Howell, such as an extra effort on your behalf or a special favor.
"In a work situation, if your boss includes you in, say, a special luncheon with clients," offers Honore McDonough Ervin. She and girlhood friend Leslie Carlin call themselves "The Etiquette Grrls."
"Even though you see your boss every day, you should write a little note saying thank you for including me."
"But I also got a thank-you note from a girl that I had over for pizza and a movie one night. I thought it was absolutely charming that for such an informal event she would think to write and say thanks."
Thank-you notes should never be generic, says Ervin, the co-author with Carlin of Things You Need to be Told (Berkley Publishing Group, 2001, $9.95). "Include something specific about the gift or about the dinner or the visit. Mention something that you liked, even if you hated the gift or had a miserable time."
The idea here is not to memorize a list of occasions for which a thank-you note is required. The idea is to recognize that feeling of gratitude when it hits you, and take a few minutes to put pen to paper and find a stamp.
(Seasonal stationery, matching pens and complementary stamps, optional.)
If you have a tough time composing such a note, visit this Web site, www.goodhousekeeping.com, and click on Etiquette for Today, where you can find fill-in-the-blank dialog boxes to help you -- kind of like Thank You Notes for Dummies.
E-mails and cheap long-distance phone calls will never replace the handwritten note. And a busy life is no more of an excuse for grown-ups than it is for children.
The graciousness of a handwritten thank you, especially when not obligatory, leaves a lasting impression on the recipient -- not to mention the nerve it touches in those of us who have been delinquent in this area.
Can you tell who's been writing thank-you notes in my house lately?
Now, if we can only do something about people who don't RSVP.
For more advice on etiquette and the thank-you note, read The Art of the Handwritten Note, by Margaret Shepherd (Broadway Books, $16) and More Things You Need to Be Told: A Guide to Good Taste and Proper Comportment in a Tacky, Rude World, by Leslie Carlin and Honore McDonough Ervin (Berkley, $11.95). Or visit their Web site, www.etiquettegrrls.com.