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Apr 5, 2005 09:38 AM

RSVP - the etiquette of explaining what that means.

  • d

My Mom and I are throwing a 70th birthday party for my Dad. We expect to invite 40-45 people, most are close family (sibs, neices, etc) and some are golf buddies. It's a full sit-down dinner. I think that makes RSVP an appropriate option, but since it's casual and mostly family, and since my Dad mentioned being reluctant to make people RSVP(no explanation), I'm looking for an alternative.

But the main reason I'm concerned about what to say on the invitation is that, in my experience, people ignore RSVP anyway. Also ignore Regrets.

What can I say on the invitation so people actually let us know if they are coming?

"Please call us by May 1 if you cannot make it" ?
"Please call or email to let us know if you are coming" ?
"We look forward to seeing you, if you or any of your family can't make it, please call and let us know before May 1" ?

How much can I spell it out without insulting the people who actually know how to behave?


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  1. With a sit-down dinner for that many people, I'm guessing that you're having this birthday party at a restaurant. If that's the case, I'd add a note at the bottom of the invitation saying, "We're calling the restaurant on May 1st to arrange the party, so we need to know before then if we can expect the pleasure of your company. Please give us a call or an email at your earliest convenience. Thanks!"

    Knowing my family and friends, I would still expect to have to make some calls at the end of April. I just don't know what it is about RSVPing that people don't get...

    28 Replies
    1. re: Deenso

      Actually, no, we're doing at my Mom's house. Yes, that's a lot of people, and the logistics of setting up extra tables in the screened porch, borrowing folding chairs, etc. is one of the reasons I really will be irritated if we plan for 40 , 20 show up, and nobody "regrets" (except for people who come anyway, as I have also seen happen).

      But I do like your wording, so let me ask you another: is there a nicer way to say no gifts than "no gifts"? ;-)

      1. re: danna

        A lot of people will disagree with me, but there is no polite way to say "no gifts." That's because no one should tell someone else whether or not to bring a gift. Gifts should be freely offered, under no sense of obligation, and freely accepted, with graciousness. If you feel terribly uncomfortable with people bringing gifts, you don't call it a birthday party. If you do, some people will feel obliged to bring gifts, whether you say no gifts or not. And some people will want to - personally, I love giving gifts and take great pleasure in picking out soemthing the recipient will like. Miss Manners is on my side with this, but I know a lot of people consider it ridiculously out-of-date, so you'll probably hear from a lot of people who will recommend the newly "traditional" "Your presence is the only present we desire."

        1. re: curiousbaker

          I agree. Let people bring gifts if they want (they will probably also be the ones that RSVP!)

          1. re: Funwithfood

            I still remember feeling like such a jerk after bringing no gift (except some commemorative photos which I handed to the birthday boy as we arrived) and then sitting miserably through the public gift opening ceremony. I asked the hostess why the invitation said no gifts, and she said because they did not want people to feel obligated. Oi.

            1. re: Babette

              Wow. Told no gifts, and then they have the dreaded (even if gifts were heartily welcomed!) public gift opening?! That's tacky!

              No matter what, I hate the public gift opening. I don't need to see the person exclaim delightedly over the "perfect X" I gave them (and then have to sit through the same excited declarations over every other gift). The thoughtful note that reflects on why they like what I gave them is thanks enough, thanks.


              1. re: Smokey

                That is if they are thoughtful enough to send a thank you note! (tee hee).

                1. re: Funwithfood

                  Listed up everyone ...I host many, many parties and I downright tell every single guest to bring a bottle of wine or a fabulous appetizer or something fun to drink, everyone knows that if they come to my planned party or dinner party they better have something in hand for me, be it wine, food or a nicely wrapped gift! ; )OR THEY WILL QUICKLY BECOME X'D OFF MY INVITE LIST !!!! After all a true friend never comes empty handed ! says I and Martha !

              2. re: Babette

                I recently threw myself a birthday party, actually, that's not entirely true. I hosted a party to celebrate my birthday at a local paint-your-own pottery studio.

                I made my favorite appetizers, served my favorite cocktails and played my favorite music. It was quite fun and actually quite ironic, because I normally hate having anybody pay attention to me. But turning 35 will do that to you...

