Declining an Invitation

According to proper etiquette, how should I decline an invitation?
There will be times when you will have to decline an invitation to a special event or party. Following proper etiquette in declining will not only spare feelings, but will also make the task of planning for the occasion a lot easier on the host and/or hostess. One of the main reasons invitations are sent out is to retain an accurate head count and declining is as important as accepting as far as proper etiquette is concerned. It may seem worse to show up unannounced, but it is equally as rude to not show up at all and give no explanation as to why.

Cathleen Hanson, who is one of the owners and founders of the International School of Protocol, which teaches proper etiquette to children, adults, educators, and businesses, says that when responding to an invitation you should write back in the same tone as the invitation was sent in. She offers these two examples:

A formal invitation should be responded to equally as formally as follows:
Your Name regrets
Because of a prior engagement
I will be unable to accept
The kind invitation of
Mr. and Mrs. Host
To dinner on Friday, the 7th of October.

According to Cathleen you can respond to an informal invite by either calling or writing:
Your Name regrets
That she will be unable to accept the kind invitation of
Mr. and Mrs. Host
Friday, 7th of October
Due to previous engagement

The key to declining any invitation is to be honest in the reason behind why you cannot attend. Write "due to a previous engagement" only if you really had made earlier plans to be somewhere else. As quoted from "Today's Etiquette" written by Lillian Eichler, "It is considered by most people the greatest possible form of discourtesy to refuse an offer of extended hospitality without offering an adequate excuse." This book was published in 1941 by Doubleday Doran, but many experts agree that the fine points of properness never go out of style. On the other hand, the famous "Emily Post on Entertaining," published in 1987 by Harper & Row, states, "If you are declining simply because you don't want to go or dislike the host or hostess, but have no other plans, it is best not to give a reason, if asked, other than 'I'm terribly sorry, we're busy that evening.' This leaves you free to accept another invitation." The reasoning behind this, the book goes on to say, is that if you make up a specific excuse, you can't accept another invite from someone else without the risk of hurting those who first asked you to spend the evening with them.

If the matter is something personal, such as not being able to attend because of financial reasons, then simply state "regrets due to personal commitments". If those extending the invitation are good friends, they will more than likely get the hint. If not, proper etiquette should restrain them from asking too many questions.

If warranted, such as with a wedding invitation or other special occasion that usually entails a gift, you might want to consider including a small present or card when sending your regrets. This is a way to show that you truly are sorry that you are unable to attend.

Cathleen says, "Always respond. It is never too late to respond to an invitation, especially if you are declining. If you respond late, you can apologize." It is better to call the hosts and explain the reason behind your lack of promptness than not to answer at all. Mail does get lost, life does get in the way, and people do understand that. But total lack of consideration by not replying at all is usually seen as a snub of the worst kind.