The Etiquette of Responding to Invitations

This will sound strange, I am certain, but I would like to invite you to  a large party with some very important people. There will be fabulous food and scintillating conversation. Will you be able to attend?"
Imagine you are standing face to face with a friend, coworker, neighbor, relative, in-law, whomever... You invite your him or her to your _____________ (birthday party, wedding, anniversary party, all expense paid vacation to some delightful destination... you fill in the blank). This person can hear you.  This person is not blind, nor mute. However, this person stands speechless there in front of you. In fact, there is no discernible response on his or her face. It gets uncomfortable. 
"Look, Violet, this is getting a bit weird. Whatever our differences, I know you will enjoy this party! It is important to me that you join the family there."
You restate the invitation, adding, "I really need to know if you can come, as there is ____________ (a lot of planning involved, a lot of expense involved, a limited guest list, a short amount of time to get your passport and visa in order... you fill in the blank). This person still does not respond. You walk away confused, hurt, angry or _________ (you fill in the blank). This is exactly what happens when people do not respond to written invitations!
"You haven't had a stroke or something, have you?! I just saw you blink. Will you attend the party, or not?"
When I train new etiquette instructors, I encourage them to somehow incorporate their biggest etiquette pet peeve into their new business' names. My reasoning? It will be a constant reminder of why they embarked on their new careers and it is a great conversation starter. I learned both of these things when I started The R.S.V.P. Institute of Etiquette in 1990. 

I had always assumed that people were lazy by not responding to RSVP requests, or simply rude by responding that they'd be coming and then not showing up, or vice versa. As it turned out, I found the majority of people are ignorant to the actual meaning of an RSVP request. After starting my business, I became used to queries like, "I can never remember what RSVP means... Am I supposed to call if I'm not going? Or if I am going?" Even cashiers who took business checks from me would often ask (and some still do) similar questions. 

Then there was the mother of twins who invited my daughter to their birthday party. The mother repeatedly asked, "Is there a problem?" each of the 3 times I stated that I was RSVP'ing to the invitation. It was like playing a bizarre round of, "Who's on first?" I finally said, "On the party invitation there is a preprinted 'R.S.V.P.' and you wrote your phone number next to it. Right?" her baffled response, "Yes. Isn't that where my phone number is supposed to go?" Or the times my siblings and I hosted 75th birthday parties for our parents. For both occasions, invitees had 3 ways to respond to them; reply to me at my rsvpinstitute email account, mail the response card (already stamped and addressed to me at The RSVP Institute of Etiquette), or call me at 800-891-RSVP. Yet I still frustratingly had to call several people to ask, "Will you be joining us?"