                On the invitation, I specifically said, "In lieu of gifts, please purchase yourself a piece of pottery to paint in memory of our treasured friendship."

                It was a blast. Everybody picked out something that they really wanted and we had a great time.

                With that said, some people still brought gifts. Some people did not, and actually apologized to me for not doing so, which was rather awkward. Other than the flowers that my sister-in-law brought me (with her own vase and the proclomation of, "This isn't actually a gift because that's still my vase.") I discreetly put the gifts off to the side after thanking everyone who brought them and didn't make a big deal out of it.

                I have attended no-gift parties and found that, despite the request, there's often a cute little gift table set up in the corner.

                1. re: MkeLaurie

                  About opening gifts... this is culturally dependent. In many cultures it is considered rude not to open a gift when you receive it. This is how things work in my husband's family--and it threw me off guard at first. So it is probably best not to judge or take immediate offense if your gift is opened in front of you.

            2. re: curiousbaker

              I agree with you there is no polite way of saying "no gifts" b/c by saying you're implying that you were expecting gifts. You can let people know no gifts if they call to ask you what he might like.

              1. re: curiousbaker

                Bringing gifts when not asked to is a interesting way to create confusion, soreness, and jealousy in other guests. The other guests may give the host the eye, saying "well, you didn't tell me..." And the host will be put on the spot.

                Forget mismanners. "No gifts, please. If you are inclined, we encourage you to contribute to our favorite so-and-so's name." That should put a stop to it. And if someone does come bearing gifts after all that, you tell them in front of everyone. "Oh, very nice. We will donate it."

                1. re: mod'ern

                  Bringing a gift at any time is acceptable - you just don't make a fuss about it. Hand it to the recipient as you come in the door, and that person should thank you nicely and put it away to be opened later, so as not to make any other guests uncomfortable. If your guests can be made jealous, confused and sore by witnessing a simple act of generosity, there is something wrong.

                  And if you would really respond to someone's gift by making a public statement that you intend to donate it - well, you certainly are forgetting manners and kindness as well.

                  It makes me sad that gift-giving has become so fraught with problems. Personally, I rarely show up at someone's house empty-handed, even for a casual dinner. That's what the stash of homemade jams and jellies is for, or the quick breads in the freezer, or the flowers from the garden. Most of my friends are the same way. But a lot of people seem to see gift-giving of any kind as a form of emotional bribery, or a game of one-upsmanship, or some sort of terrible obligation. It's unfortunate.

                  1. re: curiousbaker

                    For a hilarious take on gift-gifting as one-upmanship, you should read David Flusfeder's novel "The Gift."

                    1. re: curiousbaker

                      Bringing a gift is not acceptable if the people asking specifically asked you not to bring gifts. It's called respecting someone's wishes.

                      As if there's any way to "sneak" in a gift w/ out others seeing this, without a fuss!

                      And the point is that other guests will feel uncomfortable about it b/c they will think, rightly so, that 2 rules are in play. That 2 invitations were sent--one for less familiar guests, no gift; one for more familiar, bring gift.

                      It's an outrage...OK. I am getting out of hand. But you'd definitely deserve a wrist slapping.

                      1. re: mod'ern

                        Okay, first off, I generally think that you shouldn't bring gifts if someone specifically asks you not to, though I think asking people not to is inappropriate.
                        I would indeed respect the person's request.

                        But it's a really not that offensive; many well-brought-up people find it very difficult to show up to an occasion empty-handed and assuming that they are attempting some sort of manuever to make others uncomfortable seems unnecessarily suspicious. I can't imagine that people will think that two invitations were sent - people know that some people will bring a gift even if not asked to, so they will assume that someone just brought something anyway. (Besides, I can't imagine anyone would be so lacking in manners as to have two separate guest lists.) And of course no fuss needs to be made over a gift - it's inappropriate to ooh and ahh and open a gift in front of others, but it's quite possible to simple say, "thank you so much, that's very nice of you," and put the gift to the side. That's what you do if someone brings a wrapped gift to an event that is not a standard gift-giving occasion; say, if you were to bring a small gift to commemorate a promotion to a dinner party that just happens to be the next time you were to see the recipient. In my circle, this sort of small gift-giving happens a lot, and no one seems unnerved by noticing a gift being given when she didn't bring one.

