#1334: “If someone keeps RSVP-ing “yes” but never attending, do I have to keep inviting them to stuff?”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (she/her) have a non-urgent question if you have the time and inclination.

In the Before Times I hosted semi-annual parties of 30-ish people and hope to start again when it’s safe. GB is a relatively recent addition to my small weekly book club, and has a spouse, SB (not in the book club). I am friendly, but not close, with both from my larger social circle. When I host a party, I include everyone from book club and their spouses, since there is usually party discussion during small talk at book club. The problem is GB/SB always RSVP “yes” to parties and rarely attend. This is SUPER annoying to me* (I’ve heard GB/SB do this to other hosts too). Also, my bestie, F, has a complicated history with SB and asked me to tell them when SB RSVPs “yes”, so F can decide if they’re up to seeing SB.

On one hand, I don’t want GB to be left out at book club when a party is mentioned. This has happened (I forgot GB/SB on an invite and felt quite embarrassed). I am close with other members of the book club and will invite them to parties, which they will inevitably discuss. On the other hand, SUPER ANNOYING RSVP THING. Plus, I like it when F attends my parties.

I don’t want to invite GB to a party without SB (is that old-fashioned?) I don’t feel close enough to GB to have a conversation about why they’re not invited to parties where I’m obligated to invite SB. If it matters, GB/SB invite me (as part of the larger social group) to an annual gathering, and I sometimes attend.

If I had a magic anti-awkwardness wand, I wouldn’t invite GB/SB to my parties. Lacking one, my options seem to be:
1. Don’t invite GB/SB to parties. When it comes up, say something like “You rarely show, so I didn’t invite you.”
2. Keep inviting GB/SB to parties. Tell F “They RSVP’d “yes”, but they rarely show, you do you.” Scream into pillow when they RSVP “yes” and don’t attend.

Any options I’m missing?
Party Planner

*I hate feeling stood up. Also, I have more close friends than my house can hold comfortably, reserving a spot for one couple means another is not invited.

Dear Party Planner: 

I love you both because you are thoughtful and because you are searching for some kind of consistent system that will make this all make sense. 

Which is why I am going to advise you to forgo the search for a consistent rule about this and live in the world of “sometimes.” You’re the only person who remembers the exact composition of your invitation lists enough to compare one to another, so wipe the whole slate clean and take it party by party. 

Most times: Wave your awkwardness wand! You get to be the boss of your own party! Invite smaller groups. Prioritize closer friends. Mix smaller subsets of book club friends and other friends together in new combinations if you’re worried excluding just one or two people will be too weird and obvious, and leave the chronic no-showers off the list. Doing this neatly pre-empts your own anxiety about whether GB and SB will show up (you didn’t invite them) and F’s additional anxiety rider on that question (you didn’t invite them). The pandemic is not over, so there is every excuse and reason in the world for starting small. 

Sometimes: Down the road, for events where the principle of inviting everyone in the book club is important to you, continue inviting everybody and let it go how it usually goes. Assume that no matter what they say that GB and SB won’t show, so go ahead invite the two closer friends you resented having to leave off the list, and let go of worrying about it. Having excess capacity because of a no-show clearly upsets you a lot, squeezing one or two extra people in once in a great while is automatically a better problem. 

You can also address F’s concerns right at the invitation stage. If SB harmed your best friend F in the past and/or harms other people now, then that’s easy, SB is never invited to anything at your house again, it’s never too late to stop inviting a known serial fuckface to things that are supposed to be fun. If this is about disliking SB, as in “eh, SB is a lot and I’m not always in the mood,” then give F the info to manage F’s own comfort levels, but don’t feel like you have to continually monitor the situation: “As you know, GB and SB rarely actually show, but I invited the whole book club and their partners, so there’s always a chance. Hope to see you there!”  

Once a specific party plan is in motion, you don’t have to hold a press conference to justify your decisions. I think that it’s unlikely that GB or SB will ever ask why they weren’t invited to a thing, since if they paid close attention to such things, they’d RSVP more accurately. I highly doubt that it’s ever even occurred to them that including them means excluding other guests.

If they do ask, then it is awkward, mostly because they have the exact same “she invites us all the time but we never actually show up, so why would she conclude that we like going?” information you do. If you don’t feel like digging deeper, you can always politely deflect: “I was tight on space this time so kept it small on purpose, maybe next time!” (This also works for any fellow book club bystanders who inquire, as does the blunt truth: “I used to aways invite them but they never show, so I skipped it this time. Sorry to make it weird, but this way I could squeeze in some friends who reliably do come.”)

