Is the RSVP dead? The Slow & Painful Death of Etiquette in the 21st Century

image :: holmes, ink

RSVP.  Répondez s’il vous plait. Four little letters that appear at the end of most invitations sent out {whether actually on paper or of the “e” variety.}  Yes, it is a traditional ending to an invitation, but it is there for a reason.  Your host/ess needs to know if you will be attending the event s/he is planning. 

Traditionally, proper etiquette requires you respond to an invitation within two days of receipt with a reason for your regret, if you should not be able to attend.

But let’s be realistic.  As Gertrude Stein said::

“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”

Most of us live our lives on e-mail, whether we are sitting in front of a computer or reading it on our smart phones.  Email is so easy and fast that it’s possible to overlook the courtesies natually associated with more formal forms of communication.

Regardless of how inundated we are with information on a daily basis, an RSVP is a basic social task that only requirea a “yes” or a “no,” which is often achieved with the simple click of a mouse.  But, for whatever reason, the RSVP seems to rub against the grain of contemporary life.

It seems that, by asking someone to commit to a plan in the distant future, you are demanding an action that Americans no longer practice.  We like to remain flexible, solidifying plans incrementally as the date approaches.  Phrases like, “Let’s talk tomorrow,” “I’ll call you from the road,” seem to just roll off our tongues.

Rand Richards Cooper wrote a great Op-Ed piece for the NY Times in March called “It’s My Party, and You Have to Answer.” In the article he talks about an “experiment” he conducted ::

HERE’S an etiquette experiment for you: E-mail an invitation for a party, one month out, to 45 friends. Request an R.S.V.P. Provide a follow-up e-mail message, two weeks later, politely reminding them to get back to you.

How many will?

My experiment arose from plans for an evening of food, drink and literature, with readings by myself and two other writers, at a restaurant. Not exactly a drop-in-if-you’re-around kind of thing, so I asked friends to R.S.V.P. My initial message brought in a dozen responses, and the follow-up a few more, but days before the event I had a paltry 23. Not 23 who planned to come, but 23 who had bothered to respond. Half my invitees had blown me off. Why? I wasn’t peddling life insurance, after all.

What’s preventing us from executing this basic social task? Is it the medium? Do Evites somehow not feel like “real” invitations? Is it our busy lives, so overbooked and overwhelmed we’ve drawn up the castle gates? Don’t invite me out this month, I’m ensconced! Or is it simple rudeness? Try as I might to understand, I kept feeling dissed.

Later, Cooper made some follow-up calls to his invitees ::

But back to my party. The day before the big event, I sent a final e-mail message, thanking “the half of you who responded for helping keep the dying art of the R.S.V.P. alive.” This irked missive flushed out a final 10 hangdog respondents. But there remained a gang of 12 — the dirty dozen, the truly hardcore, fanatical nonresponders — who couldn’t even be shamed into

Why does it take “shame” for people to do the right thing?  Are we really so navel-gazing & self-absorbed?

In my own, more recent experience I sent out invitations to an event on July 12th for an event I am hosting on July 29th.  I logically believed that as I was sending out the invite well in advance that more people would be able to attend as they would receive my invite before their calendars filled up.

As of July 22, only 14 of the 58 people I invited have responded.


You won’t hurt my feelings if you say “no,” what hurts my feelings is that you can’t be bothered to click on the little button next to the “yes” or the “no” button.  When you don’t RSVP, it’s almost like telling your hostess that you are more important than she is.

Anyone can make reservations, but it’s not everyday that you are invited to a cocktail or dinner party in someone’s home. 

When you don’t RSVP, you are telling your hostess that you don’t care that she had to clean her house from top-to-bottom, get and arrange flowers, shop at least two different stores for groceries, go to another store to make wine selections, not to mention prepare the food {whether it’s the full menu or just h’ors douevres}.

While I like Cooper’s idea of a new acronym for the end of an invite :: RVOM — Répondez Vite — Ou Mourez, which translates to “Respond Quickly or Die!,” I don’t think it’s time {yet} to resort to such drastic measures. Here are some tips for RSVPing in the “Age of Information Overload”

    • Don’t wait for so long to RSVP that the hostess has to call you — it’s embarassing for both parties.  This is typically when the invitee will often make up some “Little White Lie” that is shaky at best.  RSVPing immediately will avoid the uncomfortable stammering following the “no” that will definitely set off your hostess’ BS meter.
  • NEVER Better Deal
    • Also known as BBD, for “Bigger, Better Dealing” — a term known in Hollywood, the capital of self-absorbed, entitled behavior. BBD is when one cancels on a commitment when a better invitation comes along.
    • While BBD is totally abhorrent, so is waiting to RSVP “just in case” something better comes along.  What that says to your hostess is “I’m not going to RSVP until I know for sure something better isn’t going on on the same night.”
    • Honor your commitments. I mean, how embarassing if word gets back to your original host that your “headache” cleared up and you were seen at another party?
      • Besides, who said you can’t attend two events in one night?  Naturally, that won’t really work if you’re invited to a dinner party, but there is nothing stopping you from stopping by a cocktail party for one drink before going to another dinner party? It’s totally doable.

Now, understand that I don’t consider myself a saint when it comes to all of this.  I trip from time to time, but I do try my best to live up to the standard that I hold for myself.  So next time you receive an invitation {by mail or electronically}, take a moment open your calendar and honestly assess if you are able to attend, then click the “yes,” “maybe” or “no” button.  It’s the polite thing to do.

{side note :: If you like sending actual paper invites, I reccommend Red Stamp, they have a great assortment of invites from some talented designers and their customer service is top-notch!  I am also a HUGE fan of Paperless Post — the e-invitations look like real invites and the tracking software is really useful too!  You can customize the invites with photos and logos as well for an additional charge, but I haven’t had a chance to try that yet.}