RSV-Passe? Cus­tom’s de­cline spells hosts’ vex­a­tion

Dayton Daily News - - L!FE - By Jen­nifer Peltz As­so­ci­ated Press

NEW YORK — It’s be­come an acro­nym for a host’s frus­tra­tion: RSVP. Re­ally, Se­ri­ously Very Peeved. From ca­sual get-to­geth­ers to catered af­fairs, the once-com­mon act of re­ply­ing to in­vi­ta­tions has be­come an of­ten lost and much lamented cause.

Par­ent­ing and bri­dal blogs seethe with tales of track­ing down in­vi­tees like fes­tive fugi­tives. Elec­tronic in­vi­ta­tion sys­tems try to stream­line head count­ing but some­times just turn into a pub­lic dis­play of am­biva­lence (Yes: 2. No: 15. Maybe: 147). A pop­u­lar gauge of gen­er­a­tional shifts has de­clared that to­day’s col­lege stu­dents don’t even know what the phrase means.

As the hol­i­day-party sea­son swings into gear, ‘tis the sea­son to be jolly, at least un­til you have to de­cide whether to make dev­iled eggs for four dozen or four.

“It frus­trates me to no end that peo­ple dis­re­gard or dis­miss RSVPs as op­tional, es­pe­cially when I have been nice enough to in­vite them to a party,” says Dawn Pearce, 35, a tech­ni­cal sup­port spe­cial­ist in Raleigh, N.C. “I get so ag­gra­vated, I don’t know why I even bother with in­vi­ta­tions at all.”

Who can blame her? This sum­mer, she got RSVP replies from only about half the in­vi­tees to her 4-year-old son’s birth­day party at a chil­dren’s mu­seum. It would prob­a­bly have been irk­some even if Pearce hadn’t been so preg­nant that she’d tapped relatives to go through with the party if she was in la­bor. Her daugh­ter ul­ti­mately ar­rived four days later.

A so­cial code that has en­dured for gen­er­a­tions, RSVP is short for “re­pon­dez s’il vous plait,” or “please re­ply.” In­vi­tees should an­swer as soon as pos­si­ble, ac­cord­ing to eti­quette ex­pert Lizzie Post, a great-great-grand­daugh­ter of gra­cious­ness guru Emily Post.

If not a mat­ter of man­ners, RSVPing could be seen as a dic­tate of so­cial self-in­ter­est. Af­ter all, most par­ty­go­ers are at some point par­tythrow­ers them­selves. But some hosts find “RSVP” is now just the open­ing salvo in a bat­tery of po­lite prod­ding.

“I see you are un­de­cided. Will you come if I have a raf­fle for a 2011 Mercedes?” re­tired mu­sic ex­ec­u­tive Richard Fiore re­cently joked to some­one he’d in­vited to a karaoke night. He got a re­sponse within hours.

Fiore got cre­ative af­ter years of mar­veling over the spotty RSVP rate for the karaoke gath­er­ings he co-hosts for friends in New York City. He needs a guar­an­teed num­ber of guests to re­serve a pri­vate room at his fa­vorite venue.

“It’s not like I’m ask­ing them to write a let­ter or wrap a pack­age,” said Fiore, 73, who e-mails his in­vi­ta­tions. “All you’ve got to do is hit re­ply.”

While there don’t ap­pear to be solid statis­tics on a de­cline of RSVPing (who’d re­spond to a sur­vey about not re­spond­ing?), here’s a sign­post: Last year’s Beloit Col­lege Mind­set List in­cluded RSVP among cul­tural touch­stones turned fos­sils from a fresh­man’s per­spec­tive.

The list, com­piled anec­do­tally by Beloit English pro­fes­sor Tom McBride and re­tired col­lege spokesman Ron Nief, pro­claimed that the class of 2013 has “never un­der­stood the mean­ing of RSVP,” though some stu­dents say oth­er­wise.