                  2. re: curiousbaker

                    I think you can say no gifts by putting something like "in lieu of gifts please make donations to xxx", xxx=your fathers favorite charity. This way those that want to give can do so with out making your father accept them.

                    1. re: curiousbaker

                      If your suggestion is considered old-fashioned, then call me old-fashioned. I totally agree w/ you, curiousbaker. If I were invited to a birthday party like this, I'd want to bring something. It might be small, it might be big, but I'd like to have the option of extending my wishes in whatever way I see fit for the nature of my relationship w/ the honoree.

                      So if the invite said in a polite way "no gifts" or "please donate to...", I would feel conflicted about the former (now I have to worry about not respecting their explicit wishes) and restricted by the latter. Donations are nice but not very personal IMO, and I'd be less inclined to follow through.

                      Even if a statement is made, inevitably there will be a few people who bring gifts, which might cause those who respected the "no gifts" request to feel guilty or wish that they had just gone w/ their own instincts to bring something.

                      To the OP: you may have wanted to uncomplicate matters by stating "no gifts", but in fact, it actually complicates matters IMHO. Not bringing up anything about gifts in the first place allows your guests the freedom to do as they wish. Someone who is turning 70 deserves to be showered w/ praise, attention, and

                      1. re: curiousbaker

                        I agree. It is still considered deeply rude in many areas to instruct "no gifts". Trust me, you *will* offend people if you include such an instruction.

                        When my mother complained at my parents' 50th anniversary party about why I had not instructed people not to bring gifts, I whispered quietly in her ear: "Because you raised me better than that. Your job is to smile and say thank you." Which she did, instantaneously. More importantly, she relaxed and thereafter had a great time.

                        It was odd, because it was the first and only time she ever behaved that way.

                        My father, however, was notorious throughout our childhoods for being a tough recipient of gifts. I mean for decades. Interestingly, he gloried in the gifts at the party. Which was the first time any of us could recollect that!

                        I share this tale because you just never know what joy a gift may bring.

                        That being said, anyone who brings a gift ought not expect that it be opened in his/her presence. Frankly, that ought only be done among intimates; no one should be inadvertently shamed for not bringing a gift. That's the flip-side of the no-no-gifts rule.

                      2. re: danna

                        For my Dad's 80th, we said "The pleasure of your company is the only gift Dad would like this year"

                        The next year, we said "This year, the gift Dad would most like to recieve is a shared memory...please write down a favorite memory or story to share, or share a favorite photo, or sing a favorite song...we will be having a sharing time after the meal"

                        1. re: Cyndy

                          I highly recommend the shared memory request.

                          At a recent event that I went to, we did something similar. We built a scrapbook for the person. Everyone brought a photo, image, story, etc. that was significant to the honoree. People could put the item in the scrapbook as they came in or add to it as the evening went on. It was fun. As people passed the book around and read other people's stories & images, it triggered more memories and thus, more entries (and helped the people who hadn't come prepared still participate). By the end of the evening, the book was full.

                          Prior to the event, we had video-taped people telling stories about the honoree which we played just before sitting down to eat. I think doing these type of oral histories are great. And the honoree loved it.

                          Note: it was a retirement event and there wasn't a lot of alcohol served/consumed.

                          1. re: Pssst
                            quiz wrangler

                            The video idea is terrific. We did a scrapbook for a 90th birthday party and received beautiful cards, photographs and drawings in response. Some were thoughtfully mailed in advance by friends and family who could not attend, so we already had entries on display when the party guests began to arrive. A scrapboook can be the perfect gift for someone who didn't really want or need any gifts.

                        2. re: danna

                          I understand what that folks have said about it not being ideal to tell people that gifts are undesired for all the reasons you stated. However, when I think of the 70 and older people I know, for many of them, gifts are truly a burden. They are at a stage of their lives when they are trying to reduce their possessions and a gift, no matter how thoughtful or well-meaning, can feel like one more thing to find a place for. If this is the reason that you would like to say some version of 'no gifts', I believe it should be said and respected, for the wellbeing of the recipient.
                          We've found that if we want to give something to these friends and family members, we give experiences (like dinner or a play or a gathering of some kind). However, it would be hard to specify something like that on an invitation, which is why i liked the photo or memory idea.

