Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ask the Etiquette Vigilante: Dinner Party Evite-iquette

Dear Scanner Jockey/Etiquette Vigilante:

I usually use Evites to organize guest lists for various functions--dinner parties, cocktail parties, chili-cookoffs, Guy Fawkes rallies. I use the program not just to get the message out to my guests, but to keep track of who's coming so I can plan accordingly. However, my guests often check the invitation regularly but don't actually respond to tell me whether they're a yes, no or maybe. And of course many who do actually respond will say "yes" but not show up, or say "no" and then show up at the last minute.

For large gatherings (like a keg party or an angry torch mob) this isn't a problem, since a few more or few fewer people won’t make a difference, but this can really screw up a dinner party. And of course this happens whether or not I stress in the invitation that it is important for me to know how many will be showing up. How do I get the message across to these unreliable guests without badgering them?

Confused Latvian in Fort Fairfield

Dear Latvian,

The breach of etiquette in your first sentence has me quite flustered. Guy Fawkes rally invitations are traditionally delivered via fireworks display or a row of severed heads on pikes.

The most chaotic place in the world is the intersection between Technology Street and Human Nature Boulevard (Bogota’s airport is a close second). Evites are great for all of the reasons that you mention, but they have their limitations.

1. Guests can blithely ignore them, answer maybe, say yes and mean no, or say no and mean yes. It’s like watching a congressional hearing on C-SPAN, only less exciting.

2. They’re troublesome for hosts. There is no way to disable guests’ ability to invite others, thereby creating the impression that it’s OK to invite a bunch of randoms, bring a date to a funeral, or bring a squawking devil baby to an adults-only event.

Again, this is fine for informal gatherings where you can easily roll with guest list fluctuations. But any invitation involving a limited number of slots (road trips, dinner parties) should never be issued via Evite. Instead, you’ll have to visit 1876 (the invention of the telephone) and somewhere around 105 B.C. (the invention of wood pulp-based paper).

Call your intended guests two or three weeks in advance and invite them to join you for dinner. Use the paper to keep a tally of who is coming.

Sure, calling a bunch of people in a row is annoying, especially if you’re not a phone person. But the benefits far outweigh the annoyance of being an unpaid telemarketer:

1. One-on-one interaction negates the Evite Bystander Effect, that curious phenomenon where guests check the Evite daily but never get around to responding. (Yes, the host can see how recently you checked their Evite. And, yes, it’s really annoying when you do that – it comes across like you’re waiting to see if the cool kids are coming before you can clear your busy calendar and commit yourself to attending.)

2. It also allows you to (graciously) explain on the spot whether significant others, friends and/or children are welcome, reducing the potential for later misunderstandings and drama.

As for your unreliable guests, my first temptation is to tell you to find a better class of friends. However, good hosts cultivate a spiritual generosity that allows them to roll with the ‘maybes.’ Sometimes people can’t know in advance: they have to arrange childcare, they might have to work that weekend, they might be out of town. In that case, politely explain that you need to know one way or the other so you can plan and shop appropriately, and ask if you can check back in a week. If you put the onus on yourself to check back, vs. expecting Flakey McBailerston to sort himself out, find your phone number, and remember how to operate a newfangled tellyphone, things will go much more smoothly.

And a final note: two weeks is the absolute most notice you should insist upon for an event. Maybe three weeks, if it’s your wedding (even then, the caterers generally ask for just 72 hours’ notice for a final headcount). Believe me, I know it's agonizing to not be sure who is coming to your party. However, insisting upon a final guest list too far in advance comes across as controlling and diminishes enthusiasm for your event.

Thanks for writing in, Latvian!

In the comments, weigh in on Latvian’s dilemma, debate the merits of Evite, or tell me why I’m just so wrong that it makes your brain boil and contract away from your skull. Or send your dilemmas to


Brett said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you about the Evite situation. I got very very annoyed by one particular guest who was invited to my birthday but never actually RSVP'd. (She didn't show. Last time she's getting invited to anything.)

Also, I love Latvia! Go Baltics!

Brando said...

Good advice! The Flakey McFlakersons and the Control Freaks do tend to ruin otherwise fun events!

Brando said...

And Brett, I keep telling you you can't expect Audrey Hepburn to attend your parties since she's been dead for some time...

HP said...

