28 Nov 2022

Sending regrets... how to decline an invitation

At this time of year, the pace of social life picks up and you may well find yourself invited to multiple events and gatherings. This is a matter of celebration for energetic and convivial extroverts, but for many people this frenzy of socialising can become oppressive and exhausting. Many of us are still slowly re-booting our social life in the wake of the pandemic, and our social stamina is diminished.

So, if you want to curtail your socialising or simply to enjoy a quiet night in, how do you politely decline an invitation without causing offence?

Formal Invitations

It is easier to be circumspect when you receive a formal invitation to an event. It is not actually necessary to give a reason for non-attendance, and is quite acceptable to simply send regrets, for example:

Florence Cavendish thanks The Board of Trustees for the National Society of ……. for their kind invitation for Saturday December 17th, which she very much regrets being unable to accept.

If the formal invitation is personal, then it is usual to add an excuse, though not to add much detail (‘due to a previous engagement’, ‘due to the illness of ….’).

Informal Invitations

The whole business of declining becomes a little more fraught when you are responding to less formal invitations. You probably know the hosts and/or their friends personally, they may be part of your social circle, or family members, and you therefore need to think carefully before making your excuses.

 If somebody puts you on the spot and asks you to an event in person, or on the phone, don’t panic – that might lead to a kneejerk (and regretted) acceptance, or an over-blunt refusal. Instead, buy some time – say you’ve got to check your diary or calendar, or check your dates with your husband/wife/partner/babysitter. Give yourself the time to really think about the invitation and to assess whether you are able to go before replying.

When it comes to replying to informal invitations – written or verbal – the following general rules apply:

• You should always RSVP to invitations promptly, and this is certainly true when you are declining. Don’t allow your reluctance to let the hosts down become a reason for procrastinating. Bite the bullet and send your regrets as soon as possible.

• Always express your gratitude and appreciation for the invitation. Even if you are going to decline it you should indicate that you recognise you have been honoured.

• It’s always fine to plead a previous engagement, if that is genuinely the case. Everybody knows that social events clash, and that it’s unavoidable.

• Don’t tell lies to explain your non-attendance – your cover story may be blown by well-meaning friends, especially as social media now tracks and exposes our lives in unprecedented ways, and you wouldn’t want your hosts to discover that you lied in order to avoid their party.

• Don’t plead fictional illness, either your own or a family member’s. You will be provoking unwarranted sympathy and, more troublingly, interest, which may well mean that your story is exposed.

• If you’re not attending because you’re suffering from social exhaustion and want to spend a night slumped in front of the TV, it might be best to come clean – especially if you know the hosts well. This excuse will be much more acceptable if you imply that your exhaustion is due to over-work and/or parenting commitments (which everybody accepts are out of your control) rather than over-socialising (your hosts will conclude that you chose to go to other people’s events and as a result cannot summon the energy to go to theirs, which they may find hurtful).

• If you are asked to an event that involves spending money that you don’t have, for example a lavish Christmas dinner at an expensive restaurant, it is quite acceptable to be honest and say you can’t afford to participate – you can make this blunt statement more palatable, and less liable to induce guilt in your friends, by saying something like “I always spend far too much money at this time of year…” or jokily saying “I’m afraid there won’t be a turkey for Christmas dinner if I keep on splashing the cash!”. Keep it light-hearted and people will find your excuse understandable.

• If you are basically making your excuses because you are feeling over-tired and over-committed, you can always mitigate the impact of your refusal by suggesting an alternative social event in the near future (it might lighten the January gloom). Proposing a dinner or outing in the new year will ensure that your hosts don’t feel rejected.

• Above all, be decisive. Don’t prevaricate – putting an invitation on one side because you can’t make up your mind whether you’ve got the energy or will to go to the party is the height of bad manners. Your late RSVP, even if it’s an acceptance, may inconvenience your hosts. Sending a late refusal is never acceptable – your hosts may well detect that you have been hedging your bets about attending their party, and your subsequent decision to turn them down will be doubly insulting.

• If you change your mind at the last moment and decide to decline an invitation you have previously accepted, it is imperative that you contact the hosts (by phone, email or text) to let them know you won’t be coming. You should apologise profusely for the last-minute cancellation and should also offer an excuse for not attending. If you have decided not to go because you just can’t face it, then you must take on the blame (“I’m afraid I have bitten off more than I can chew, and severely under-estimated how exhausting the last two weeks would be. I am so sorry to let you down.”). Soften the blow by suggesting alternative future arrangements.


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