So with that in mind, here are some wise words and advice from other etiquette enthusiasts on responding to invitations:
“When we receive a written invitation, we must answer immediately whether we accept or not, although silence may be considered equivalent to an acceptance. In the latter case, we should give a plausible reason of our declining, and do it with politeness. When the invitation is verbal, we must avoid being urged; for nothing is more foolish and disobliging; we ought either to accept or refuse in a frank and friendly manner, offering some reasonable motive for declining, to which we should not again refer. It is not allowable to be urged, except when we are requested to dine with someone whom we have seen only at the house of a third person, or when we are invited on a visit or other similar occasion. In the former case, if we accept, we should first leave a card in order to open the acquaintance. Having once accepted, we cannot break our engagement, unless for a most urgent cause.” From Elisabeth Celnart's “The Gentleman and Lady's Book of Politeness and Propriety of Deportment, Dedicated to the Youth of Both Sexes” 1833
“A well-bred man, receiving an invitation to dine with a friend should reply to it immediately, whether he accepts or declines it.”  From Cecil B. Hartley's “The Gentlemen's Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness / Being a Complete Guide for a Gentleman's Conduct in all / his Relations Towards Society” 1860 
“The answer to invitations to dine, accepting or declining, should be sent immediately, and are always addressed to the lady. If, after you have accepted an invitation, anything occurs to render it impossible for you to go, the lady should be informed of it immediately. It is a great breach of etiquette not to answer an invitation as soon after it is received as possible, and it is an insult to disappoint when we have promised.” From Arthur Martine's "Martine's Hand-book of Etiquette, and Guide to True Politeness” 1866 
"Balls, evening parties, soirees, receptions, or whatever else they may be called, are entirely arranged and controlled by Fashion and her administrators. The hired master of ceremonies, the upholsterer, the florist, the pastry-cook and confectioner, are, in fact, the dispensers of modern hospitality, if we may be permitted the sacrilegious use of that sacred word in such a connection. 
The ordinary evening parties or balls of our large cities are so much alike, that a dame whisked off, in the old mysterious way of the fairy-books, from one to the other, and set down within the arms of a fresh cavalier, would hardly be conscious of a change even in the pair of mustaches by which her cheek is titillated in the waltz. 
Cards are generally issued from ten days to four weeks before the ball or dancing-party to the various persons on the fashionable list, supplied by a Brown or some other hired undertaker of public ceremonials. This is the usual form of invitation, engraved upon a card or written upon note-paper:"Mrs. A. [or B.] requests the honor [or pleasure] of Mr.T's company on the evening of __, at half past eight o'clock. R. S.V.P." 
The hour is more frequently left unmentioned; and, even when specified, the guest is not expected to be punctual. None but the most intimate friends think of going to a formal and fashionable party, where there is to be dancing, before half past nine or ten o'clock, and an invited person may enter with propriety at any hour, however late, during the night. 
Whether an answer is requested or not by the letters R.S.V.P. (repondez, sil vous plait—" answer, if you please"), it must be sent in a day or two, and written in the same formal style as the invitation, the acceptance of which may be thus expressed: "Mr. T. accepts with pleasure the polite invitation of Mrs. A. for the evening of _______ ." 
A refusal should be written as follows: "Mr. T. regrets that he can not accept the polite invitation of Mrs. A. for the evening of ________."When an invitation is accepted, it must be, if possible, faithfully complied with. It is not seldom that an invited person takes an uninvited friend to a ball or evening dancing-party, but he ought not to do so without first asking permission of the giver of it. As he is not likely to be refused, he must hold himself entirely responsible for the character and conduct of his companion, who, previous to and after the party, should send a card.  From "Bazar Book of Decorum" 1870              

Well-bred people do not use R.S.V.P. on dinner invitations. Your guests will have sufficient politeness to reply without having their attention abruptly called to it." From "Mrs. Rorer's New Cook Book" 1898
“As to the use of "R.S.V.P.," or any of the phrases now preferred by many, as, "Please reply;" "The favor of an answer is requested," etc., this may be said: some authorities claim that all invitations should be answered; and that therefore these requests for a reply are a reflection on the good manners of the people invited. But such is not the popular understanding. All invitations that are plainly limited to a certain number of guests, as dinners, card parties, and certain exclusive receptions, should be answered at once, in order that vacancies may be filled. Whether the invitation is accompanied with the request for a reply or not, all thoughtful people will recognize the propriety. But on many occasions where numbers are not necessarily limited, only the hostess can say whether the reply is urgent or not; since it is a question of her personal convenience, the limits of house-room, or some other individual matter. As no one class of entertainments is given always under the same conditions, it is well to allow the hostess to choose whether she will add or omit the request for a reply to her invitations. Meanwhile, the punctilious may reply to every invitation of a strictly social character, and even if the host or hostess did not expect it, such reply can give no offense; whereas, the neglect of a necessary reply might prove very awkward and annoying.”  From Agnes H. Morton's “Etiquette” 1919
Formal Acceptance Or Regret Acceptances or regrets are always written. An engraved form to be filled in is vulgar—nothing could be in worse taste than to flaunt your popularity by announcing that it is impossible to answer your numerous invitations without the time-saving device of a printed blank. If you have a dozen or more invitations a day, if you have a hundred, hire a staff of secretaries if need be, but answer "by hand." From  Emily Post's “Etiquette” 1922
Judith Martin, aka "Miss Manners"

