I returned the RSVP card for a wedding earlier this week, and it made my think of this piece from the archives where I struggled with RSVPs for my sister-in-law's bridal shower. Titled "RSVP—A Cultural Construct?," it examined the obligations that invitations carry. The following has been edited from its original posting for clarity and relevance, and presents a some new thoughts on the matter.
Much has been written about the decline of the RSVP. What is so hard about letting the host know whether you can attend? In many cases, the work has been done for you: virtual invitations require clicking the appropriate radio button, while paper invitations might contain a pre-stamped RSVP card or clear instructions on how to contact the host. And with the popularity of text messaging, you don't even have to call! Yet, many hosts are often frustrated by a lack of responses. But perhaps there is something about the RSVP itself that lends itself to this sort of social silence.
In 2009, my sister-in-law got married. And I was in charge of her bridal shower. The gathering was limited to "immediate" family, which in a Bengali/Indian household can approximate anywhere in the range of 50 - 100 people as a result of reciprocal invite practices and whether the invited individuals have children or other family members staying with them at the time. Invitations are by default extended to all persons in the household. In this case, I was expecting approximately 75 people, coming from about 35 households. I put a lot of thought into the invitations and had them printed with matching envelopes and return labels. And I gave folks the option to RSVP by phone or email, thinking about my own busy schedule and wanting to give them different options for working me into their day. I mailed them with a little bit of anxiety because this would be the first event that I would host for the family. And I waited.
A few emails trickled in from non-family members and cousins who were close to my age. So I prepared for the rush of acceptances. Surely the phone would begin to ring. Surely my inbox would overflow.
And nothing happened.
I mentioned to S that I hadn't heard from anyone but a handful of folks. I was worried. We were planning on catering the event and had no idea of a headcount. He asked if I had followed up the paper invitation with a phone call. I was taken aback. A phone call? You mean I needed to chase folks down to determine if they were coming? I was already up to my neck in party planning activities—where was I going to find the time to call all these people? The purpose of the invite was for them to call me. After all, I was the one doing all the work—all they needed to do was indicate whether they were coming or not (and show up close to on time).
But according to S, no one would come if I didn't call. I was at a loss. "Then what was the purpose of the invitation?" I demanded to know. S shrugged. "If you don't call, it means you don't really want them to come." Apparently, I came very close to alienating the guest list, which contained mostly family members, because of the way my invitation was delivered. I stewed on this for a day or so, and then began the process of tracking down the assorted telephone numbers needed. I felt foolish during my first few calls: "Hey, it's Krystal. How are you? I just want to be sure you received the invitation and are planning on attending the shower." I stumbled through the first calls. I was embarrassed. I felt as though I was begging people to attend.
And in truth, in many ways, I was. To be a host is a great honor. It means that you have the physical means of showing generosity to others. However, to be invited means that you will have to reciprocate in some way—this is the social expectation as outlined by Marcel Mauss in The Gift. (I talk about Mauss at length here.) So to be a guest, to be invited, is actually a bigger burden than it is to host, particularly if you have little means to reciprocate.
For my guests however, a personal invitation is embedded in their cultural practices. The importance of individual contact conveys importance both about the event and about the requested guest. Visiting becomes an important activity in this instance because it is common for Bengalis to deliver invitations to events during the course of a visit. Abu-Zahra (1974) writes in her discussion on the etiquette of visiting:
"The system of visiting, therefore, is the criterion according to which villagers are judged as to whether they have respect and are appreciated by the rest of the villagers or not. In order to attract visitors one should do favours to others and this is dependent on the amount of wealth which would enable one to have sufficient influence to help others. To achieve the same end one also should be kind and gentle to others. This will attract people who will praise one and thus, one will enjoy an 'honourable reputation'" (122).
Sweeping changes to social norms are not common short of revolutions. The social order—as conceived of our other longtime friend, Durkeim—is a somewhat stable force. In Bangladesh, hosts often visit the homes of the invited as a means of delivering the invitation. To understand why, we need to understand the importance of reciprocal action to this society. There are "costs" associated with being invited that are both social and physical. Delivering the invitation during a visit, helps mitigate the "cost" to the guest because it allows him to preemptively fulfill his duties to reciprocate. When the time came to deliver the wedding invitations for my sister-in-law, only those guests who lived a considerable distance away received an invitation in the mail (although they did receive a very lengthy phone call preceding the receipt of the invite). All other guests received a personal visit from my in-laws, during which time their presence was requested at the wedding.