RSVP rates have be­come enough of a sore point to en­gen­der op-ed grous­ing in news­pa­pers in­clud­ing The New York Times, where nov­el­ist Rand Richards Cooper in March de­scribed try­ing to lasso re­sponses for a book read­ing that en­tailed food ser­vice at a res­tau­rant. He got some sym­pa­thy from on­line com­menters, but “the over­all sen­ti­ment was: ‘You’re just go­ing to have to ad­just your ex­pec­ta­tions,’” says Cooper, 50, who lives in Hart­ford, Conn.

Replies can be hard to get even when the event is for busi­ness, not plea­sure. In Phoenix, Kim Horn reg­u­larly deals with lack­ing and late RSVPs for meet­ings of her pro­fes­sional group, though its mem­bers should know bet­ter: They’re wed­ding plan­ners.

For those who can’t stom­ach an­gling for RSVPs, some com­pa­nies will take on the task for fees that can run into hun­dreds of dol­lars.

And, of course, there’s the in­ter­ac­tive-in­vi­ta­tion route, with its click­able but­tons, au­to­matic re­minders, chatty mes­sage boards — and some­times mad­den­ing “maybes.” Plus the op­por­tu­nity to re­visit the high-school feel­ing that fence-sit­ting guests are wait­ing to see who else is com­ing.

Try­ing to im­prove re­sponse rates, Punch­bowl.com, for in­stance, nixes “maybe” for “de­cide later,” with the op­tion of a prompt to do so. Founder Matt Dou­glas says the Bos­ton-based com­pany doesn’t re­lease RSVP statis­tics.

So how did we get to this point of no RSVP re­turn? Does it re­flect a col­lapse of cour­tesy? A gen­er­a­tion gap? The im­me­di­acy and in­for­mal­ity of the dig­i­tal age? A so­ci­ety too in-flux and fraz­zled to know what it’s do­ing a month from now?

“We haven’t opened our mail in a week,” one mother sighed when Mar­jorie Ge­orge called to ride herd on an unan­swered in­vi­ta­tion to a party some years ago for one of Ge­orge’s two daugh­ters. Ge­orge, 54, lives in Durham, N.C., where she has a busi­ness help­ing se­nior cit­i­zens with bills and pa­per­work.

She won­ders whether busy life­styles have be­got­ten a cul­ture of not com­mit­ting, even to a few hours of so­cial­iz­ing.

Oth­ers point to technology as a fac­tor. In an era of con­stant, in­stant sta­tus up­dates, one per­son’s RSVP may be an­other’s “C U in 5.”

“Technology is chang­ing our cul­ture, the way we com­mu­ni­cate ... which then means it changes the way we con­nect and dis­con­nect,” said psy­chol­o­gist and com­mu­ni­ca­tion ex­pert Ger­ald Good­man, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los An­ge­les. The fad­ing of RSVP could, he sug­gests, sig­nify “a new eti­quette of free­dom.”

If any­one knows what’s to be­come of RSVP, it may be Caitlin O’Con­nor, a mem­ber of Beloit’s Class of 2013. And yes, she does un­der­stand the phrase.

She com­plies when in­vited to in­ti­mate gath­er­ings. But when a Face­book in­vi­ta­tion goes out across the cam­pus with a pro­forma RSVP, “then I don’t feel the need,” says O’Con­nor, 19, an in­tended health-and-so­ci­ety ma­jor from Shaker Heights, Ohio.

True, some of her friends didn’t RSVP for her high-school grad­u­a­tion party. But it wasn’t that big a prob­lem.

“We went with: Prob­a­bly a cou­ple more were com­ing than had RSVP’d” say­ing yes, she said. “And we were right on.”

As­so­ci­ated Press photo by Gerry Broome

Mar­jorie Ge­orge wrote an op-ed on the sub­ject of RSVP for her lo­cal news­pa­per some time ago. Ge­orge won­ders whether busy life­styles have be­got­ten a cul­ture of not com­mit­ting, even to a few hours of so­cial­iz­ing.

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