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