Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Etiquette: The Lost Art of the RSVP

Feel free to call me old fashioned, but lately I've begun wondering why certain niceties seem to be difficult to observe. The one standing out in my mind currently is the struggle to respond to RSVP's. Friends, feel free to chime in, but do you wrestle with this? 

I can remember in my childhood when my parents hosted parties they had list after list of people attending. This could be for a gourmet event, a birthday party, even attending a Mardi Gras parade. They weren't the only ones who did it either-everyone did. RSVP's were not a trend nor were they always formal. Be it in a responding letter, a phone call, or over conversation, RSPV's were a social mores designed to help keep get togethers well-planned and organized. This ensured there was always enough of everything for everyone. Bear in mind this was well before texting and emails so it took a little extra effort to reach out to your host or hostess.  

Please know this is not coming from a place of judgement; I'm genuinely curious, as well as guilty. I was several days late in responding to a birthday party invitation for a good friend and was so embarrassed when I realized my mistake. She was incredibly gracious when I reached out to her, but it gave me pause. I had to wonder why this had happened not once, not twice, but three times this past year.

That's right. Three times. I'm still cringing.

After this most recent ball drop I decided to step back and brush up on modern etiquette for RSVP's and in taking that time, found renewed appreciation for why it is so important. For the most part it really is common sense, but it was a lesson I needed to be reminded of out of consideration for others. Below you'll see some really helpful tips and a bit of history from Emily Post and the Manners Mentor .

What is an RSVP?

In the context of social invitations, RSVP is a process for a response from the invited person or people. It is an initialism derived from the French phrase Répondez s'il vous plaît meaning "Please respond". It just means that the hosts are asking us to let them know whether we’re coming to their party or event so that they can plan seating, food, and anything else they need to arrange for our needs and comfort.

How quickly should we RSVP?

Within 24 hours, or 48 at the latest. The same day you receive the invitation is best.

Can I wait until the “RSVP By” date to respond? 

You can, but it’s kind of like showing up late for the party.

How do I respond?

Reply in the manner indicated on the invitation:

~RSVP and no response card: a handwritten response to the host at the return address on the envelope.

~Response Card: fill in and reply by the date indicated and return in the enclosed envelope.

~RSVP with phone number: telephone and make sure to speak in person – answering machines can be unreliable.

~RSVP with email: you may accept or decline electronically.

~Regrets only: reply only if you cannot attend. If your host doesn’t hear from you, he is expecting you!

~No reply requested? Unusual, but it is always polite to let someone know your intentions. A phone call would be sufficient.

Did you know that 50 years ago no one put “RSVP” on invitations?

Why? Because it was considered really rude.

Rude? Why was it once rude to ask people to RSVP? 

Asking people to RSVP meant that hosts didn’t trust that people would do the right thing on their own without a special request from them. But times change and etiquette evolves to keep up with current sensibilities — and in this case, necessities. So sometime in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s, people started adding “RSVP” to their invitations as reminders because people started not responding.

Things in RSVP world have slid further downhill, and now most requests list an “RSVP by” date because people are slow to (or just don’t) RSVP.

Please respond a long time before the date. Not doing so sends a signal that you’re waiting to make up your mind because the event doesn’t thrill you on first thought.

What if you don’t know whether your schedule is going to allow you to attend?

Go ahead and call the host to acknowledge the invitation the day you receive it. Then ask whether it would be an imposition if you waited to respond until you know your schedule. If you can explain what the event is that you’re waiting to hear about, go ahead and let the host know. “My sister is flying in some time that week for a visit, and I don’t know the dates for sure. As soon as she books her flight, I’ll let you know.” If it’s personal, you don’t need to mention it.

Do I have to respond to every invitation? What about parties at people’s homes where I’m suppose to buy something?

Yes, even sales parties should receive your RSVP within 24 hours. Typically, sales solicitations don’t need to be responded to, but since this one is being hosted by someone you know, it’s gracious to let her know whether she should set out a chair, provide refreshments, and do things just for you! It’s also very helpful to the person selling the product to know how many catalogs, samples, and such to bring to the party.

What about writing “Regrets Only” on invitations?

People are no better at telling you they’re not attending than they are at letting you know they’re planning to join you. So you won’t get a better count asking for “Regrets Only.” “Regrets Only” is reserved for huge invitation lists (fundraisers, events hosted by large corporations, and such), where one person would be overwhelmed by the amount of correspondence it would take to keep track of who is and isn’t coming. For events with less than 250 – 500 attendees, the standard RSVP applies.

What’s the etiquette of contacting people who don’t RSVP?

As the date approaches, and you need to know how many people to plan for, it’s fine to reach out to your guests who didn’t RSVP. Script your conversation/voice mail/text as something like this: “Debbie, I’m making the final arrangements for dinner on the 27th. I hope you and Doug received the invitation we sent you about two weeks ago, and that you’ll be able to join us. Please let me know today whether you can.” When you say it nicely, the other person shouldn’t be offended; after all, you’re trying to prepare things for them. You’ll also more-than-likely get your reply…and the opportunity to share a subtle reminder of the social contract between a host and a guest.

Special grace note

When a friend RSVPs and shares that she can’t attend, bite your tongue to avoid asking her why. There could be a million reasons, and half a million of them she might not want to share! Asking why might seem like you’re showing concern, but by doing so, you could put her in the position of feeling like she needs to tell a white lie. If your friend says she can’t attend and doesn’t offer an explanation, the most gracious thing is to say, “You’ll be missed!”


  1. What a great reminder on proper etiquette of responding to invitations. Thanks for sharing! :)

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed it. Thank you very much for taking the time to comment!

  3. A great reminder. I know I fail at times myself and don't get when people do not at all.


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