Sometimes people forget to RSVP. Or they think they did RSVP when they didn't. While I understand it's annoying for hosts to not have an exact head count, you also have to realize that one pitfall of event planning is not having control over every single element. It's not like people aren't RSVPing out of spite. If having a headcount by a specific date is so important, you should indicate when you'd appreciate a response by on the Evite and then have Evite send a reminder around that time as a gentle nudge.

Shannon said...

Brett - Did you call to see if she was coming? Sometimes a quick call can shame people into a response.

Brando - Thanks! Also, Audrey Hepburn lives on forever!

HP - I am honestly surprised by the tone of your comment and have to wonder if you read my advice to Latvian before posting.

I never assume that people forget to RSVP out of spite...and I say so in the post: "However, good hosts cultivate a spiritual generosity that allows them to roll with the ‘maybes.’ Sometimes people can’t know in advance: they have to arrange childcare, they might have to work that weekend, they might be out of town."

One of the biggest frustrations of entertaining is getting people to respond within a reasonable timeframe. And, trust me, I know very well that "one pitfall of event planning is not having control over every single element"...and I say so in the post! "However, insisting upon a final guest list too far in advance comes across as controlling and diminishes enthusiasm for your event."

Also, the advice is to not use Evites when you need a specific timeframe and headcount, but instead rely on more personal forms of communication, like a phone call. Evite nudges, honestly, do nothing for the intractably RSVP-averse. It's been tried, it doesn't work too well. It's better to use a follow-up call, or just not invite them to anything that requires a specific headcount.

HP said...

Shannon, I didn't mean any harm in my tone, and my comment wasn't directed at *you* it was directed at the internet and at Latvian. As somebody who has been prompted to RSVP for several events recently, I was just offering up the other side of the issue.

Brett said...

I called AND sent her a gchat and she was like oops forgot I'm busy. RUDE.

Also, evite does automatically send out a reminder, so if you're rude enough to ignore that note, you probably don't merit the invitation in the first place. Someone is going out of their way to invite you to an event that they are planning, and you can't be bothered to click a simple yes or no? That to me is incredibly thoughtless and lazy.

Shannon said...

HP - Fair enough - but not RSVPing promptly, while not a personal slap, is extremely challenging for hosts. I figure if someone is cooking, cleaning, spending money and in many ways going out of their way to spend time with friends, a prompt rsvp is the least those friends can do.

Brett - It doesn't strike me as thoughtless so much as low-commitment and lazy. Evites make it easy to reply...or to not reply. They're low-commitment and easy to ignore. Fine for casual cocktail parties, but not suitable for more formal events, or anything where you need a headcount.

Emma said...

Evite does actually let you limit your guests' ability to invite others. There is a setting for the host when making the evite.

Also - to HP: sure; things happen. Evites go to spam filters, people forget, etc. But this post is about the pitfalls of using Evite, one of them being that people don't respond, not whether or not people who don't respond are jerks.

Tina said...

I was interested to see our 2 weeks notice is the max rule. I recently got blasted by someone for not giving them more time than that.

Alex said...

For a big party, not RSVPing isn't such a big deal (although if you do it consistently, your friends over time will begin to consider you a flake). For something small, especially something that requires preparation like a dinner, it's not cool.

Then again for something like that, as you noted, Evite isn't really the way to go.

Shannon said...

Emma - How does this glorious plus-one disabling work? I've used many an Evite and have never found it. But you may have opened a door to a glorious new future.

Tina - As far as I know, there's no hard and fast rule on RSVP timeframes. But as a matter of routine courtesy, two weeks' notice is plenty. Any more than that comes across as a bit much.

Alex - I throw a LOT of cocktail parties, and am very easygoing about RSVPs for those. I just take a look at the list, add five to it to be safe, and plan accordingly. But for dinners, it's really hard to roll with changes because there's a point where you run out of seats and plates. And a prompt RSVP is necessary, because if you can't attend, the host may want to open that seat to someone else.

suicide_blond said...

i get e-vites all the time from folks that i have never actually met.. and i always wonder if they actually meant to send me an invitation..or if i was just in their e-address book...
so im guilty of not responding cause...i dont even KNOW if they meant to include me! i suppose i should just email the host but i feel like pointing out that because we havent met makes their invite uncomfortable to more rude than ignoring it? not sure?

Emma said...

When you get to the part where you are inviting guests, click on Guest List Options and change "Allow guests to invite other people" to no and "Allow guests to bring other people" to whatever limit you'd like to set. :) I'm pretty sure you can edit these settings after creating an evite as well...

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