Sometimes, you're better off putting pen to paper than opening up your mouth to convey just the right sentiment. Margaret Shepherd, author of The Art of Civilized Conversation, shares these appropriate occasions.


At first, everything is a blur for the bereaved so it's comforting to have notes to read later at their own pace. Give them something to look forward to; for instance, "I know you're going to be busy with family right now, but in a few weeks, I'm going to call you so we can have coffee together." Then do it.

An apology is easier to put on paper—you're calmer, you choose better words and take more care with what you say. Apologize very clearly and don't use weasel phrases like "I'm sorry if you were upset by X." Instead say, "I really appreciate your patience as I learn to stop drinking." Then bring it around to them—"It was an absolutely lovely party, at least the first half that I remember." Finish with something appreciative about them, such as "thanks for putting up with me."

If you compliment people to their face, they often feel they should be modest, but a written note can be savored in private.

A request to work on a campaign, help out a fundraiser—put them all on paper to avoid putting people on the spot.

Most of us think we're covered if we've verbally thanked someone or sent an email, but if the person put effort into a gathering or a gift, you should put effort into a thank you. I am rabid that people should hand write a thank you for a hand cooked dinner rather than call the next day and jabber about how fun it was. They just saw you the night before! And there isn't a person on earth who doesn't appreciate a thank-you note.