When a childhood friend thanked me for coming to his wedding this fall, he did so on Facebook. “Hey,” he said in a private message, “got you gifts tonight and just wanted to say thank you. It’s funny I also got a gift from Ben and both the Mortar & Pestel, and the chefs knife Ben gave me were two of the items I wanted the most..”
His wife sunk further. She sent forty-six attendees a group Facebook message, clustering us together in a single shotgun blast. “Hi Friends!” she said thirteen days after the wedding. “It meant a lot to us that each of you could be there, we felt the guest list should include that people that we value most in our lives. It was wonderful to gather so many special people in one space. My only regret is that I couldn’t spend more time with each of you, its demanding being a bride! I could have used a few clones. I know I gave a wine soaked thank you speech but once again, we want to say hats off to you for your gifts and sharing the night with us. I have to keep it real and accept that with work demands etc I won’t have time to write personalized thank you notes individually. Please don’t judge me:) We’ll just keep it green for this one and send love to you via FB.”
In the same way that my old friend couldn’t be bothered to spellcheck “you gifts” and “Pestel,” or add an apostrophe to “chefs knife,” his wife was too preoccupied to create a list that didn’t send duplicates. As the last line of her message stated: “P.S. If you got multiples of this message, sorry! My antique iPhone is being temperamental.” As if her phone, not herself, was to blame. Adding insult to injury, her mass-message included those of us in the wedding party, old friends who stood beside the couple while they exchanged rings, as well as the person who performed the vows. I felt like an old codger thinking it, but was nothing sacred?
I’d flown to the wedding from the opposite corner of the country, bought the two of them the gifts they’d listed on their registry – the normal things you do for newlyweds, except, I don’t earn much money. On my budget, even small costs cost a lot. But the groom was one of my oldest friends, I was thrilled that he had found someone to share the rest of his life with, and happy to spend the money to help launch their new life. He and I might no longer be as close as we were in our twenties – we’d developed different interests and lived far apart – but we’d known each other since sixth grade, shared many of the trials and milestones of adolescence together, and at age thirty-seven, we still kept in touch. Was this how he thought of me? As an afterthought?
The bride certainly did. “It was wonderful to gather so many special people in one space,” she said, yet she didn’t “have time to write personalized thank you notes individually.” Oh? She has a middle-school-age son and a fulltime job, but who among us isn’t busy enough to claim that we don’t have time to do many of the things that we somehow manage to do? No matter how swamped you are, you make time to do what is right, and you mail a thank you card.
I should have expressed my displeasure in the Facebook thread. I should have said, “This is really tacky” and called her decision what it was: not a way to “keep it green,” but a way to keep it simple—for her. She appeared thankless and lazy. For a couple of days I fumed and spent too much time formulating seemingly clever, barbed responses. “Maybe we can Skype your next wedding ceremony,” I wanted to say, “after the divorce.” And: “You’re too busy? I was too busy to fly in and interrupt all the work I had to do at my two jobs, but I still got on a plane and stayed down there for four days to celebrate with you.” I considered messaging her a scan of my airplane ticket, with the caption, “You’re welcome.” In relation to my irritation, saying, “Give me a break!” seemed too weak a response.
Instead of replying, I kept quiet and removed myself from the thread. I didn’t want to get into a long argument about it, especially one that would require lots of back-and-forth typed into a tiny comment box. Initially, I didn’t want to hurt my friend’s feelings either, but they hadn’t cared about our feelings, and my concern quickly ceased to be an issue. My silence was pragmatic. I’d known them long enough to know that, no matter what I said or how clearly I articulated the issues, I couldn’t present a convincing argument. Any logic and Emily Post-type lesson in etiquette would fall on deaf ears, because they would have a response for every point I made. Which is why I’m writing this rather than addressing them: they’ve already made up their minds that a digital response to a meatspace wedding is acceptable, and maybe other people can learn something from the experience.
I regret removing myself from the Facebook thread, though only because once you remove yourself, you don’t receive subsequent responses, and you can’t rejoin. If anyone called this forum tacky, I didn’t hear about it. Everyone, it seemed, had quietly fumed in private like I had.
Part of me felt petty worrying. It’s a piece of paper, I imagined the bride replying. You want to argue about paper? It wasn’t about the handwritten card, though, or about old world paper versus modern digital communication. It was about effort. With thank you’s, the medium was part of the message, and FB’s message was that she didn’t care.
Writing a letter is an act of gratitude. In the same way that making Chanukah and Christmas gifts by hand is a thoughtful, personal show of affection, the effort required to select a card, to sit down and think up at least a semi-personalized message for each person proves your appreciation. If not appreciation, it is, in the very least, an acknowledgement of the time, care and expense people take to attend such events. That’s why getting a piece of paper means more than getting an email: it took time to write it, in the same way it took time to travel and shop and attend the wedding.
Growing up, my mom made me handwrite thank you cards for all my holiday and birthday gifts. Back then, I hated it. I wanted to be outside skateboarding or playing video games somewhere. Now, looking back, I’m grateful for the practice and the etiquette lesson. I also know the effect such cards have on their recipients. Even when it’s a chore, it’s the right thing to do, and knowing that it means something to the recipient makes me feel good.
I use Facebook a lot. Despite certain drawbacks, I like Zuckerberg’s imperfect platform. But the idea that a private FB message is personal in this context is wrong. Yes, the groom and I have been friends for half of our lives. You can send friends casual emails in all lowercase. You can send friends texts late at night, and you can be too busy to saying anything more than, “Hey, I’m really busy right now, but I wanted to say thank you. Watch your mailbox for more.” A Facebook thank you for a wedding, though, is too casual to qualify as a thank you, in the same way that “FB msg” is too abbreviated to qualify as a phrase.
The same goes for efficiency. You can’t justify a group thank you based on efficiency. Facebook makes sharing photos and information so easy that it almost renders other forms of transmission obsolete. To give your friends photos, you don’t have to email them jpegs or snail mail CD-Rs, you simply tag them, and tens of friends can have access at once. The newlyweds did this with their wedding photos, and it pleased me to see the images. But the same can’t be said for sentiment. You can’t hit a like button to express the kind of affection and appreciation a newlywed should feel about the event.
“Please don’t judge me,” she said. One lesson of the thank you card is that we are what we do, more than what we say. Everything is open to scrutiny, and everything reveals character. The other lesson is that if you have to ask that people not judge you, then you’ve probably already drawn certain conclusions about yourself, and you’re not completely comfortable with your appraisal.