If you sense that GB and SB are asking because they want to apologize or explain or get back on the list, and you want to engage, you can work with that: “In the past, I noticed that you often don’t attend, even when you say you will, so I started just assuming you’re a no. If you want to be invited next time, I’d love to see you, but I need firm RSVPs from now on.”

There are lots of reasons that plans fall through, so here’s where they can let you know, if they have chronic illness flares or childcare difficulties that are making it hard to show up. Maybe these people are over-committed and bad at saying ‘no’ and budgeting their time and energy, maybe they are rude and inconsiderate, maybe they have a more casual approach to all of it and didn’t realize how upset it makes you, maybe the antipathy between SB and F is extremely mutual and they’re trying to spare you, and maybe they really, really want to go to your party but can’t ever predict when they’ll be unable to leave the safety of the home toilet. Maybe you’re all just super-incompatible around all of this and should stick to book club from now on. 

You can’t read their minds, but if they want to stay on the invite list enough to approach you about it, perhaps you can come up with something more workable once you know more about what’s going on:

  • “I understand why your plans have to be up in the air sometimes, but for something like this, I need a real headcount at least ______ days before. Can you help me out?”
  • “I understand why your plans have to be up in the air, so let’s try this: If you’re not absolutely sure you can come, default to ‘no,’ but if it’s the day before or day of and you find out that you can come after all, send me a text ,and if I can possibly squeeze you in, I gladly will. That’s actually way less stressful for me!” 
  • “I love a prompt RSVP, but I actually need an accurate one. I’d much rather you tell me ‘slight maybe with a chance of no’ from the start than plan for you to be there and have it be a surprise on the day.”

Reflecting on pre-pandemic party planning in general, I think a lot of people think a ‘yes’ RSVP means a vague statement of affection or intention more than it does a commitment: ‘Yes, I like this person, this sounds fun in theory, and in a perfect world I will 100% be there.’ I also think that, the bigger the potential guest list, the more people assume, oh, plenty of people are going, nobody will even notice whether I’m there. 

Whereas, often what a host needs from a ‘yes, I’m coming’ is more like, ‘Yes, please go ahead and [make an additional version of every recipe to accommodate dietary restrictions][borrow extra chairs from the neighbor’s murder basement and clean the spiderwebs off them][cap the number of guests so the house doesn’t overflow][cross-reference the grievance chart and grudge archives for exes and nemeses before making the seating plan], we will definitely 100% be there.’  

All of you know yourselves and your friends better than I do, but as we emerge into the world of “table manners” and “waistbands” again,  I’d encourage event invitees to be very honest with themselves about what they can and want to commit to attending. Shit happens, so if you truly have to cancel at the last minute, then you have to, and if it’s a fluke emergency, people will mostly understand, as long as you tell them. If it’s a recurring issue, where you repeatedly cancel on the same person, then maybe it’s not as much of a “last minute total surprise out of nowhere” as it seems and it’s time to be honest with yourself: Do you actually *want* to go, or do you just wish you wanted to? If you do want to to stay on the invite list, then sit your friend down and tell them what’s going on with you so you can work it out. It’s far more considerate to say an honest  “Not this time, sorry!” or “I want to come, but I won’t know for sure until the day of, is that okay?” than to subject your host to the kind of surprise party called “You spent $300 on extremely specific groceries and now your phone is buzzing like that in this empty room because everyone texted to cancel at the last minute. Surprise!” 

For frequent hosts who who consistently have trouble getting people to commit to and follow-through on attending stuff you host, there are some ways to make your invite list more congruent with your attendance-list: 

Narrow your guest list. For starters, all of the creeps, jerks, racists, misogynists, TERFs, boundary pushers, and ticking drama-bombs have had a whole year to make new friends, work on themselves, and find other shit to do with their time. If the assholes want parties, they can throw their own. You are not an asshole rehabilitation center, and they are not your problem anymore. Do not make yourself – and the people you actually like – put up with them. Be free! 

Of course, someone doesn’t have to be objectively vile to not be invited to every single thing, but I am suggesting that we all embrace some subjectivity right now. It’s okay to want to hang out with people who are compatible with you and who don’t make you work so hard at being friends with them, and therefore absolutely okay if the Letter Writer makes a private rule for herself: “If someone says ‘yes’ but means ‘no’ three times in a row without a very good reason, then I don’t have to invite them to stuff anymore, and I hereby assume that whatever this is is their problem to work on.”  Resign from doing a lot of work about people who are indifferent to you, and go the extra mile to accommodate the friends you actually like. 

