This or That: When Should You Send an Email Versus a Handwritten Thank You Note?

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thank-you-emailIn our “This or That” series, we’ll help you weigh your options when it comes to choosing between two important scenarios.

Today, we explore whether it makes sense to follow up a professional meeting with a handwritten thank you note—or whether an email will do.

From the Pony Express to the invention of dial-up, technological progress has always influenced the ways we communicate.

But today there are so many more ways to interact than ever before.

In any 15-minute period, you could be texting your boss, sending a Facebook message to your childhood friend, popping a birthday card in the mail, emailing a colleague in another country and FaceTiming with your grandparents for their anniversary.

All of these options certainly make connecting easier, but they also create confusion. Just because you can do something faster, is that the way to go?

It gets particularly tricky when you are job hunting and you meet someone influential in the business world who could actually make or break your next career move.

Would handwriting a thank you letter create the best impression, or is it over the top? Would sending a quick email show your enthusiasm and appreciation, or would it be considered overly casual and rude?

For insights, we asked two business etiquette experts to weigh in on the dos and don’ts of the proper, professional thank you.

When Does It Make Sense to Send an Email? “People have to make decisions quickly,” says Diane Gottsman, national etiquette expert and owner of The Protocol School of Texas. “A handwritten note is nice, but it may not get there in time, or it may sit on a desk because the person is out of town.”

And when you’re vying for a job with 10 other qualified candidates, the last thing you want is for your handwritten note to be languishing in a stack of mail at the office while your competition is emailing with your potential boss. By the time he or she sees it, the job could be filled and your opportunity gone.

Another benefit of opting for email is that it makes it easy for the manager to respond quickly with any next steps in the interview process and, maybe more importantly, find you again at a later time.

“With email, there’s a digital trail,” Gottsman explains. A handwritten card might get thrown out in an office shuffle or bout of spring cleaning.

And an e-trail could work in your favor down the road—even if you don’t get the job.

“Let’s say several months pass, the company realizes they’ve hired the wrong person and it’s a bad fit,” Gottsman says. “If they remember you and have an email from you, you’re easily findable.”

That quick search could mean the difference between getting your foot back in the door and never hearing from the company again.

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When Should You Send a Handwritten Note? If experts say it is always a good idea to send an email, does that mean you don’t need to ever actually write another note by hand?

Don’t be so fast to throw away your note cards.

“If you want to make a huge impact, send an email right away and then send a handwritten note the same day,” says Patricia Rossi, business etiquette expert and author of “Everyday Etiquette: How to Navigate 101 Common and Uncommon Social Situations.”

Gottsman agrees, especially when you’re dealing with a more traditional company.

“They’ll realize that if you take the time to send them a handwritten follow-up, then you’re going to take this kind of time with their clients,” she says.

Mailing a note can also help showcase your personal brand with, say, your choice of stationery or a personalized seal.

But Rossi warns that this method isn’t one size fits all: “If it’s a tech company, you wouldn’t use a white or ecru card with black ink like you would with a law firm.”

Instead, gauge your industry and the level of creativity you should incorporate in your correspondence.

The Big Takeaway Send an email right away and, if in doubt, follow up quickly with a handwritten note.

A burgeoning app developer will admittedly have less of an expectation of a handwritten note than a staid accounting firm. If you decide to go digital-only, each person you met should get their own well-crafted email—no group messages and no casual grammar shortcuts.

The medium may have changed, but the message you’re trying to convey—that you’re smart, polished and qualified—remains the same.

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