Monday, November 11, 2013

Circa Now: How the Internet Has Changed the R.S.V.P.

“The Evite has also saved us from the plumed scroll and the careful unrolling of the parchment,” said Francine Maroukian, who has written books about entertaining for Esquire and Town & Country. “Not to mention glitter in envelopes.”

But hasn’t all of this ease and streamlining also helped erode the social contract that is at the heart of an R.S.V.P.? Hunt Slonem, a painter and frequent dinner party host, said: “I don’t know if people take an online invitation as seriously as a printed one anymore. A lot more people R.S.V.P. than show up because it’s so easy to R.S.V.P.”

The chef and television host Rocco DiSpirito concurred. “People have gotten extremely wiggly about R.S.V.P.’ing,” he said. “People either don’t R.S.V.P. and show up anyway, or they R.S.V.P. yes to everything and decide later what their best option is.”

If you’re looking for evidence of Monsieur Reservez’s reduced circumstances, you need look no further than the fact that it’s not uncommon these days to be emailed a reminder that the event to which you R.S.V.P.’ed three weeks ago is happening tonight. Or that it’s now possible, with a Facebook invitation, to be offered the option “Maybe.” Both are canaries in the R.S.V.P. coal mine.

However, guests — even those who do respond to invitations in the affirmative but who then text their regrets at the last minute — are not solely to blame. Hosts themselves are upping the murkiness factor. Earlier this year I, but not my boyfriend, received an invitation to the glamorous Brooklyn brownstone of someone who knows us both. As it turned out, I was fairly sure that a 6 p.m. obligation that same evening would preclude my attendance. Given the host and the augustness of the occasion for which the party was being held, I was 90 percent certain that the party would be catered, and therefore that a head count would be important; however, the invitation did not bear the initials “R.S.V.P.” So the party was exclusive enough that only one member of my dyad was invited, but not so exclusive that an R.S.V.P. was required. My mind slightly reeled.

A few months later I received a dinner invitation from a different source in which I was told that I wasn’t required to respond but that “it might help anyway.”

The newly relaxed attitudes toward R.S.V.P.’s can be especially acute with events that are not specifically dinner or cocktail events. Mari Meehan, a retiree in northern Idaho, said that a few years ago she and her husband were emailed an invitation to the wedding of the son of a former business associate of her husband. “Mind you, we had never met the son nor his lady and had not had any contact with the business associate for years. So Hub clicked on the ‘Will Not Be Attending’ option. A few months later he received an e-announcement: it’s a boy. A few months later he received an e-announcement that a boy had actually been born. It seemed to us that it was a rather tacky solicitation for gifts in both cases.”

Paul Cram, an actor in Minneapolis, said that two years ago he R.S.V.P.’ed yes to an Evite for a play that a friend was performing in. Once in attendance, Mr. Cram discovered that the not-wonderful play was almost three hours long and that his friend had only a few lines in the last four minutes of the show. After the show, Mr. Cram congratulated his friend but also conveyed his surprise that she wanted him in attendance. “She tells me: ‘Oh, no, I didn’t mean that to be taken as a you-have-to-attend personal invitation. You should have called me to see if it’s something I wanted you to come to.’ Now I don’t respond to Evites.”

Henry Alford is the author of “Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That? A Modern Guide to Manners.” Circa Now appears monthly.

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