Declining Invitations, Vol. 4, Issue 23

Dear Etiquetteer: At dinner last night a group of friends had a lively conversation and solved nothing in the matter of how to decline an invitation. Here are some of the situations pondered:
  • A four-year old boy cries and screams at the suggestion he attend a birthday party. It seems the birthday boy was the bully of the pre-school. This left the mother having to decline by note or phone, then again having to decline when she dropped off a gift. Is there a way to decline without the Social White Lie that teaches the child a bad habit?
  • The pre-teen of either sex who is painfully shy and is serious about not wanting to attend a party where there will be dancing and probably kissing games?
  • The teen who fears asking for a date because he dreads being turned down. The girl who doesn't want to hurt the boy's feelings and is so non-committal that the boy has no idea what she means. Or the girl who is cruel to the bone and laughs. The boy or girl who stands up one date because a more attractive date comes along.
  • The adult who accepts an invitation to dinner then forgets.
  • The adult who accepts more than one invitation on the same night and spends only a few minutes at any one party.
  • That wretched person who ignores the whole scene and doesn't respond at all.
  • Those who just plain don't want to go.
  • When is "previous plans for the evening" not enough? Is "not in this lifetime" too terse?
  • Is there any graceful way to get out of a lie when you're caught out on a night you claimed illness?

A really good book is needed to cover these situations. I nominate Etiquetteer. Dear Declining in Hiding: While thanking you for the nomination, Etiquetteer hopes to be up to the task of addressing with Perfect Propriety all these different situations. What a minefield you and your friends have sown for Etiquetteer! Fewer parties are as fraught with peril as a child’s birthday party. And Etiquetteer has never forgotten, at age 12, being forced into attending one for the Most Loathsome and Evil Boy Ever. Not only that, it was a roller-skating party, and Etiquetteer was also forced by kindhearted but utterly misguided adults into the humiliating experience of having to learn how to roller skate right there in front of everyone with two other non-skating guests. At least Etiquetteer has stopped waking up screaming now . . . Just as a ball is no place for dancing lessons, so is a skating party not the place to learn how to skate. Etiquetteer still doesn’t know why he ever got on the guest list for this party (probably the Most Loathsome and Evil Boy Ever was made to invite the entire class, who knows?), and Etiquetteer remembers begging his dear mother not to make him go, but she insisted that it would be fun* . . . Socializing in controlled environments like parties is supposed to teach children and teenagers how to get along well in the world, but parents ought to think very carefully about the circumstances. The teenage years are possibly the most self-absorbed in the human life span. So, back to your four-year-old. Etiquetteer has to say that he has a certain amount of integrity, not wanting to accept the birthday cake of a sworn enemy. As long as his mother can confine her declining to "He’s not able to come that day" without concocting some fictional previous engagement, she is actually setting a good example for her son. It’s a truthful answer edited to spare the other mother’s feelings. What mother wants to be told that her Sweet Precious Darling is really just Wicked Trash?As for the shy pre-teen afraid of dancing and kissing (or roller-skating), it’s a question of ensuring that it’s OK to go to the party and NOT engage in dancing or kissing (or roller-skating). Even at school dances or church youth functions you can often just hang in the lobby and talk away from the dancing.Dating, of course, carries emotional risk whatever the age. And whatever the age, Etiquetteer always says "If you can’t figure out if they’ve said yes or no, they said no." Girls need to understand that they do no boy a favor by dangling him because they don’t want to hurt his feelings. The quicker you decline, the quicker you can both get on with your lives. Even to say "It’s really nice of you to ask me, but I’m just not ready to date right now" or "I don’t feel that way about you" clears the air right away, no matter how much it may hurt at the moment. Cruel girls will get theirs later, when their husbands either cheat on them with their best friends or dump them for trophy wives. Etiquetteer can’t wait . . .People of any age who stand up previous engagements for better offers reveal more of their character than they know. The stood up at least have that as a guide and can reject them on the inevitable rebound. Now we move to your invitation problems for adults, who are supposed to be Old Enough to Know Better. This is not always the case, as we know:

  • Etiquetteer recently had the deeply embarrassing experience of forgetting to attend a dinner to which he’d accepted an invitation not too long ago. It was an innocent mistake, but which of course must be followed up with a Lovely Note of Apology. (That Mr. Dimmick Who Thinks He Knows So Much had better get busy with that note, too . . . )
  • We see more party-hopping the way you describe during the holiday season, and really Etiquetteer does not find it offensive until it interferes with a seated dinner. It is the height of rudeness to arrive at a dinner halfway through or leave before the last course has been served and consumed to go on to another party.
  • The wretched non-responders may not have any more invitations to respond to if they keep that up.
  • There are a lot of lovely people out there who just don’t want to go. Sometimes you just can’t turn down an invitation, however. The true test of Perfect Propriety is going to the party you don’t want to go to and convincing everyone that you’d rather be there than anyplace else.
  • "Previous plans" should be enough without further elaboration. It’s actually impolite to ask for more information when you’re given that response by people you’ve invited. Etiquetteer thinks you already know that "Not in this lifetime" is Never Proper. That’s when you say "unable to accept your invitation." And when they press, you just keep saying "I’m sorry, we’re just unable to accept, that’s all."
  • The late Gertrude Lawrence, when she was still performing inCharlot’s Revue, was given sick leave for a week. During that time she accepted an invitation to a theatre party. Imagine her surprise when she was seated next to M.Charlot himself at the theatre! They were terribly polite to each other, both at the theatre and when he fired her the next day. Let this be a lesson to you a) not to lie to get out of something, and b) when you do and are found out, come clean right away.

Etiquetteer hopes this list provides you and your friends with all the solutions you need; please write again if this is not the case.*Special to Etiquetteer’s mother: All is forgiven.

Find yourself at a manners crossroads and don't know where to go? Ask Etiquetteer at query@etiquetteer.com!

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