COVID-iquette: How To Politely Decline Social Invitations Amid The Pandemic

Etiquette experts share their tips for backing out of social engagements and rejecting invites in the age of coronavirus.
It's important to be honest, brief and considerate in these times.
Moyo Studio via Getty Images
It's important to be honest, brief and considerate in these times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered our social lives and presented unprecedented etiquette challenges.

As restrictions have eased in many parts of the country, people are hosting weddings, birthday parties and other social engagements of various sizes. And while many guests feel comfortable attending these kinds of events, others may find that such gatherings do not fit into their personal social distancing parameters.

But how do you politely decline a social invitation if COVID-19 is your reason? HuffPost asked etiquette experts for their advice for saying no to such gatherings or backing out of events you’d agreed to attend prior to the pandemic. Read on for their guidance.

Ask Questions

If you’re on the fence about attending a birthday party or other social event, try to gather information to inform your decision.

“You have a right to ask the host if they will be implementing social distancing measures before accepting an invitation,” said Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert, author of “Modern Etiquette for a Better Life,” and founder of The Protocol School of Texas.

Consider calling the host and saying something like, “I’m so excited about your birthday but I’m also concerned about getting sick or bringing it home to my family.” Then ask how many people are invited, whether the gathering will be inside or outside the house and other details of the plan.

“Get serious information, so you’re making the decision with facts rather than speculation,” said Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “Once you have the information, say, ‘You know what, let me think about this, and I’ll give you a call tomorrow and let you know.’”

Share Your Decision ASAP

“As soon as you make that decision, let the other person know,” Smith advised. This is particularly important if it’s a more formal event with lots of logistics and if you had previously RSVP’d “yes” earlier in the year.

“If there’s a catering count or hotels or anything involved, then the longer you wait, the more difficult it’s going to be for the person planning and the more upset they’ll be if you change your mind,” she said. “Don’t think waiting until the last minute makes things easier. It actually makes things more difficult.”

Be Honest

It’s best to speak from the heart and simply tell the truth.

“Say something like, ‘I know I have previously RSVP’d yes to your wedding invitation but with the unexpected pandemic, circumstances have changed and unfortunately I won’t be able to make it. I will be there with you in spirit,’” Gottsman suggested.

This applies to less formal occasions as well. Be honest about what you’re uncomfortable with ― even if it’s a just a one-on-one walk.

“If you are totally not doing anything with anyone, you just have to say that,” said Smith. “Say, ‘I’m so glad to talk with you. I would love to talk to you on the phone while we both walk our dogs separately, but I’m not seeing anyone in person until we’re at the other end of these things. I hope you understand.’”

Keep It Brief

“The key is to be brief,” said Patricia Rossi, a civility expert, keynote speaker and author of “Everyday Etiquette.”

You can simply say you have a prior commitment, a family obligation has surfaced or you’re choosing to be extra careful as you are caring for an aging relative, she advised. Be sure to thank them for the invitation and make it clear that you’d be there if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.

“Don’t be too specific with your reason,” advised Smith. “If I say, ’I’d love to come to your party, but I’m really only comfortable in gatherings of five or six, then you’ll say, ‘Well it’s only 10, and we’ll have five in the kitchen, five in the dining room.’ But then I’ll have to say no a second or third time.”

“Everyone has different comfort levels, and much like politics and religion, this is a very volatile topic.”

- Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert

Don’t Get Into A Debate

“No need to go into a diatribe about COVID fears and contagions, or COVID stances and philosophies,” said Rossi.

If the host pushes back on your decision or says you’re being too cautious, do your best to change the subject and exit the conversation in a timely manner.

“It’s not necessary to get into a debate,” Gottsman noted. “Your views will be different than anyone else’s, and you can say something like, ‘I respect your position, and I would appreciate it if you would respect mine. I’m being very careful and that’s how my family is navigating the situation.’”

She added that if you’re uncomfortable with the way the other person is handling the coronavirus situation, it’s perfectly fine to “take a relationship ‘pause’” amid the pandemic.

Make A Counter Offer

Just because you aren’t comfortable attending a birthday party or wedding doesn’t mean you aren’t open to other kinds of social interactions.

“If you’re doing certain things, you could counter offer and say, ‘I’d love to meet up with you for a meal, but only if there’s outdoor seating,‘” said Smith. “Or if you’re not comfortable with outdoor dining, but you are OK with takeout, then counter offer, with ‘I’d love to see you, but let’s pick up some food and go sit outside in the park or in my backyard.’ If there’s something else you’re comfortable doing, you should counter offer with that.”

You could also organize a FaceTime or Zoom call for some virtual time together.

Send A Gift

If you’re turning down an invitation to a birthday party, wedding, shower or other gift-giving occasion, etiquette rules call for you to send a present in your absence, just as you would under other circumstances.

Choose something from the registry if there is one, or opt for another thoughtful gesture if not.

“If I’m invited to a bachelorette party, maybe I won’t go, but I’ll be sure to have chocolate-covered strawberries waiting in the bride’s room,” said Smith.

Show Understanding And Compassion

In these situations, as with all of everyday life in the age of COVID-19, it’s important to be understanding and compassionate. Ultimately, etiquette is about showing respect for others.

“Everyone has different comfort levels, and much like politics and religion, this is a very volatile topic,” Gottsman said. “We social distance and follow the CDC guidelines not only for ourselves but to be respectful of other people. It’s important to remember that this is not a situation that only involves you personally. Be respectful of other people’s feelings and don’t hesitate to decline an invitation or say no to a cocktail party if it does not fit in your social distancing parameters.”

You don’t always know what’s happening in other people’s lives, so focus on your own choices.

“We should all extend honor and respect,” Rossi said. “Emotions are at an all-time high, as well as health concerns, financial stress, education of our children and longevity of our parents. All the areas of importance aren’t in balance and on shaky ground. So be kind, understanding, and helpful if possible.”

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