Miss Conduct

When thank-you seems insufficient

How do you thank ultra-generous friends and family? Plus, lack of follow-through from an inviter.

Illustration by Lucy Truman

> Our son was the seventh boy born into my husband’s side of the family, and we have been blessed with an obscene number of hand-me-downs — most recently a wooden swing set worth some $3,000. While our family members claim that we’re helping them clean out their basements, they’re saving us countless dollars and effort. I am a diehard thank you note writer, but it doesn’t seem enough. Help!

K.G. / Medway

Sometimes we are the recipients of generosity that we can never repay.

I used to work with a woman who had lunch once or twice a year with her bone marrow donor.


Let that sink in for a minute.

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I never asked my colleague, but I assume that she didn’t pick up the tab at those lunches with an insouciant “Let me get the lo mein, you got the lymphocytes.” There is no adequate thanks for a gift like that. My colleague had to learn to walk gently under the burden of gratitude to the stranger who saved her life.

You can learn to walk gently under a much lighter burden. Your relatives are the ones doing you a favor, obviously, but kids acquire and outgrow stuff at a terrifying pace. It’s a real convenience to have a ready recipient of last year’s material goods — and it’s a sentimental blessing to be able to keep the more cherished belongings in the family.

Keep writing the thank you notes, but the only true way to show your gratitude is by being a loving and generous family member. Focus on the quality of the relationships, not the balance of gift-giving. Someday you may be in a position to give a gift that can’t be repaid.


> My sister-in-law has e-mailed me several times suggesting we get together. Each time I have responded, “Sounds great, tell me where and when and I’ll be there,” but I get no response. I am starting to get irritated by her insincere invitations. How should I respond next time?


D.V. / Watertown

I’ve been debating whether or not to start watching Game of Thrones (which would lead to reading the books, and then hours spent on various online commentary, so we’re talking real commitment), and now I think I shall. Because whatever charms of sex, politics, sex, production values, sex, Peter Dinklage, and sex that the HBO series may provide, I really enjoy watching ritualistic dances of elaborate courtesy that serve to keep tensions buried deep like power lines. Thank you for reminding me of that, D.V.

Respond to her next e-mail just as you have the earlier ones. And the next after that, and that, and so on. A beautiful and meaningless tradition is being born: Nurture it! If ritual and tradition fail to move your soul, what about scientific curiosity? How long will she keep this up? Will she, after a dozen or so false starts, actually propose a place and time to meet? Or will she eventually stop? As the years go by, will repeated references to lunches and coffees begin to create false memories of such events? Google “Elizabeth Loftus” — this kind of thing can happen.

Let go and enjoy the absurdity of the situation. What you are describing as a problem is, more than likely, a solution.

Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.NEED MISS CONDUCT’S HELP? Write to her at And read her blog at