Paul Cram's Anecdote on Evites in the New York Times
By Henry Alsford for the New York Times article How the Internet Has Changed the R.S.V.P.
With ease come presumption and murk. Take, for instance, the modern R.S.V.P. The Internet has allowed a host or event producer to painlessly publicize his or her event to sultans and skateboarders in minutes, the digital invitation beaming on their computer screens and cellphones like an onion puff dangling from a stick.
“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.”
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.”
Several factors fuel this new R.S.V.P. squishiness. On the guest front, some people cite lack of experience. Rena Sindi, who moved into Sean Combs’s townhouse on Park Avenue in the 1990s and gave some of that decade’s most fabulous theme parties, said: “It’s the people who don’t entertain who are the worst at R.S.V.P.’ing. Those who entertain know that numbers are important.”
With a larger party like the ones Ms. Sindi is known for, guests are often invited in waves of desirability; thus, an invitee’s failure to send his regrets is often keeping another guest from being invited. Ms. Sindi said that she always tries, as a guest, to answer promptly. “And unless I’m on my deathbed, I show up.”
Other critics of guest-based laxness cite not a lack of experience in general, but a surfeit of the wrong kind. Ms. Maroukian said, “We have before us a generation of people who grew up eating in restaurants, not at dinner parties.” Ms. Maroukian said that these people need to realize that “a restaurant doesn’t care about you in the same way a host does: it’s going to serve dinner with or without you.”
“But a dinner party host really cares,” she continued.
When it comes to hosts or event producers, the squishiness has its own roots. In the case of the people who reached out to Ms. Meehan and Mr. Cram, the willy-nilliness of the invitations breathes of excessive Internet usage. If you’re going to use Paperless Post as a way to fill seats or get presents, you haven’t simply blurred the line between private and public, you’ve obliterated it.
In the case of my cocktail-party host and others like her, it’s more difficult to generalize. Initially I ascribed this R.S.V.P.-less invitation to a kind of partial munificence: “Come to my catered little shindig if you (but not your boyfriend) can, but I don’t need to know if you can’t make it.” But the more I thought about it, the more I was able to ascribe empathy to it. Some hosts are so conscious of the overstuffed quality of their guests’ lives that they overgenerously ease parameters in an effort to get the guests to show up.
This easing of parameters can, in some cases, rob parties of their mystery. “I heard of one party where the hosts published the menu with the invitation, so the gluten-free would feel free to come,” Ms. Maroukian reported. “As the writer Max Frisch once said, technology is ‘the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it.’ ”
Indeed, now that some of us use Facebook to manage our friendships and acquaintanceships, turning friends into “friends” and genuine admiration into ideograms of thumbs, perhaps it’s only fitting that we’ve made less binding the handshake in the dark that is an R.S.V.P. Moreover, electronic communication is supposed to render our lives easier, and what, in the heartless blinking of your computer’s electromagnetic field, seems easier about a Saturday night that’s a month away than “Maybe”?
But how quickly Maybe’s buttery aroma of intention metastasizes into lizardy default. Kate Rezucha, the internal communications manager for the San Francisco-based Esurance, said: “I’ve learned that the best way to secure guests’ attendance at your hopeful child’s birthday party is to ignore guests’ positive or nonexistent R.S.V.P.’s and to call each child’s parents, imploring them to bring their child ‘because I’m afraid no one else is going to make it, and I don’t want her to be left without any friends on her birthday.’ Unlike the year my ex-husband was in charge and did not make said calls. The lone party guest turned to my sad 8-year-old and said, ‘Don’t you have any friends?’ ”