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The Social Contract of an Invitation

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I am a social person.  I tend to invite people to my home, my golf course, or even just to lunch because I enjoy spending time with people.  I also recognize that not everyone is like me.  Many people aren’t crazy extroverts who want to be surrounded by others all the time.

We’ll get to why this matters in a moment.

First, I want to understand a social problem that only seems to be getting worse: the RSVP.  When putting together a large get-together, you tend to invite a large number of people, with the understanding that some of them either won’t be able to, or just don’t want to attend.  If you look around at an invitation site, like evite.com or even Facebook Events, nearly every event I’ve ever been invited to looks something like this:

Invited:  55 people

Attending: 6 people

Declined: 7 people

Maybe: 42 people!

Should the organizers of the example event above plan for 6 people to attend?  Probably not.  There will likely be many more than that.  What keeps people from making a commitment?

Question 1:  Why do so few people respond to electronic invitations?

The second part of my thoughts on the “invitation” is arrival time.  Every event has a distinct start time.  It’s the time that the host is planning on their guests to begin arriving.  In my experience (I’m guilty of this too), the average arrival time is nearly an hour after the event has begun.  Is this an attempt to be “fashionably late?”

Question 2:  Why doesn’t anyone show up at the time an event is scheduled?

Before anyone reaches out to call me a “whiny child,” I want to be clear, here.  Yes, this stuff bothers me, because I think about crap like this all the time.  No, I don’t cry myself to sleep when someone doesn’t RSVP.  I’m sincerely interested in the social dynamics of an invitation, and I’d love to hear your perspectives, my dear readers, on these topics.


10 responses to “The Social Contract of an Invitation”

  1. Jesse Avatar

    I use to organize a group of friends every couple months and I started out with that EXACT same problem with a rather easy to fix — Make it clear why you need the RSVP, give them 1 month’s heads up, remind them 2 weeks out and cut off at 1 week out and stick to it (all of it). Some of these may seem harsh, but it should be out of respect of the organizer… they are putting the effort to make it happen after all.

    – If it starts at 7, start at exactly 7, no waiting, no holding up.
    – If 10 people said they’d show up, plan on 10 people. Those that RSVP’ed and show up on time get priority. Also, a maybe is a no – lack of commitment isnt’ an excuse (if possible don’t give them the option)
    – Do the event regardless of how many people show up, even if it ends up being 3 and don’t apologize for it either. Let your guests decide if it’s a problem (it rarely is, if ever)
    – If there are options, only give TWO. A or B, this or that, no discussion, no other ideas. I’ve been burned by this more times than anything else.

    Just my experience but it seems to work

  2. Ed Avatar

    I used to organize events for a student org (I still organize events as an evangelist) and it drives me crazy when people don’t RSVP! It helps for all sorts of planning purposes! I always try to RSVP yes or no to an event or email the organizer if I plan to attend, but will be late. It’s just polite.

  3. Mark Freeman Avatar

    I can only speak for myself, but I do my best to RSVP as specifically and accurately as possible. If I see an invitation a month in advance, I’ll likely RSVP immediately as a maybe if I have a genuine interest in attending, and then update that to a yes or no once I figure out if I can really make it or not (coordinate with family, etc.). I usually do that 1 – 2 weeks before the event.

    People who don’t RSVP are especially a problem for events where food is being provided. Do we buy 3 pizzas or 50? I recently helped organize an all-day Saturday tech conference. Attendance was free, and a box lunch was provided, funded by sponsor money. We had about 200 people that registered, yet only 60% of them showed up. The registration confirmation even provided a link to easily cancel the registration, and requested that people do so if they found that they would be unable to attend.

    We planned on a reasonable number of no-shows, but 40% seems absurdly high to me. The money that paid for all that extra food could have been put to much better use, like funding future events. I wish I knew how to motivate people to be more responsible about this kind of thing.

  4. Tudor Avatar

    A big problem with many events announced on Facebook, Linkedin or evite is that some organizers just send the invitations to every person in their contact list (hundred or more people) – in many cases this is considered just spam, and most people don’t even bother to respond.