There is a great deal of prestige and reputation tied to visiting. There are rules that govern proper visiting etiquette (Abu-Zahra 1974:127):
- (W)hen one visits a person one makes qdar [esteem] for him, and if one had not been visited earlier by this person he is lowering his qdar (hat be-qadruh).
Abu-Zahra stresses the honor tied to a return visit—visiting someone who visits you (i.e., attending the event to which you were invited during a personal visit)—allows you to gain standing within the community because it is as though you have allowed your host to pay off a social debt, which was incurred when the host visited to deliver the invitation. Mauss noted that though gifts (and invitations) are supposed to be given freely and willingly, they in fact come with the obligation to give and an obligation to receive. The same is true for invitations—eventually, the invited is expected to reciprocate in some form.
- People should be either formally invited or should be paying back a visit, otherwise their uncalled-for visits are much despised.
Because there is so much social currency invested in visiting, these must be planned encounters lest the visitor place the host in a debt that he cannot or will not repay. That said, the practice of delivering the invitations is finely orchestrated. The host family calls ahead and makes arrangements to visit for tea or dinner on a particular day so that the future guests are prepared to receive the social debt. If the intended guests know that they will be unable to attend the event, during this planning period they indicate that they have other commitments, so that no debt is created unnecessarily.
- Correspondingly it is a mark of great honour and fame (saya) that a person makes few visits or none, yet is visited by everyone.
To be able to make few visits is a mark of wealth. If you are so wealthy as to host many gatherings, and need not to participate in return visits to offset costs (both material and social), then you attain a different status within the community. However, most folks fall in the reciprocal relationship.
In terms of my own event, a telephone call would have been sufficient because this was not a formal event, such as a wedding. The practice of visiting is reserved for truly important invitations. Unfortunately, I had overlooked this element of the invitation and was now faced with a group of people who were rather put out at my behavior. During my calls, an aunt said that her young daughter (approximately 4 years old at the time) had said upon receiving the invitation, “If Krystal doesn’t call, then I am not going!” I laughed good-naturedly and apologized for the delay in calling, but I was later struck by how patterned the process of inviting someone was in this case. For someone so young to know the etiquette indicates that it is being taught.
An Op-Ed in the New York Times suggested that the RSVP no longer fits with our lifestyle:
What’s clear is how hard the R.S.V.P. rubs against the grain of contemporary life. In requesting people to anchor a plan in the distant future of a month hence, you are demanding a kind of navigation that Americans increasingly do not practice. We prefer to remain flexy, solidifying our plans incrementally as the date approaches. Let’s talk tomorrow. I’ll call you when I’m on the road. Cellphones in hand, we microadjust our schedules as they unfold around us. We’re like the air traffic controllers of our own lives.
But perhaps it's the manner in the way the invite is delivered. By sending an evite or mailing a paper invitation, perhaps the event loses some of its importance. We're saying, "I'm too busy to formally invite you." So perhaps it's fair for the invited in this case to say, "I'm too busy to respond."
Or perhaps, removed from the personal connection that is reinforced by individual contact, the event seems less real in the minds of recipients. It's as though they haven't actually been invited. Before we insist that increasing poor manners are to blame for the lack of responses, we should note that RSVPs are a relatively recent social construct. Bengalis are not alone in hand delivering invitations—it is a practice found in the long history of social visits. That said, perhaps some flexibility is needed from both the host and the invited. Most of my RSVPs came from people who were my age or younger, and seemed comfortably using email or text as a means of contacting me. No one called. Perhaps I should have called the older relatives as a sign of respect. From here on out, however, I think I'll let S handle the guest list.
Abu-Zahra, N. (1974). Material Power, Honour, Friendship, and the Etiquette of Visiting Anthropological Quarterly, 47 (1) DOI: 10.2307/3317030