How to Gracefully Accept or Decline an Invitation

by Laura Dawn Lewis

Have you ever noticed that either you seem to receive no invitations to parties or holiday feasts, or you receive ten all for the same night?  Perhaps you have relatives or friends with relatives you'd prefer not to spend even an hour with.  How do you get out of these situations without burning your bridges or hurting someone's feelings?

There are two classifications of invitations, formal and informal.  Formal arrives by post and can be in the form of a letter or an printed invitation.  These can include weddings, parties and other major events.  Informal arrive by phone, in person or by e-mail. 

Formal invitations have set rules.  If the invitation only requests the presence one named person, only one person is invited. You may call the hostess and ask if you may bring a guest, but do not bring a guest without consent.  If two or more are invited, the invitation with state the other person's name or  "and guest" or "and Family". 

To properly decline the invitation, we'll use the following for example.

Mr. and Mrs. John C Smith 
request the pleasure of the company of 
Mr. James K Brown & Guest 
at a small holiday party and dance

Monday, the twenty-third of December 
from seven o'clock in the evening until eleven o'clock.

5555 Wilshire Road.
Semi-Formal Holiday attire

5555 Wilshire Road
Los Angeles, CA 90039

To accept, write the following and mail it to the address indicated, (include the guests name if it was not stated in the invitation):

Mr. James K Brown and Miss Jennifer Jacobs accept with pleasure the invitation of Mr. and Mrs. John C. Smith to a small holiday party and dance Monday, the twenty-third of December at seven o'clock.

Declining when two people are named in the invitation and one cannot make the engagement: Always give the good news first and the bad news second:

Mr. James K Brown accepts with pleasure the kind invitation of Mr. and Mrs. John C. Smith to a small holiday party and dance Monday, the twenty-third of December at seven o'clock.

Miss Jennifer Jacobs regrets that she will be unable to attend due to absence from the city (a previous engagement or professional obligations)

Regretting when both cannot attend:

Mr. James K Brown and Miss Jennifer Jacobs regret that owing to an absence from the city the are  unable to accept the kind invitation of Mr. and Mrs. John C Smith for holiday party and dance Monday, the twenty-third of December.


I covered formal invitations first because in a pinch, opting for good etiquette is always an out with unruly relatives with expectations and no consideration.  If accepting an invitation involves travel, the invitation needs to be made within a certain time frame to be considerate:  If you are receiving invitations this close to the holiday's that require travel, even with close relatives you have no obligation to accept, nor should you feel any guilt for declining.  Here are the general rules of thumb:

If it requires long distance travel by plane, train or bus all invitations should be made a minimum of 4 months in advance and accepted or declined within ten days of the offer.

If it requires traveling by car and overnight accommodations: Invitation must be at least 2 months in advance and accepted or declined within ten days of the offer.

If it requires cross-town travel (one or more hours), invitations must be three weeks in advance and accepted or declined within 10 days of the event.

If no travel is required, invitations should be within seven days of the event and accepted or declined at least 72 hours before the event.

Now the real world.  
Most people have relatives or friends of relatives they prefer not to spend time with.  For such occasions simply make an appearance and come up with some reason to leave.  My favorite is the emergency phone call from the baby-sitter,  boyfriend, parent, or get the idea.  Have a pre-arranged time for a person to call your cell phone or the host's home to reach you.   This escape is for the events you must attend for politically correct reasons like company parties or the ex's in-laws but would prefer not to be at.  Using any of the excuses in the formal declines is also quite effective.  Setting the alarm clock on your phone also works to make it ring!

Alcoholic's, Addicts, Abusers and other Problem People


This is where honesty may be your best policy.  It will require you be assertive.  For example, one of your relatives is an alcoholic, (bigot, addict, abusive either verbally or physically) and you don't like being around it and you do not want your children around it.  This is hard.  Tell the hostess exactly why you are declining the invitation.  This does two things.  First it protects you and makes it very clear exactly what the problem is.  Secondly, it also gives the other person the ammunition they need to begin cutting through their own denial.  Your taking a stand says you will not be a party to enabling the behavior any longer.  This is the script I've used:

"I'm sorry Jane.   I really enjoy spending time with you and the kids but I cannot put myself nor my family through another holiday with Jim's drinking and uncontrolled rages."

 (Be specific about who and what the problem is; then tell the person what will need to happen for you to accept an invitation in the future). 

"When Jim becomes sober or you leave him, I will welcome the opportunity to spend the holiday's with you again.  But until that happens, know that I love you but it just isn't healthy for me or my family to be there under the current circumstances."

Yes, your relative or friend will be angry with you.  This will go away after time.  The reason it will go away is because even if he or she is angry with you, on some level, he/she also knows you are right.  The holiday's are suppose to be fun.  It's up to you to choose the invitations which will make it fun and decline those that make it a living hell.

Happy Holiday's!

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