Here is what RSVP means, besides répondez s’il vous plaît. It means Really: Send Verdict Pronto. Whether you’re coming or not.
I’m thinking a number of you don’t know that. If you did, I might not have been mortified at my own Christmas caroling party a few years ago—to which nobody came. Out of the seven-or-so families I invited, one guy showed, with his kid, but he was the ex-husband of my friend and must have gotten the invitation in the divorce. (He hadn’t RSVP’d either.)
I’d spent real time making caroling songbooks and Christmas cookies and, for the adults, a big thermos of peppermint Schnapps hot chocolate (which is really good if you don’t drink the whole thermos). Several of my friends had given me the provisional “Can’t wait!”—which I had naively understood to mean “Can’t wait!” but which actually means, “Bet you can’t wait to hear why I never made it.”
Behold, the critical importance of the RSVP. Maybe they didn’t like Christmas carols. Maybe they were waiting on the weather, better offers, the vagaries of mood. Maybe caroling in a howling rainstorm wasn’t, I don’t know, festive enough for them. I’d sent an Evite, which tells guests who has responded…maybe they were waiting to see if the fun people were coming. All I know is that if I had known how many people would be skipping my party, I could have skipped my party, too.
A breach of RSVP etiquette is one thing at the caroling end of the party spectrum, but at the other end are brides, who come justifiably unhinged over this. Wedding receptions can run upwards of $150 a head, so being forced to prepare for a guest who doesn’t show transcends annoyance and barrels into a realm of rudeness so breathtaking it shatters relationships.
For years wedding and party planners have been complaining that the formal RSVP is dying. The question, of course, is why. Most people understand that party givers need to know how many to prepare for. Spurned hosts in the chat rooms devoted to RSVP rage—oh, these exist—often blame laziness as the culprit, but that doesn’t feel quite accurate. Pushing “reply” or filling out a response card isn’t taxing. Nor can I fully concur with Jerry Seinfeld that nobody wants to come to your wedding. Surely somebody does, and chances are he’s on your guest list and not responding.
I think the breach of etiquette has more to do with the fact that technological innovations enable spontaneity. Evite and Facebook let us wait to see others’ plans before we commit to our own; texting enables the swift pivot between events. Our smartphones let us construct whole scaffoldings of complex social endeavor (friends contacted, concert tickets bought, dinner reservations made) between happy hour cocktails. No longer does one have to be able to commit in advance in order to enjoy a social life.
This spur-of-the-moment socializing plays well for Seattleites, we famously reluctant committers. It’s known as “Seattle Nice”—our regional disposition toward the bland smile and the superficial accommodation. In a city marked by endless, climax-free civic debate and a social passive-aggression we call the Seattle Freeze, Seattle Nice does not allow for the definitive social “no.” Sure we appear to like you, we even say we’d love to attend your event; far be it from us to harsh your mellow with anything so disobliging as a no-thanks. Instead we’ll just quietly not show. Maybe you won’t notice?
If you doubt that RSVP avoidance is a particularly Northwest affliction, ask wedding and other party planners. Our ethos of Northwest Casual that wields its informalizing influence over everything from fashion to religion renders the formal response quaint, like high tea; out of step with the rugged individualism that rejected old conventions to beat its own brand of civilization out of the rain forest.
To Aviva Palmer, cofounder of the San Francisco– and Seattle-based event planner the Adventure School, the whole Wild West Left Coast is hopeless about responding. But northwesterners, she observes, contend with an additional variable that Californians don’t face: crappy weather. “Californians don’t RSVP either,” she sighs. “But Seattleites flake more.
Seattle RSVPs mean less, because if it’s raining they might decide not to go out.” Rain, darkness, and cold can render Seattle winter parties nonstarters by setting guests’ mood dials to “hibernate.” “In the winter it’s harder to get people to leave the womb of their homes to do something new and fresh.”
New and fresh—like venturing outside in 35 soggy degrees to belt out hackneyed songs for strangers. Of course! The rain was why no one came to my party! Event planners employ all kinds of slightly hostile strategies to up the RSVP ratio. (My favorite: Put everything on the invitation but the party location.) But maybe for Seattleites it’s simpler still: Maybe we just save our major parties for fair-weather months.
Note to self: Schedule next year’s caroling party for July.