The bottom line for responding to a party invitation politely is this: RSVP ASAP—as in within a day or two. But when your answer isn’t a clear-cut yes or no—well, that’s when things get sticky. Jodi R. R. Smith, the founder of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting, demystifies murky scenarios.

By Penny Wrenn
Updated October 15, 2015
Edholm Ullenius

You’re weighing your options.

Don’t know? Say no. You never have the etiquette gods’ blessing to say nothing at all. “Without any response, the host doesn’t know if the invitation has been received or if you’re purposely ignoring her,” says Smith. On the other hand, if it’s an Evite, your host can see that you’ve scanned the invitation, so you’ll come off as a jerk if you continue to ignore it. Furthermore, saying, “I’ll try to come,” or clicking the “maybe” button can be puzzling for a host planning a menu. Unless it’s a formal dinner, most hosts are happy to hear from you a week or so beforehand asking if there’s still room for you to join the festivities.

You don’t want to go but have no excuse.

Resist the urge to lie about other plans. It’s unnecessary to offer an explanation about why you’re declining. If you would simply prefer to chill with Netflix, say, “Thank you so much for inviting me, but I can’t attend this year.” In fact, when you give someone a reason why you can’t make it, then you might be giving them an opportunity to renegotiate the terms, says Smith. (In other words, your friend says, “You can’t come that day? Well, I’ll do it the following Friday instead.” And you’re left defenseless, saying, “Oh...great” in your fake excited voice.) Also: Say no right away. When you wait, it seems as if you’re hemming and hawing.

You would like to bring someone else.

You shouldn’t assume that you can bring even your spouse, much less your child(ren). For clarification, Smith recommends a simple “Sounds great! Shall I tell the hubby, too?” or “Can’t wait! Is this an adults-only occasion, or will it include kids?” If you want to bring your cousins who’ll be in town that week, then Smith says this requires a call. “Start with something like ’I’m so excited you invited me. I’m in a bit of a pickle, though, because my two cousins are going to be here’ and then pause,” says Smith. “Hopefully, your host will chime in with ‘The more the merrier!’ or somehow give you the green light that it’s OK.” If she doesn’t, adhere to the host’s wishes.

You’re only going to make an appearance.

“Unless the occasion is a more structured event—for example, a sit-down dinner—it’s expected that people are going to drift in and out of a party,” says Smith. “So you don’t need to announce that you’re going to a stop by for only a minute.” As long as you plan to stay for at least 30 minutes, then you’re in the happy-guest/happy-host zone. If you really can be there for only 5 or 10 minutes, then it’s best not to go at all.

You replied yes but can no longer attend.

An “Oh no!” beats a no-show. “As soon as you know that you won’t be there, tell your host—whether it’s two days before or two hours before,” says Smith. A telephone call is preferable—after that, a text, then an e-mail. If you’re sick or having car trouble, go ahead and relay to the host what happened. But what do you say when the reason is more personal (say, a big fight with your husband or you’re too deep into a Veep marathon)? Keep the decline vague, so you don’t end up being the talk of the party without even being there. Tell her, “I’m not going to be able to make your party. I’m terribly sorry I’m going to miss it.”