In the past 15 years I have thrown countless dinner parties, one wedding, and one very large birthday party. I find that one of the toughest aspects of throwing a party, no matter how small and casual or how large and spectacular, is getting people to actually tell you they're coming.
Sometimes it feels as if etiquette is a lost art. Obviously there are plenty of aspect of traditional etiquette that have been thrown out the window in the past few decades and rightly so. Trying to fall along the lines of specific modes of behavior to the point where it makes people uncomfortable is not an admirable goal. On the other hand, there are aspects of etiquette that I feel should not go the way of the raised pinky. These are the rules that exist because they're not only polite, but can also avoid confusion, unnecessary expenditures, and hurt feelings.
I'm talking about responding to invitations, whether that invitation is a quick phone call or a formal invitation. It seems that these days pepole think that responding to invitations is optional, and committing to the event once you have responded is unnecessary. It seems there is an extreme lack of empathy for hosts who are putting time and money into an event and would like to know who is showing up and would like to not spend money on a guest who flakes out.
Since I'm always in the process of hosting something, I can't tell you how many times I've had my feelings hurt by callous rejections, no-shows, and wafflers, and I've been majorly angered by wasted money and food spent on last-minute flakes. Ever since Kevin and I were engaged ten years ago I have been a fan of Etiquette Hell, who supports my belief that an RSVP to an event should never be optional, and should be committed to once given.
I have my requests for anyone who ever is invited to an event ever again.
Once you receive an invitation, check your schedule. Look at your calendar. If your calendar isn't showing any conflicts, but you think you might have one anyway, make some calls. If you think you want to attend the event, then make sure you can.
Respond as soon as possible. There are some etiquette rules that say if you receive an invitation and your schedule is clear, you respond positively (provided the event does not require too much in terms of travel time and money). I don't believe that you have to attend something you don't want to attend. You can say no. Just say it right away. Your hosts will be very pleased with the immediate reponse. This goes double for things like wedding invitations where the hosts may have provided the postage for you. Don't wait forever and then leave the invitation lying around the house for weeks on end until you lose it and then don't know the deadline date (Yes, I've been guilty of this myself). You know if you can or can't go? Good. Tell the hosts NOW. Don't make them have to chase you with phone calls.
Don't wait for something better to come along. It's a risk that the event might be lame. Something else might come up with your cooler friends. You sit and waffle. Do you respond to the invite at hand, or do you hope that maybe there is something more fun on the horizon? Once again you'll have your hosts chasing you with phone calls trying to get an answer from you. Most people don't enjoy being pushy, so it makes everyone uncomfortable all around. I'm sorry, but you have to commit. You have to take a chance and commit to the event and risk missing that better event that may or may not come along, or else you commit to the the possible better event. Just do it. Take a chance. Make a decision one way or another. Chances are if you commit to the event, you might just enjoy it as much as anything else you would have missed. Really, what better thing were you thinking was going to happen? I really doubt an all-expenses-paid trip to Bora Bora is going to drop out of the sky and you'd have to miss it for your aunt's dinner party.
Don't make excuses. You don't want to come? Fine. Just say you can't make it. Say you have a prior commitment. You don't need to explain yourself. If you just say you can't make it, your hosts will never know any better. However, in the internet age, trying to lie your way out of an event can really bite you in the butt. If you're going to tell your hosts that you can't make their event because you have to help your Aunt Tilly move furniture or because you're going to be holed up all day with a work project, be very careful about what you say in public. If you mention on your Facebook page how much you look forward to spending the weekend at your friend's beach house, you host now will know he was lied to, and hurt feelings can ensue.
Don't flake out at the last minute. It happens. Sometimes you don't quite follow the first rule and suddenly realize that you can't make the event you just said you would attend because you really did have a prior commitment you forgot about. If you discover this, make sure that this doesn't happen the week before the event. You should not be deciding the week or the day of the event that you're not going. Etiquette dictates only two reasons why you can cancel an event you're committed to. One is illness and the other is an illness or death of a family member. Legitimate reasons do no include seeing the guest list and suddenly realizing you don't know anyone on it, terrorits knocking down the Twin Towers 3 weeks earlier, your dog going to the vet three days earlier, or just suddenly deciding that you don't feel like going. Remember, if it's the last minute, your portion is already paid for, so you're making the hosts eat the cost. If you opt to simply not show and you clearly are healthy and uninjured and have a healthy family, it can cause a lot of hurt feelings too. Parents do sometimes have issues with babysitting, but plenty of times if this is explained to the host, if the hosts want you there, arrangements can be made.
To sum up the rules, if you receive an invitation, say yes, say no, just don't say nothing. Stand by what you say. Everyone will be much happier.