Have you ever actually been disappointed to get a present because of the obligation it creates to write some bullshit letter? You stare at it - it's probably a shirt... or a fullscreen DVD of The Aviator - and you immediately resent it. You look at it with frustration and a resigned annoyance. Because there you were, enjoying your day, not a care in the world, and now you've got shit to do. Now you've got to pull out your nice stationery and go through this formal little dance and curtsey.
Well I hate it. I hate writing thank you notes. If society permitted some kind of opt-out, like maybe you send me a present and I give you a $5 paypal deposit, I would definitely take it. It's not that I'm some ungrateful sumbitch. I do appreciate the present. But it's just the case, and I really need to stress this, that if your generosity results in the creation of a tedious chore for me then you haven't done me any favors. In the case of your standard gift - like a shirt - it's a net loss. I'd rather have no shirt and no chore.
Here's what I can offer, and I think this is reasonable. The next time I see you... the next time we talk on the phone... the next time we're emailing or I see you at work or I bump into you on the street, I'll give you some warm and sincere thanks. That's a promise. Isn't that a good system? It passes the golden rule test - I'd be perfectly happy if people did it for my gifts. In fact, with any gift I'd send, I'd include a little card that said "TM/SM" - thank me when you see me.
I just think the standard thank-you-note system is the relic of a much different era. A time with no computers or phones, or cars. Where the handwritten letter was the standard form of communication and you might not see the other person for months. Probably also an era when a gift was a real pain in the ass to give. You want to give someone some socks? Have a seat at the loom here and make a pair. I can see, if I had to shear my own sheep to get the raw materials to physically construct your sweater, I might appreciate a note.
But if some aunt swings by Barnes and Noble on the way home to pick up six $10 gift cards to give to the peripheral family members for Christmas, do I really need to sit down and compose a letter? Can't I just mention my appreciation the next time I see her?
And even if I do write the thank you letter, there are annoying rules to follow. You can't say "Thank You" anywhere in the first sentence. Have you ever stared at a blank sheet of stationery, wondering what the hell you were going to put in that first sentence? I've been there man. "Dear Pat, Wow. Can you believe it's January already?" "Dear Mrs. Stevens, How are you? Today I found out that a potato is not, in fact, a vegetable." And so on. I think the point of the no "Thank You" in the opening remark rule is so that the letter doesn't appear to be some unwanted, mercenary task - even though that's exactly what it is. The letter has to at least pretend to be genuine, voluntary correspondence. Because, you know, every day around 4:00 I sit down and write letters.
A secondary problem with a full thank you letter is that this may not be a person I want to stimulate a real conversation with. Let's say you're really not that close to great uncle Fred and in fact you think he's a little creepy and weird. But, alarmingly, he sends you a shirt for Christmas. What do you do? Let's face it, you're screwed any which way. Don't send him a note, you're a jerk. Do send him a note, hello creepy great uncle Fred. It's lose lose.
When I was 13 I had a Bar Mitzvah and got over 100 presents. Oh, pooooor me, right? Well, first of all, you've never seen so many atlases in your whole life. I mean, I got a shitload of atlases. I can't figure out why. Maybe I came across as someone who desperately needed an atlas. Maybe I said things like "I can't wait till I'm old enough to drive to Germany." But whatever the reason, I got around 7 or 8 of them. Couldn't tell you where any of them are now though. But secondly, my parents sat me down and wouldn't let me get up until I had written at least the first 50 thank you notes, making sure I didn't make them all too similar (in case the relatives compared notes). Just try to imagine a 13 year old kid trying to come up with a seventh unique way to thank someone for a book of maps. It was pure hell.
So you think I'm just some ungrateful little snot? Fine! Spare me your little Dilbert calendar! Ooooooooohhhh, what else are you going to deprive me of? A shoe polish kit? A comical tie? An ice cream scoop with a sound effect on the handle? I'm soooooo scared!!! What will I do without these precious gifts?
I will thank you the next time I see you or talk to you, and if that's not good enough, then you're a mentally warped, insecure, preening little fussbudget.