    The ‘maybe’ responses in such cases are just a way to be polite, and should not be counted when reserving capacity for the meeting room – the people responsing ‘maybe’ are just telling: “hey, I know you, don’t want to be rude by ignoring your invitations that you just send to my inbox – it’s a nice event, maybe I will attend if I will have time”.. 🙂

    The conclusion is: send invitations only to the few poeple that you know are really interested on that subject – don’t use a social network site as a way to promote an event to all your contacts.

  5. hokuto Avatar

    My 2 cents
    1) Electronic invitations (the facebook type) are much less personal.

    If you invite in person or on a phone, you obviously care enough to find or call that person. That means your invitees are probably close(r) friends. On sites like facebook, you probably invite a large(r) number of acquaintances. You probably don’t know them as well and they probably don’t know you as well either.

    2) I guess it’s an economics / game theory problem. You don’t want to come too early (sitting on a cold bench for an hour isn’t fun); You also don’t want to come too late.

    Let’s assume if the host invited X people and your utility is highest if you arrive later than half of the group (i.e you arrival time is higher than the median value of the group) If you also predict that the median time is 7:10, you will arrive at 7:15. The other invitees will expect you to arrive at 7:15 and arrive at 7:20. Then you adjust your arrival time to 7:25 …

  6. Matt Casto Avatar

    I completely agree, but I also recognize that I am in the minority here. I hate leaving emails unanswered, even if my answer is, “I don’t know,” or, “I can’t get to this right now, but I’ll let you know when I can.”

    The same thing goes for invitations. I think most people who have “Maybe” selected really just either ignored or forgot about the invitation. What would solve this is having the ability to change the default value. If the default value was a new option, lets say “Not Responded”, then you would have a clear count of people who ignored or forgot.

    Also, the arrival time thing is something I would totally set, but I recognize I would be in the minority there too. Again, most people would simply ignore this. Also, I know many people who are incapable of setting an arrival time in advance, and wouldn’t even try. I think only parents of young children are in this mode.

  7. Alex McFerron Avatar
    Alex McFerron

    I like to know what I’m doing and to RSVP. However, I find that so many things are out of my control that I never know if I’ll be able to make it or not. Things change too fast in my world, our world….

    I say yes to a party, then I end up having to work late or run an errand for a friend that I just found out about…. which causes me to have to remember to go change my invite. Too hard.

    I wish this wasn’t the case, but things seem to come up all the time! I have no problems with commitments and like I said, I wish I was in control but it often times isn’t…..

  8. Justin Kohnen Avatar

    I totally agree. Being a programmer I like to know my “ins” and “outs.”

    My peeve tends to come from the people that don’t respond but just assume “I know they will be there.”

    Me: Did you get my invite?
    Them: Yeah
    Me: I didn’t get an RSVP, are you coming?
    Them: Oh, you know I’ll be there.
    Me (Internal Monologue): Then just click “Yes” on the invite! What? When I look at the numbers later for my planning I’m supposed to remember to +3 on the yes list, because “I know” 3 more people are coming?


    (Though, I really have no right to cast stones)

    As for why people don’t RSVP or “Maybe”. I’m not sure, we all have access to a personal calendar of some sort, it shouldn’t be too hard to know if you’re available or not.

    But then again, I am a programmer. (1 or 0)

  9. Jon Kruger Avatar

    For many events, I would like to attend and I plan on going, but because I have kids, it’s subject to change if people are sick, family comes into town that I haven’t seen in awhile, or if we just have had a really long and tiring week and need to take a night off. So given the choices of Yes and Maybe, I feel like I’m closer to the Maybe, even though my real answer is Most Likely. Saying Yes feels like I’m saying that the person is expecting me to come and may buy food for me, and sometimes that feels like more of a commitment than I’m able to make at the time. If I could say Most Likely, then you might plan on half of the Most Likelies to show up. You have no idea what exactly Maybe means.

    That being said, I am much much closer to a Yes than a Maybe for your party this weekend!

  10. Matt Frear Avatar

    This is one of my peeves especially with Facebook invitations – people just don’t reply at all. An attendees list of a Facebook party my friends and I planned read:

    Going (37)
    Declined (1)
    Maybe (9)
    Invited (128)

    So 128 people either didn’t see the Event or were too lazy to respond. Just hit Decline FFS, I won’t be offended!


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