Is it R.I.P. for the RSVP?

What to do when guests don’t reply to invitations.

From The Seattle Times

Theresa Fazekas learned the hard way.

First the baby shower when she expected 30 guests, but 44 showed up. “It’s been four years and I’m still holding a grudge,” she laughs.

Then came the Christmas tea party last year, when she expected 13 guests, but had only a dozen place settings. She bought an extra set, only to have one guest skip it.

And then, this past summer, the wedding shower where Fazekas planned to serve elegant boxed lunches. One guest wanted to bring her two sisters, who weren’t on the guest list. A gracious hostess, Fazekas said yes and prepared the extra meals (at considerable expense). The woman and her sisters no-showed.

If you’re hosting a party:

RSVP is an abbreviation for the French phrase “Repondez s’il vous plait,” which means “please reply” (You shouldn’t write “Please RSVP”).

If you want your guests to respond to your invitation, write “RSVP” at the bottom of the invitation, on the left side.

To give your guests time to respond, send your invitations at least two weeks before the party; but no earlier than four weeks the invitations might get lost.

If the event is further away than that, send a “save the date” or “hold this date” card to keep your guests from making other plans no RSVP required. Then, two to four weeks before the event, mail your invitations.

For kids’ parties, you should mail the invitations or hand-deliver them to the guests’ parents. If you leave it up to the kids, you can’t be sure the invitations are received.

If you’re worried your guests won’t know what “RSVP” means, it’s acceptable to use an English equivalent, such as “the favour of an answer is requested,” or less formally “please reply.”

If you want people to respond by phone, or to an address different from the one on the printed elsewhere on the invitation, put the number or the address under “RSVP to.”

You can also add a cut-off date after “RSVP by” if you want to give your guests a little extra prodding.

Include an RSVP card and envelope if you want to make it even easier for your guests.

If you’re hosting a large party, you can add “Regrets only” after “RSVP”; but beware, these two words can make your guest list even less reliable.

A week before the party (or after your cut-off date), feel free to call people who haven’t responded and ask if they received the invitation and if they plan to attend.

Fazekas enjoys entertaining. She gives two or three holiday parties each December and her North Tacoma home has been the scene of many dinner parties. But she’s added an extra step to her party routine. She makes the guest list, sends the invitations, plans the menu and decorations then she gets on the phone to people who haven’t RSVPed.

“I call people and ask them if they’re coming,” she said. Local etiquette instructor Dawn DeGroot estimates that only 50 percent of invitations bearing the letters RSVP are actually answered these days.

DeGroot she likes to be called Mrs. DeGroot runs Wallingford Charm School where she teaches manners to children, teens and the occasional university business class.

She has a message for invitees who don’t RSVP:

“Come on! Wake up! Answer your mail!” she says, the exasperation from countless unanswered invitations audible in her voice.

“It’s just a courtesy that is so necessary,” she explains. “It’s really important to the person giving the party.”

She acknowledges that people’s lives are busy, and that invitations can get buried as the mail piles up. But that’s no excuse for failing to RSVP. “Put that invitation right by the phone so that you can remember to do it,” she says.

The Worst Offenders

Even worse than people who don’t RSVP at all, DeGroot says, are those who RSVP to say they are coming, but then don’t show up.

And how about guests who don’t RSVP, but then show up anyway? For parties that feature informal dining, such as buffets, DeGroot recommends preparing 25 percent more food, just in case unanticipated guests arrive.

Deborah King runs Final Touch Finishing School, which offers etiquette classes in Seattle, Dallas and around the country.

If the meal is informal, King suggests dealing graciously with unannounced guests.

“Go ahead and have them come in and be a part of the event,” she says. But if it’s a formal sit-down meal and you haven’t had an RSVP from that guest, let them know that you won’t be able to accommodate them.

“I know that may sound harsh,” she says. “But actually the person that is being rude is the person that didn’t RSVP.”

She adds, laughing: “You might tell them they look great and suggest a nice restaurant for dinner.”

A growing problem

King said the troubles with RSVPs are only getting worse. “It is very sadly the truth,” she says.

If you get an invitation:

“Ideally, people should reply within one week,” says etiquette expert Deborah King.

If you can’t attend, King suggests either of these polite excuses: “I’m going to be out of town” or “I will be unable to attend due to a prior engagement.”

If you have to change plans, even at the last minute, call the host.

Like DeGroot, King estimates the average rate of response to be about 50 percent.

Because “many people don’t know what RSVP means,” King advocates writing “Please reply by,” followed by a date. After the reply-by date has passed, King suggests calling the guests who haven’t replied.

King and DeGroot both see the current decline in etiquette as a legacy of cultural changes during the 1960s and 1970s. But arbiters of etiquette, it seems, have always been engaged in a rear-guard battle against the unmannered.

The opening sentence of the 1929 edition of “Vogue’s Book of Etiquette,” for example, reads: “In a day when manners are said to be in less evidence than ever they were, one might naturally ask why a new book of etiquette need be written. … ”

And the use of RSVP itself was seen as a sign of decline. In a chapter about invitations and entertaining, the editors of Vogue write: “The letters R.S.V.P. are not necessary between good-mannered people. It is understood that one answers a dinner invitation and, in general, any invitations that ‘request the pleasure.’ ”

A few pages later, they write: “All well-brought up people know, as we have said, that a request is something to which a reply is expected.”

Gradual Decline of RSVPs

During the Golden Age of etiquette, invitations were hand-delivered, and replies were a matter of course.

The first step toward our present level of decay, apparently, came during the 19th century, when hostesses began entrusting invitations to the postal service.

Later, even more informality arrived with the popularization of the telephone. Now a new medium has etiquette experts arching their eyebrows.

Noting the growing popularity of e-mail invitations and online services such as Evite, DeGroot says: “It sort of puts me off a little bit, but I understand that we’re in a new time.”

According to spokeswoman Kristen Wareham, Evite has about 5 million registered users who use the site ( to send invitations for a variety of events. Most of the users are young. According to company data, half are between the ages of 25 and 34, and only 12 percent are older than 45.

When would-be guests receive an Evite, they are presented with a reply box, where they can check either “Yes,” “No,” or an option that is sure to make etiquette experts shudder: “Maybe.”

Invitees can also post comments and indicate how many guests they will bring. Meanwhile, hosts can monitor the responses, and even tell if someone has viewed the invitation without responding.

Despite the informality of web-based invitations, the ease with which guests can respond to an Evite might suggest, perhaps, a new era for RSVPing.

According to Wareham, Evite users send about 8 million invitations per month. The average response rate is 63 percent, considerably higher than the 50 percent rate for paper invitations estimated by DeGroot and King.

Jennifer Gouine used Evite to organize a Halloween cocktail party that she hosted in her University District apartment. It was her first time using Evite for one of her own parties.

She planned to serve finger foods and drinks, so it was important to know how many guests would attend. She invited 12, and all but three replied, she says.

Evite’s features allowed her to see which guests weren’t responding, and she was able to nail them down.

If she were to host a more formal party, she says, she might use written invitations, but Evite is convenient. “It’s just so easy.”