                          1. re: Laurella

                            Even people trying to cut down on things don't usually object to a thoughtful but evanescent gift like flowers, a box of chocolates, homemade cookies, or a bottle of wine.

                            1. re: Junie D

                              Don't entirely agree, here. Thoughtful but evanescent, good. Food, bad. My grandma hates getting boxes of chocolate or cookies (she's often the only person to consume them because she lives alone, and like a lot of people in their 80's, her metabolism ain't what it used to be). Wine, well, she's not a big drinker (although most of her friends probably know that, so wouldn't go that route), but even if she loved alcohol, like a lot of elderly folks, she has a number of chronic medical conditions managed with lots of different medications. Mix that with EtOH, and you don't have a pretty picture.

                              I try to give her things like cut flowers or paperwhites. It's very difficult to buy gifts for her. I have to agree with Laurella, many gifts represent more of a burden than a joy to an elderly person who is looking to pare back their possessions. Just my two cents,


                              1. re: Smokey

                                Absolutely. Hopefully you know the person well enough to know what would be appropriate.

                        3. re: Deenso

                          Okay then. Dinner at home. I've done it, too, for 35-40 people and it IS a big job. Table and chair rentals, a tent, etc. We did it as a buffet and, yes, we always end up having to call 25% of the invitees a week before the party because they've not responded.

                          As to the "no gifts" thing, I don't think I'd even mention it. Why bother? As others have stated here, people take joy in giving gifts and they're going to know it's for your dad's birthday. That's a reason to celebrate. Let 'em bring gifts. Otherwise they could feel like moochers instead of guests - subtle difference there, but bringing a gift to a birthday party makes a person feel like they're participating more.

                          Is there a specific reason your dad doesn't want gifts? Is he trying to save people money or the time and trouble of shopping for him? If that's the case, you might want to suggest "Gag gifts only, please!" so that people won't spend big bucks.

                          1. re: Deenso

                            Moochers? Ooch. I think I understand what you're saying but it seems like that kind of thinking just feeds on itself. A person who is required to present cash or goods in order to attend an event is a customer. A guest is a person who is invited to participate as a friend. If a guest wants to give a gift, it should be as a reflection of his or her regard, not as payment for a meal and entertainment. Ideally, that is. JMHO

                            1. re: Kimm

                              "If a guest wants to give a gift, it should be as a reflection of his or her regard, not as payment for a meal and entertainment."

                              Of course you're right. I never meant to suggest otherwise. What I was trying to say is that some people FEEL that way, not that they SHOULD feel that way.

                        4. Some people seem to have trouble responding to RSVPs even if they know what it means. Maybe something about having a few weeks to do something means it doesn't get done. I know it's a lot of work, but for a party like this I would be tempted to plan to start calling people I hadn't heard from a week before your deadline, or even just start calling them all at some point. One of my aunts almost always phones you when you're invited to one of her parties, right around the time the paper invitation arrives, and says something like, "I really do hope you'll be able to come." You can usually find out if they're going to come that way. You could also use that call to suggest people not bring gifts, if you want.

                          1. I'd put something to the effect of "Please RVSP before May 1" on your invitation. I predict about half of your invitees will ignore that and not respond one way or the other. After your date has passed, if you really want a solid headcount, you're going to need to call each non-responder and ask if they are coming. Make it an excuse to say hello and catch up with somebody, and be nice about it. Another more clever option, and one that I had to use for my upcoming wedding, is to have a third party (e.g., a family member close to you and the non-responders) call for you. The basic conversation in this case can be of fellow guests coordinating plans to attend instead of the host checking off names on a list. For example, my mother called a whole branch of my family who hadn't responded to ask if they wanted to coordinate flights to and from our wedding. We got a pretty quick answer of who was and who was not coming at that point. It's incredibly annoying to have to go to such lengths when all it would take is 10 seconds of a person's time to return a SASE, but it's the world we live in today.