Richmond Proper: On the Importance of the RSVP

“There are those who feel so socially desirable that they consider themselves excused from any obligations to their entertainers, including answering invitations, dressing and arriving according to instructions, expressing gratitude, or reciprocating.” — Judith Martin

“There are those who feel so socially desirable that they consider themselves excused from any obligations to their entertainers, including answering invitations, dressing and arriving according to instructions, expressing gratitude, or reciprocating.”
— Judith Martin

Répondez, s’il vous plaît means “respond, please.” Back in some hazy, blissful days of paradise which have long since passed, there was no question on whether or not to respond to an invitation. My 1945 copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette does not even address the matter, and yet she gives time to every subject from how to properly eat an artichoke to greeting the Prince of Wales. From this we can deduce that any possible situation left out of this volume simply didn’t exist at the time. Since then, due to a cataclysmic devolution of our species, invitees have adopted a tendency to ignore the response part and just show up if they feel like it. The 1995 edition of The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette acknowledges that the phrase “RSVP” was invented “because so many people, lacking in good manners, were not responding to cocktail invitations,” but remains silent on the issue of ignoring an invitation. Luckily, we have the always-frank Miss Manners to explain the history of this enigmatic subject:

“Traditionally, social invitations contained no instructions whatsoever about replying. Common sense and common decency so obviously required allowing party givers to know who would attend that it would have been insulting to point this out. How much humanity does it require to recognize the callousness of friends’ ignoring your hospitable overtures? However, it has gotten harder and harder to insult people by assuming that they have no manners or consideration, and so the “R.s.v.p.” was born — the discreet reminder in the corner of the invitation that yes, we really do care this time.” — Judith Martin

She goes on to explain how after the discreet RSVP line didn’t work, hosts and hostesses began including response cards with formal invitations to make it even more simple to respond, “so that the guest wouldn’t be taxed with the job of writing.” Informal invitations even began to include telephone numbers in the RSVP line, and later, the phrase “Regrets only” came about so that only those who couldn’t make it would be expected to let the host or hostess know. We all know that even in the age of Evite and Facebook guests are as reluctant as ever to respond, though all that’s required is a single click of the mouse. After these repeated attempts by longsuffering party givers to make it easy for their guests to respond, the question of how to deal with this social faux-pas remains.

The rules are simple:

  1. Always respond to formal invitations in the manner which is indicated.
  2. Respond to informal invitations if the card asks for an RSVP, or if there is a space for it on the Evite / Facebook / etc. invitation. (If the option “Maybe” is given, you may select it. The host or hostess wouldn’t have included it as an option if they needed a firm “Yes” or “No” from everyone.)
  3. Respond promptly. According to the Emily Post Institute, that means “within a day or two of receiving an invitation.”
  4. Perform according to your response. “RSVP etiquette dictates that you should be sure of your answer when you give it and only change your attendance status if there is an emergency or unavoidable conflict,” says Boston event planner Danielle E. Brown. This means to show up if you RSVPed “yes,” and to not show up if you RSVPed “no.”

If you are the reluctant responder, let me assume your actions are not malicious and help you through your great difficulty:

“I don’t want to attend but don’t want to offend the host or hostess.”

Once and for all, you must learn this mantra: It’s okay to say “no.” Whether you have a previous engagement or you just feel like lounging around the house that night, you must still respond to the invitation. Just say “Unfortunately I won’t be able to make it, but thanks for the invitation,” and you’re done! Again, Miss Manners sums it up for us:”An invitation is not a summons. People who don’t want to attend events to which they are invited have the very simple option of declining these invitations. Provided that they do so promptly and politely, they have no further obligations….Please note that in none of these cases does the invited person flounder about, trying to explain that he would have attended but for overwhelming circumstances. When no excuse is offered, it is assumed that the person would love to attend the event if only it were humanly possible. It is when he or she babbles uncontrollably that doubts arise.”

“But I might end up wanting to do something else that night.”

That’s absolutely fine, but you need to grow up and make a decision about it. And then respond to the invitation as soon as possible. Miss Manners says she “has heard of the modern malady called fear of commitment, but she hadn’t known it was so far gone as to prevent people from committing themselves to dinner a week from Friday, or to terrorize them into immobility when they realize that they are actually expected at brunch.” Making plans in advance is not some huge chore, it is simply what human beings have to do in order to make time to see each other. If you have any suspicions that a hipper or more exciting engagement may come up later, please RSVP “no” to the first event and then have a great time waiting for the cool kids to call you.Please note that for very informal events, you may bend the rules a little as long as you let the host or hostess know in advance. RSVP “yes,” but ask if you can bring your friend from Spain who will be in town, or let them know that you will be a little late because of work.

“I forgot.”

Okay, you forgot. It’s not a good excuse, and you acknowledge that, and maybe you’ve even asked for forgiveness (which your host or hostess was happy to grant). But take care lest your “forgetting” should become a habit, because it will send a clear message of just how unimportant the host or hostess is to you since you seem perfectly able to remember many other things. Repeatedly neglecting to RSVP to events is an obvious social snub.

If you are the exasperated host or hostess:

Be prepared to accept good excuses.

Sometimes your friend really did have an emergency. If she went into labor, it’s perfectly excusable that she didn’t RSVP or that she RSVPed “yes,” and then didn’t attend. When you receive a good excuse, always act graciously. Let guests who had to deal with emergencies know that the party was great but that they were missed, and ask what you can do to help with their situations.

Take a proactive approach to obtaining responses.

Remember that you have not asked guests to respond just for the heck of it, but in order to adequately prepare for your party. You should not be left with a shortage of hors d’ouevres just because half the party didn’t RSVP. Though all of your guests should respond promptly to an invitation, the accepted way to get a response from stragglers is to call them. The short sentence “Hello, I was wondering if you were planning to attend my party next Saturday?” should get you the answer you need. If you are hosting a very large event, however, you can’t be expected to spend three afternoons personally calling the 75 people who never RSVPed. Our next bullet point discusses what to do about those.

Maintain your standards.

Though our spirit of goodwill and politeness demands that we forgive someone who forgot to RSVP just this once, we would be unkindly throwing self-respect out the window if we kept inviting those who routinely ignore invitations. It doesn’t matter how close you may once have been with these people; they have let you know how unimportant your events are to them and you must not feel the need to continue inviting them around. Yet again Miss Manners says it best: “Those who elect to disregard the standards of others or of society itself should, at the very least, find that people refuse to invite them, eat with them, or attend their weddings or funerals.”

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her husband, Dan, and their two cats.

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