January 29, 2017

Declining a Holiday Party Invitation from American Colleagues, Professors or Friends

One of the most common questions people who go to the U.S. ask me about is, "How can I politely tell my American friend/counterpart/professor I can't come for the Thanksgiving/ Holiday/ Christmas/ Birthday/ Other/ Wedding party?" 

For Some Saying No was a GOOD Problem to Have!
In a few cases, a few people even mentioned the reason they had to say no was because they had multiple invitations! 

Actually, this problem is a good one to have! It means people like you and you are fitting in nicely! I am happy for you!  

But, let's look at how to politely decline or say no to an invitation, because it is very important in American culture to RSVP or respond to the invite a day or more in advance. For more formal events like weddings, you may need to confirm your attendance a few weeks in advance. 

While this is not common at all in India, it is common practice in the U.S. for many reasons. Additionally, if you want to bring someone with you (even if that is your family), you must ask for permission or note additional people you are bringing with you on the invitation card for more formal events. 

A Simple Formula to Saying No Without Ruining the Relationship
Americans, contrary to popular belief, do not always appreciate a direct no. It's often rude. Just like in India, I surmise, a direct no, could even have an undertone of disdain or disrespect. But, conversely ignoring the situation and not answering this when the answer is no is equally disrespectful in American culture. People will feel ignored or not liked. 

So, let's look at how to politely say no with example dialogues. 

Keep in mind, the art of saying no lies in a LOT of small talk. Let's see how to do it in four easy steps. 

Firstly with Americans, keep in mind, one can not say thank you enough. So do first acknowledge the invitation by saying,
  • "Thank you so much for inviting me." or 
  • "Thank you for thinking of me." 

Secondly, you can add in some personal touch. Something like:
  • "This looks like a lot of fun." The use of the word 'fun' is quintessentially American. 
  • "I have been looking forward to celebrating this with you!" (If this is true and was talked about earlier.) 
  • "Wow this is happening so soon!"
Thirdly, your decline:
  • It seems that I already have something planned this weekend that was organized a few months ago.
  • It looks like another colleague already invited me for [Thanksgiving] at his house on the same day. He lives a bit far, so not sure if I can make it to both of your houses.
  • As it is a long weekend/holiday, I will be going out of town to visit some of my other relatives that live here in the US.

Fourthly, do not forget to close it with something positive:
  • Maybe we can go out for lunch sometime soon instead? I know it's not the same as me coming for XYZ party, but during lunch you can tell me all about it! 
  • I see the next thing around the corner is the Super Bowl. I don't know much about it, but I know you talk about football all the time. Maybe we can see it together?
  • Unfortunately, I won't be able to come this time. Is there any way I can make it up to you?


What does "Is there anyway I can make it up to you?" mean - how to answer this
Saying, "Is there anyway I can make it up to you?" is a very American way of saying I am sorry and can I do anything else instead? In most cases, Americans respond either by saying, "No problem, I understand. Maybe next time." or, if they really want to be your friend, may say, "I understand, let's plan for New Year's maybe?" If they are really friendly, they may joke and say, "I get it. But, don't let this happen next time!" 

E-mail Responses to Invitations
Many colleagues or students may get email invites to holiday parties or get togethers. I would suggest an email response using the same formula mentioned above is fitting. Let's look at some examples.

This may be too brief and come off rude: 

Jennifer,

I am unable to attend the party on Jan. 23rd, 2017 due to a schedule conflict.

Thank you,
Regards,
Your Name


While this email may work better for declining a meeting in the corporate world, when it is a personal invitation, it's nice to add more pleasantries. 

Possible Email to Use as a Response 1:

Hi Jennifer,

It was so nice to get your invitation. Thanks for the invite. I would have liked to be there to participate and partake in the feast. However, I am sorry I cannot attend as I have a schedule conflict at that time. 

Thank you,
Regards,
Your Name

Possible Email to Use as a Response 2:

Hi Jennifer,

It was so nice to get your invitation. I remember coming to your home last year for Thanksgiving. I really liked the pumpkin pie! Oh I wish so much I could eat that again, but I am sorry to say because something else was already planned for that day with another family, I am unavailable to meet you this year. Let's catch up after the holidays. Enjoy your festivities. 

Thank you,
Regards,
Your Name

Are you able to get the tone when reading these two sample emails? I actually prefer sample 2, but that could just be me! Which do you prefer? 

Indians and Americans Are Really Not So Different in the End 
Whether it's an Indian or an American extending an invite, both do it for the same reason. Both would feel bad if the person invited didn't acknowledge their invitation or didn't come. It's all in how it's handled that makes a difference in the cultural setting you are in. 

Feel free to share you stories about declining invites in the U.S. (or in India as a comparison). 

Related Posts: 
What is an RSVP? What to do about it? 
Saying NO in work-related project discussions 
Responding to Birthday Wishes by Email 

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