Luxury Is Refusal: Learning to Say No

It’s taken me 40 years to do that math, but I finally understand that every invitation I turn down buys a chunk of time that’s mine — all mine.

By Elinor Lipman

Rethinking the RSVPI was raised in a family that embraced all invitations, especially the oversize, engraved ones that call for an RSVP and a new outfit. There was no discussion — "Are we busy?" "Do we like these people?" "Is it worth the 10-hour round-trip in a Rambler without a radio?" Our weekends were gapingly free. When the relatives summoned us, we went.It was a different era, the 1950s and ’60s. Aunts, uncles, and cousins constituted a social circle large enough that we rarely needed to go outside it. I don’t believe either of my parents needed or kept a social calendar. They must have stepped out on some evenings, because I do remember my mother’s collection of clutch purses, her special-occasion Estee Lauder perfume, and the Krysiak girls as babysitters. But no scheduling conflict ever required us to send our regrets for missing the weddings, anniversary parties, bar mitzvahs, or milestone birthdays for which our presence was requested.So it was an alien no that entered my family’s consciousness in 1969 when my sister married her high school sweetheart and his many aunts and uncles began feting the couple. One uncle-in-law-to-be, Uncle X, attended nothing. "Antisocial!" his siblings cried. I, the 18-year-old maid of honor, agreed. Who gets invited to an engagement barbecue in a Lowell, Massachusetts, backyard and doesn’t show? Inconsiderate black sheep, I concurred.Today I look back and marvel at the preponderance of relatives who did say yes. Uncle X most likely did what I do now: open the invitation and perform the social algebra. Will this occasion — this sit-down salmon, in a hard-to-find hall where career updates will be shouted over loud music — be fun, or will it be a trial?Learning from MistakesNot responding with an automatic yes may be generational. Relatives are far-flung. We work, we travel, we make friends, and we keep in touch more easily than ever before; our social expansion begets invitations, also from far-flung places and not all appealing. Most influential in prompting me to write "not" between "will" and "attend" was the joint husband-and-wife 50th birthday party that my husband, Bob, and I injudiciously attended when I was in my mid-40s. The first clue that we should have made our excuses was the invitation itself: a phone call explaining that the couple was adding a table, and we were the lucky beneficiaries of the expanded guest list. Arriving at the luncheon, we picked up our place card, which indicated that we were at table 1,000, or so it seemed. We took our seats in Siberia with our fellow also-rans. As we chatted, it became clear that our hosts had stuck with the literal conceit of adding a table, failing to integrate us into the general mix, because our perfectly pleasant tablemates barely knew the celebrants and seemed equally at sea. The rub here was that as we made our early escape, the hostess gushed that head tablers A, B, and C were great fans of my books, and over there at priority tables 2, 3, and 4 were former colleagues of Bob’s, doctors with the same subspecialty. What a shame we had to leave early before we could circulate!Then there was the baby shower that made me realize I am too old for baby showers. The mother-to-be oohed and aahed over every present, be it a gorgeous handmade layette or a yellow onesie, until time stood still. More excruciating, she didn’t believe in tearing off wrapping paper. Gingerly and lovingly, she slid a fingernail under every piece of tape, preserving every scrap, until I thought I’d scream. Worst of all, I had carpooled to the party and couldn’t leave. (That baby is now a freshman in college, and I haven’t been to a shower since.)As I confess to evaluating invitations with this combination of vanity and emotional stinginess, I must point out that many of my "no thanks" represent contentment with my lot. When asked whether I want to join friends for that play that got the rave review I failed to notice — $120 for the second balcony — I think, "But I could stay home, watch the Project Runway episode I taped on Wednesday and be in bed with a book by nine o’clock." It’s not a tendency I’d have advertised at an earlier age.

Share Your Thoughts!


Post new comment

Click to add a comment