Mr. Manners’ five solutions to the Miami RSVP dilemma
Written by Michael Lewis on January 15, 2014
Our Etiquette Department has received many requests (all from one person) to explain the mysterious term “RSVP.”
Our serial requester makes that plea every time we go to one of those gatherings where you get a name tag. No matter how late we arrive, the table is still deep in tags. But when we go inside, a large contingent wears hand-lettered badges, the scarlet letter of the unexpected and the uninvited.
“Don’t people know what RSVP means?” she asks Mr. Manners.
I answer stoically that the hosts probably broke even – about as many people who didn’t RSVP or weren’t invited at all showed up as had been expected, so what’s the big deal?
Well, the big deal is that a guest list isn’t the menu at a Chinese restaurant: the hosts didn’t ask for one from Column A (invitees), one from Column B (boors who didn’t reply at all) and one from Column C (party crashers).
So, what is the explanation?
First, let’s admit that RSVP – répondez s’il vous plaît, or please respond – can puzzle those whose acquaintance with French is limited to fries and very attractive actresses.
Perhaps they confuse RSVP with VSOP, in which case they may well be enjoying a fine cognac but give very little guidance to hosts about presence on the given night.
But even English-only speakers confounded by our era’s ever-growing initialisms know what “Reply Requested” or its equivalent means. So why doesn’t that do any better at reeling in confirmations than the initials-only RSVP plea?
Perhaps Miamians are special. We think we are; maybe we’re right.
By special I don’t imply that we have this huge mix of cultures so requests mean different things to different groups. It’s highly likely that in every ethnic, religious, gender, cultural, economic, sexual orientation and other group (please forgive category omissions; we have so many these days) polite members know what the equivalent of “Reply Requested” means in their language and what to do about it.
So, why don’t they?
Is it because Miamians feel entitled to be rude just because they’re Miamians? Is that reason enough?
Or is it a case of mind over matter: if a host doesn’t mind and lets us in if we don’t reply, what does it matter?
Maybe if they barred the doors to those who didn’t RSVP (there’s that confusing initialism again) and those who weren’t invited in the first place, Miamians would start heeding requests for replies.
Even if that effectively excluded the heedless and the gatecrashers, however, it wouldn’t do much good if people kept on sending a resounding “Yes” to every invitation but seldom showed up.
Perhaps victims of Miami’s no-show mania welcome the unannounced and even gatecrashers just to meet the total of guests planned for and – need we say it – paid for. Caterers, parking valets and others do make their event money by the head.
Every no-show who RSVP’d is still a paid guest, which is the dilemma: how can we count heads in advance when we pay in advance?
That’s why event planning in Miami is really event guessing – guess how many and who will attend.
Maybe there’s a better way. Multiple emails? Phone calls? An online invitation service with its nagging reminders?
There used to be another way: Does anyone remember the US Mail? We’d get an invitation, often with a reply envelope inside for convenience. Some reply envelopes came bearing an X-cent stamp for even greater convenience, so we didn’t have to hunt for or lick a stamp.
Maybe the RSVP gap can be explained by the value you subconsciously gave X in the sentence above. If you replaced X with 3, 4, 5 or 6 cents to mail a letter you’re of a generation when etiquette counted (if you used 2 cents it counted even more but there are fewer of you; if you used 1 cent you aren’t attending many events).
On the other hand, if you don’t even know how much first-class postage is because you get junk mail but don’t mail much and never a personal letter, your etiquette is purely digital.
You certainly never reply to all that please-reply-immediately spam, do you? So, do unexpected invitations count as spam?
In a fast-changing world, what advice does Mr. Manners offer to event disorganizers or would-be hosts? How can they get an RSVP out of someone who professes ignorance of what it is or just doesn’t care?
We found five avenues.
One, charge. Collect in advance. Then, even if they don’t show, you get the dough. (That might not work for weddings and family events – but, hey, if Dad is springing for a big wedding maybe he can get some payback this way.)
Two, let them know that Cousin Vinnie has a very large baseball bat and is keeping score of who comes and who doesn’t.
Three, just be satisfied with whoever walks in (or is that what we’re already doing out of desperation?).
Four, stop using the French abbreviation RSVP and put on every invitation SUOE, meaning Show Up Or Else. It wouldn’t be any more confusing than RSVP unless you’re the Parkersburg, West Virginia, resident who a Google search shows has that alternate spelling of his last name.
Five, stop holding events, stay in bed and pull the covers up over your head.
Now that Mr. Manners has resolved to his own satisfaction the RSVP puzzle, perhaps we could go on to the Miami-inspired issue of driving etiquette. But then, we’d first have to teach some folks what etiquette means. RSVP was hard enough.