Ever wonder if newspapers can make it? Wonder what the problem is with print journalism? If so, check out the op-ed in today’s New York Times titled: “It’s my party, and you have to answer.” Almost inexplicably, it’s about e-vites (as if they’re something new). Even more inexplicably, the author is upset — maybe even irate — because people don’t always answer them, even though RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plaît and means “answer please.”
Oh, my stars! People are so rude!
HERE’S an etiquette experiment for you: E-mail an invitation for a party, one month out, to 45 friends. Request an R.S.V.P. Provide a follow-up e-mail message, two weeks later, politely reminding them to get back to you.
How many will?
My experiment arose from plans for an evening of food, drink and literature, with readings by myself and two other writers, at a restaurant. Not exactly a drop-in-if-you’re-around kind of thing, so I asked friends to R.S.V.P. My initial message brought in a dozen responses, and the follow-up a few more, but days before the event I had a paltry 23. Not 23 who planned to come, but 23 who had bothered to respond. Half my invitees had blown me off. Why? I wasn’t peddling life insurance, after all.
Ah yes, here’s an experiment: try something you probably do five times a year! Just for kicks, make your event incredibly pretentious and boring and make sure to berate your friends in print after your stupid event. Yes, this sounds fun already. But wait, does anyone else ever have the same completely-unsurprising results as the author? Amazingly, they do!
Asking around, I discovered that the phenomenon is widespread. One friend of mine e-mailed invitations to a baby shower, and a third of the recipients failed to respond. Another announced a happy hour at her house and received a dozen yeses — only to find her party besieged by 35 people.
In other words, this completely newfangled thing the New York Times has inexplicably allowed me to write about is nothing new! It’s something everyone knows about and experiences, and everyone in society is over it…except the writer himself. What ever will the Times allow someone to write about next? Pudding: it’s delicious! People enjoy warm weather! New York Times on fast track to becoming LA Times!
So what say you, Mr. Rand Richards Cooper (yes, the author’s actual name): why is everyone so rude nowadays!?
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.
Ah yes, welcome to life! Back in Richards Cooper’s youth, people would respond promptly and in the most beautiful of cursive handwriting from a fountain pen. They’d arrive in ascots and three-piece suits in their Model-Ts and the parties were always a hoot! Oh, everyone would be talking about the Richards Cooper parties for weeks. They’d even check their “mail receptacles” each day in hopes that another fete was due soon.
Back in reality for a moment, we find that perhaps the lack of responses to Richards Cooper has nothing to do with a modern (and yet years-old) medium. Maybe it’s just that he’s a surly mean-spirited asshole:
But back to my party. The day before the big event, I sent a final e-mail message, thanking “the half of you who responded for helping keep the dying art of the R.S.V.P. alive.” This irked missive flushed out a final 10 hangdog respondents. But there remained a gang of 12 — the dirty dozen, the truly hardcore, fanatical nonresponders — who couldn’t even be shamed into R.S.V.P.ing.
In the end, perhaps they were merely following the French literally: Respond, if you please. Left over from a time when graciousness couched demands as requests, the R.S.V.P. no longer functions. I therefore propose an update, something still French but a bit more … frank — the R.V.O.M.:
Répondez Vite — ou Mourir!
For those friends of mine who plead a lack of high school French, allow me to translate. Respond Quickly, or Die!
Ah, the old, “if you don’t respond to my stupid invitation, you should just die” gag. Who doesn’t love getting that? Don’t we all wish we had friends like Rand Richards Cooper?