Issuing and Honoring Invitations

"Reply early and win a prize!" this exhortation was reported to Miss Manners by a gentleman of her acquaintance who found it not on the back of a cereal box, but on an otherwise conventionally engraved and worded wedding invitation from respectable friends. Oh. A new social form. A new version of "The favour of a reply is requested" or "Répondez s'il vous plaît" No doubt, it will soon catch on and be abbreviated as "R.e.w.p."

A width of smelling salts soon restored Miss Manners, and she was kindly helped up from the floor and into a chair. When she was feeling quite herself again, she reflected that such is the logical outcome of a situation she has long been following with dismay.

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 is gotten harder and harder to insult people assuming that they have no manners or consideration, and so the "R.s.v.p." was born -- the discrete reminder in the corner of the invitation yes, we really do care this time.

This conceded that it was not worth the effort to get replies for certain types of parties, and so hosts would concentrate their forces on the important ones. The trade-off was a willingness to pay for wasted cocktail party hors d'oeuvres if they could get a head count for expensive dinners. It wasn't successful, and even more coercion was attempted. The horrible preprinted "R.s.v.p." card, already stamped, was included so that the guest wouldn't be taxed with the job of writing. Telephone numbers were supplied. Then there was "Regrets only," an oddity that puts the host in the amusing position of assuming that everyone who refuses regrets having to do so.

None of these ploys works, as Miss Manners is constantly hearing from desperate hosts. All she can advise them to do is telephone the people they invited and politely state, "We do hope we'll have the pleasure of seeing you next Saturday". Miss Manners' confidence that this would produce shame, or at least results, in the delinquent guests seems to have been unfounded. People who have tried it report that the supposedly cornered guests reply airily, "Well, we'll try to make it."

That bribery is now being attempted in order to force people to answer wedding invitations should not be a surprise. Miss Manners is only waiting to hear about lawsuits in which hosts will attempt to recover from prospective guests the expense of providing for those who refuse to indicate whether they will attend. From "Miss Manners' Guide for the Turn of the Millennium" 1983
Letitia Baldrige
The late Letitia Baldrige once said, ''Entertaining is the most basic part of human communication. It's the way we please each other.'' And when it comes to the RSVPs for entertainments we are invited to, as a society, what we have here is a failure to communicate. 


This is one French expression that just about everyone who has ever gone to a special event knows. In the world of etiquette, it's right up there with 'please' and 'thank you.' 

When An RSVP Is Unnecessary

Formal or informal invitations to cocktail parties or teas don't require an acceptance unless an RSVP is included. For these events, many hostesses may even indicate "regrets only" as a way of keeping a rough head count.
Among close friends, it's fine to call and RSVP to an informal event or holiday gathering. From Kate Spade's "Manners" 2004
"A timely response to an RSVP is vital because the hostess plans the menu around the number of people to serve." From Sue Fox's "Etiquette for Dummies" 2011

Offering timely responses to RSVPs 

The RSVP has always been a request for response, and it still is. An invitation warrants a response, usually by a specific date. When people are planning an event and honor you with an invitation, show the same respect by responding to their invitation. Let people know you received their invitation and either accept it or decline it." From Donna Fisher's "Professional Networking for Dummies" 2011


  1. Even if you come right out with it and write, "Please let me know if you are coming!" people ignore it. Frustrating!

  2. I have tried and failed repeatedly to get people to respond to invitations and it is useless unless they think they are going to get some terrific goody bag or something. Ignorance of what Rsvp means shouldn't get them off the hook. They should still respond. There are many who I no longer invite for this very reason!

  3. Failure to respond to invitations is rude, rude, and rude.

  4. Witty as ever and so very true! Belief in the importance of good etiquette lives on!


Post a Comment

Popular Posts