The last great hope of society

Today’s column is about class and American society. Please do not run for the hills immediately because I write as a man of the people. Maybe you will thank me later. (Foolish me, I always live in hope.)

The question of the day is: What makes a classy person in the best sense of the word? Wearing an ascot and looking a perfect chump at a cocktail party won’t do it, even if you complete your ensemble with red or green pants decorated with little whales.

Yet, I myself have been tempted on occasion to don an ascot for a night out and was only saved by a spousal death-ray stare.

You see, as a resident of Sewickley, Pa., where being classy is required by municipal ordinance (I believe it’s in the same statute as compulsory paddle-tennis playing and the ownership of yellow Labs), I do feel the need to go to absurd lengths to show that I have arrived.

Admittedly, this is silly. It’s not very hard to arrive — you can take the 16A bus to get there, but that apparently won’t do.

Still, as an outsider observing classy people and the great pretenders who seek to walk in their loafers, I have come to understand a thing or two about proper social behavior.

This is what I know: Class is not about riches, fine tailoring, good schooling, correct use of forks at dinner parties and the rest of it, although some posh persons would have you believe otherwise.

No, at the end of the day, when the cocktail hour comes around and the mind becomes mellow enough to make proper judgments, what separates the nouveau riche, the parvenu, the social climber or the crawler or the bounder from the truly classy person is the writing of personal thank-you notes.

True class is about thoughtfulness, not income. It is about saying “please” and “thank you,” and writing down “thank you” later just in case your hosts were deaf.

Mothers, according to the song, should not let their babies grow up to be cowboys. What I am saying is that it doesn’t matter that they grow up to be cowboys as long as they have been taught to write thank-you notes. (“Dear Bull: Thank you for a wonderful ride. I do hope my spurs did not give offense.”)

Everywhere in modern life the gentle customs and civilized practices are under siege, and the writers of thank-you notes stand athwart this depressing tide. The barbarians may be at the gates, but the home guard of civilization must first write thank-you notes for past kindnesses before they deal with the unpleasantness.

This is very good and its virtue only came clear to me the other day. From time to time, I speak to community groups desperate for entertainment. In the question-and-answer period at a residence for senior citizens, a lady asked me whether I thought the sending of e-mails would spell doom for the U.S. Postal Service.

No, I said, as long as the good people of Sewickley are sending their thank-you notes, and by extension decent folks in other places in America are applying themselves to embossed stationery where civilization still holds sway, then the Postal Service is safe from ruin.

To be sure, it is tough on the carriers. I see them manfully trudging along, their bags bulging with thank-you notes, as the yellow Labs and golden retrievers bark a doleful chorus. They are consoled in knowing that they are the last messengers of good manners.

Truly, the proud boast can be said of these noble workers: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor the residue of a heavy social calendar can stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.

You think I mock. No, I do not mock. I sincerely admire the habit of thank-you-note writing. It takes great talent to write the perfect thank-you note. Haiku and sonnet writing are as nothing compared to this. For all my art and craft, I cannot write a good thank-you note to save myself. I can never think of what to say after, you know, “thank you.” That is why I remain an ingrate without any class.

Despite what I told that nice lady, I fear that it may yet happen that mothers do not pass on the thank-you-note tradition to their children. Worse yet, the children might learn the protocol imperfectly and start e-mailing or — horror of horrors — begin text-messaging their thank-you notes.

Then, the rough beast, its hour come round at last, will slouch toward the post office to be undelivered. No, thank you.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)

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