Whatever the event, when an invitation comes just face it: You know whether you can go. These days most invitations arrive on the same devices on which you keep your social calendar. So stop procrastinating, being coy, or keeping your options open—immediately accept or decline. Think of how much more willing to entertain people would be if when they invited their friends to their homes to provide food, drink, and hospitality, they weren’t made to feel that the process required them to act like stalkers.
My mother insisted the telephone never be answered on the first ring because doing so smacked of desperation. It’s that same sense of playing hard-to-get on display in people’s hesitation to immediately reply to that Paperless Post invite when it lands in the inbox. People may worry they seem lacking in alternatives if they hit “yes” upon receipt. But I assure you that if you respond with alacrity your hosts will not wish they’d known how unpopular you are. They will rejoice that you are one less person they need NSA surveillance tools to track and try to corner into an answer.
Ignoring the obligation to respond to an invitation has become an escalating problem in part because of technology. With the advent of the online invitation, and its automatic, recurrent plaint, people feel they can ignore the first few rounds of summons. Another cause is the ubiquity of smartphones and the access to a livestream of social temptations that comes with them: Everyone has a lingering sense that if they just check their phone often enough, a better offer will come along.
If the idea of an evening with the people who have invited you fills you with dread, then for God’s sake, just swiftly say, “No.” Keep doing so often enough and the hosts may eventually get the message you’re not really friends. There also will be times you would like to accept, but can’t respond at the moment because you’re waiting to hear if you’re going to be taking an out-of-town trip, or if those tentative plans with other friends are going to firm up. But don’t click on the dreaded “maybe.” Just find out as fast as you can about whether these other engagements are going to happen. If necessary, you can explain to your hosts that a possible work trip is pending, then give them a realistic time frame for getting back to them.
If you think that such niceties are unimportant, consider that the growing lack of manners around RSVPs may be in part to blame for the decline of the dinner party, the cocktail party, and the open house. There are your hosts with the deadline for their event looming, wondering how much they should get at the grocery and liquor store or whether they should even bother. The need to hector invitees into responding cruelly sends people who enjoy entertaining into a crisis of confidence about their conversational and culinary skills. Are they really so unspeakably dull? Are they known for causing their guests to go to the emergency room with food poisoning?
As Slate’s Dear Prudence, I’ve received many distressed letters from people who want to have an elegant dinner party, or offer everyone a cup of Christmas grog, but instead of being able to plan the event, they’re spending all their time feeing like big game hunters trying to bag their guests. In response to one of these letters a reader offered her brilliant solution. When her son was little she grew frustrated with never knowing how many children were coming to his birthday parties because few of the parents bothered to RSVP. So in a moment of inspiration, she once left the date and time off the invitation. That resulted in almost every parent calling to fill in the blanks, at which time the hostess was able to pin them down for a head count. So consider luring your guests into committing by sending an offer to wine and dine them on an unknown day or at a yet-to-be-disclosed time.
Finally, I wish I didn’t need to add the following point, but I do. Guests, when you answer “yes,” that’s a binding commitment. If you’ve ever bought travel insurance you know it lists the circumstances under which the company will reimburse you for a cancelled trip. Stuff like death, dismemberment, declarations of war. Those are the kind of exigencies that will get you out of a dinner party invitation you’ve accepted. If on the night in question you’re feeling, “I don’t want to schlep across town, I’d rather just watch Homeland,” and decide not to show, your absence may be perceived as a declaration of war on the friendship. Just don’t do it, s'il vous plait.