When it comes to party and dinner invitations, I blame Facebook and its much debated "maybe" option. But I think the art of responding to an invitation was disappearing before Facebook. As with most etiquette dilemmas, the real question is how something should be done in a way that makes others feel comfortable, even happy.
And the answer is simple:
There's one rule: Respond as soon as you can and make your answer a definitive one.
Wait. That was two rules, wasn't it? And there are a few more, but responding early and unambiguously are the most important. The rest is just gravy.
First, a couple of definitions:
R.S.V.P.: An abbreviation for the French répondez s'il vous plaît, translating to "please respond." If you see this on an invitation, you need to respond, yes (please) or no (thank you).
Regrets only: You only need to respond if you aren't going to be there.
Responding to weddings and other formal invitations has gotten easier, since many of them include response cards. Fun fact: Traditional wedding invitations didn't include response cards or even an R.S.V.P. notation, because it was understood that people would respond. And responding used to be a lot more time consuming. Back in the day, wedding invitations were properly answered with a handwritten note, preferably on engraved stationery. Some of us — okay, me, because I really like my monogrammed stationary — still send a traditional response if no card is included.
But life is easier now, and we have all sorts of convenient ways to answer an invitation. Another general rule is that you should respond in the same way the invitation was extended. A friend texts to see if you can have drinks on Friday after work? Responding in kind, by text, is not only okay, but preferable. Your friend chose that method of communication, so it's nice to answer the same way. But you need to respond immediately. Because she has other friends, and she clearly wants to have drinks with one of them on Friday afternoon. You may have been her first (or second or third) choice, but she should get a chance to keep moving down the list.
Speaking of that list, when you're invited to a party, large or small, a prompt response can really help your hosts. Knowing the number of guests helps with planning, of course, but they may also have a B-list. Think about it. The dining room table seats eight, so eight for dinner it is. But culling a list of friends down to eight is tough. If you can't make it, and let them know immediately, your host can ask someone else. If you wait? They'll hesitate, because no one wants a friend to guess they didn't make the first cut. This is even true of weddings. If a couple gets enough negative responses to a save the date, they may invite another round of cousins.
Guests should also resist the temptation to offer too many excuses. If you can't make it to your cousin's wedding because your sister-in-law is getting married the same weekend, by all means, write a note or make a phone call letting him know how sorry you are, but that you, your son, and your husband have already committed to being in another wedding. But too many excuses? Boring. And you're inviting your host to compare his own event to your other choices, and assume it came up lacking.
Here's an example.
"Would you like to join us for dinner on Saturday night? We're thinking casual, around 7 p.m."
Right: "What a nice invitation. Thank you so much. Unfortunately, I already have plans. Please keep me on your list!"
Wrong: "Ummm... maybe? I'm not sure what I'm doing then, actually. I mean, your dinner sounds like fun. I'll see if I can make it."
Also wrong: "I would love to, but that's when I usually walk our dog, and so-and-so maybe wanted to see a movie that night, and I have to take two of the kids to friends' houses for sleepovers. And I also really need to get some work done this weekend."
You know what your host is thinking?
"Okay, I get it. You totally don't want to come to dinner. What ever happened to no, thank you?"
Facebook, Evite, and other online options let guests choose "maybe," but you're better than that. If you want people to invite you back, respond, early and accurately. And resist the urge to over-explain, because your host has better things to do — like shop for flowers and wine — than listen to you share every detail of your life. Save that for a coffee date.
Do you get the responses you want to your invitations? Do you respond immediately or wait and see if you get a better offer?