The Lost Art of the R.S.V.P.


“The fact that the French phrase for ‘please’ is literally ‘if you please’ should not imply that there is an option here.” – Judith Martin, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior

“These four little letters are the signal that your hosts want to know whether or not you can make their event.” – Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition

What is it about the R.S.V.P.? Has it gone the way of the rotary dial telephone and the telex machine? It used to be that when invitations were issued for a social event, hosts (and hostesses) received responses from guests as to whether or not they would attend. Recently I discovered, when I was trying to gather some friends around for an evening of holiday cheer, it seems as though the literal translation from the French really does seem to mean “if it pleases” the invitee to reply. Of the 20 or so emails that I sent out to friends to come to this cocktail party, fewer than half of the recipients sent me an answer.

I followed up after a few days with gentle reminder emails, as the event was less than a week away. The responses I received varied from “I have some other options that same day” to “I’m waiting to hear about something else” to “I’m so busy with other parties that day.” It seems as though the standard regretting due to a previous engagement has also been left by the wayside, probably dumped in the same trash bin as the original R.S.V.P. and buried under a pile of discarded, lipstick-stained cocktail napkins. Now, hosts get to hear from their potential guests that their event is part of a pecking order of importance when compared to others that might be going on at that same time.

Worse yet, some people never reply at all, leaving the partyholder in limbo, or wait until the very last minute to get back to the host. The afternoon of this same party, after I had done most of the cooking, accounting for the few folks whom I had confirmed would be attending, a sent me an email asking if he could show up that evening. As I had only made enough hors d’oeuvres and prepared enough plates and glasses for the people who had definitely said that they could come, I delicately responded that it would not be possible for him to join us but that I looked forward to enjoying his company on another occasion. In return, I received a lengthy email detailing how busy his week had been as a defense for his neglecting to get back to me earlier than two hours prior to the start of the event.

When I discussed this situation at several other gatherings during the week before and after my party, each of which I had R.S.V.P.ed to in advance of course, I discovered that many other potential hosts had encountered the same lack of basic social niceties. “People want to wait to see what other options they may have,” was the most common explanation I heard. “There’s just so much going on in New York that folks want to see if there’s something better taking place,” was another. The answers were thrown around with a hint of resigned acceptance as though not letting a host know that you may or may not show up at his or her party is just the new way that things are these days.

“Doesn’t that make it difficult to plan?” I asked. Many folks indicated that they just no longer do the kind of entertaining where people have to respond to an invitation or that they just prepare for the best or that they’ve given up on hosting altogether. They are used to no-shows (or “flaking” as it is known among event planners), people appearing who did not reply one way or another, and guests bringing other people with them who were not invited. The formal R.S.V.P., and courtesy for the person hosting the event, seems superfluous to all of this casual, catch-as-catch-can style of living in and for the moment.

Checking out some of the online chat sites, I discovered that not hearing back from one’s potential guests is a major sticking point for many a party planner. The hottest topics appeared to be how to get responses for wedding invitations. Some posters said that they had even had to telephone all the invitees to their nuptials to confirm whether they would be there or not, as the response to the mailed invitations had been so low. So, my frustration at my low response rates to my soirée was not misplaced. It had, unfortunately, found itself in good company as the favor of a response, the R.S.V.P. seems to be a lost, or at least dying, art.

The Experimental Gourmand is the story of a blogger, food writer, and experimental home cook. She enjoys exploring the local food event scene and finding fresh ingredients at her farmers markets with which to make great meals.

2 Responses to The Lost Art of the R.S.V.P.

  1. Merry Sheils says:

    Great piece – as one who entertains, I am appalled when people do not respond, yet have been guilty myself. Your piece is a good reminder!

  2. Thank you, Merry! This was the first time in a while that I had hosted something, so the importance, and courtesy, of the response to an invitation came back to me loud and clear.

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