Rethink your scale. When you’re at the 24-hour diner, the menu is huge, but it’s hard to know exactly what to eat, and it’s open all the time, so it doesn’t really matter when you show up. In party terms, “show up any time, and bring whoever you like” can be really fun, but it creates prime conditions for people to flake out. If this makes you anxious, scale way, way down, and spell things out from the jump: “Doors open at 6, dinner at 6:30, we start the movie at 7:30, my living room fits seven people, so tell me by [date] if you want to be sure of a seat and help me plan around dietary needs. FYI, I have cats, and my building has a ‘no smoking of anything on the premises’ rule, including the balcony, so plan accordingly.” 

Remind people: On the RSVP deadline, remind people: “Hello, I’m trying to get an accurate head count for Saturday, so if your RSVP has changed the time to let me know is now.” Commander Logic invokes Gandalf when doing this for her annual Lord of the Rings watch/open-house: “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” Gandalf RSVP’d to a siege, surely you can let your friend know how many taters to make. 

Replace (or augment) broad social media and emailed group invites with direct, personal invites. Online group invitations can be very convenient for keeping track of who is coming all in one place, but they have drawbacks. They all look the same (especially on Facebook), they’re easy to scroll by or miss, if you don’t reply right away they’re sometimes hard to find again (looking at you again, Facebook), they are never as easy to add to your calendar as they claim to be (Oh hello, Zuckerberg, we meet again, on your accursed website from hell).

I’m not saying never, ever use Evite or social media event planning tools, but if you’re not getting the traction you want with them, consider also sending individual emails or texts where you link to the central invite: “Hello, [Specific friend], I’m having a small get-together at my place, here are the details (spell them out!) and a link to the invitation. I’d love to see you, can you let me know by _____ if you can make it.” 

Make the reminders specific and personal, too. Especially for people who you know need extra nudging. Asking specific questions is a friendly way of saying “Hey I actually notice and care if you come to this” and can make it stand out from the mass “Hey everyone, please RSVP if you haven’t” reminders that only the good RSVP-ers in the group will triple-check out of anxiety that they forgot. “GB, hello, how are you? I’m trying to lock down all the details for [party], are you and SB still in? Am I remembering correctly that SB doesn’t eat strawberries? You mentioned that fun game you really like at book club, can you bring it along?”  

Narrow the guest list, again. Make a deadline for yourself where, if someone hasn’t responded or confirmed, once reminded, you exclude them from further consideration, reminders, updates, etc. about the event. If you’re using an online invitation platform, see if it will let you filter communication to confirmed guests only and/or outright remove non-responders from your field of view and from the invitation itself. Those people would still have the initial email or message, so if they wanted to follow up they could track you down. Until they do, you can move forward without thinking about them or chasing them. 

Tell people close to you what to expect. Especially if it’s important to you, especially if you’re changing up how you used to do things. Party rules are good!

  • “I don’t drink anymore, so if you want to drink alcohol, please bring it with you and take it with you when you go.”
  • “I know I used to invite The Whole Group to everything, but my place can’t hold everyone like it used to, so I’m having to keep guest lists smaller. Please check with me first if you want to bring someone who isn’t already on the invitation, and don’t assume that everyone we know in common already knows about it or is invited.” Remember, someone who wants to see The Whole Group is free to throw their own Whole Group parties any old time, it’s not your sole job to be the eternal keeper of The Whole Group flame every time you want to see your fellow human beings.
  • “I know a lot of you are friends with my ex, and I’ll be friends with them too, in about six more months. Right now I’m trying to see my friends in situations where I won’t have to also manage All of That, which is one more reason not to add people to my invites without checking.”
  • “Since not everyone is or can be vaccinated yet, this shindig is outdoors and masks-on.” (People who argue with you about this are inviting themselves to stay home from this thing and never find out about the next one.) 
  • “I get really anxious when people say they are coming to a thing and don’t show up. If you can’t come, it’s fine, just tell me! And if you have to cancel, let me know so I’m not watching for you the whole time.” It’s okay to both have needs and say what they are, and sometimes “Thanks for humoring me about my quirk” is easier to express than “Polite people check their calendars, THEN click the clicky box.”

If this seems like way too much work for someone you’re not sure you want to invite in the first place, then wave your wand and skip it. It’s your party! “I shouldn’t have to remind people!” No, probably you shouldn’t!  But if you want certain people to show up, and are having trouble getting that result, try think of it as knowing who you’re dealing with and setting them up to succeed. 

I hope everyone who likes plan events can throw many wonderful safe parties of exactly the right size and mix of guests and snacks very soon. ❤

P.S. As I contemplate the concept of parties, I felt a lot of actual #feelings when I watched this add for gum vaccination. Be safe out there!