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. But now more than ever, I apply the life-is-too-short test: Would I rather be home getting work done, drinking my own coffee, reading a book or watching Hardball than having breakfast, lunch, or dinner with this person?Experience has identified and jelled another inclination, and that is honest self-assessment of my dependability. For example, phone calls come in from various national charities, asking not for my money but for my time. Will I address envelopes and deliver them to my neighbors on — the caller pauses, checks her list — "Winterberry Lane?" I used to say yes. Now I say, "I’m a very bad candidate for this. I’m not reliable. You’d send me the envelopes, and they would just sit in a pile of mail. Really, you could do much better."A disclaimer: I still do say yes a lot. There’s nothing better than a night out with good friends involving good food. Only a bona fide conflict would keep me home from dinner with my nearest and dearest. A prime example of that would be any social summons from our son, now 24, whether he’s coming East or we’re crossing the country to visit him.Not quite as tempting are certain professional obligations. Because my first novel came out 16 years ago — coincidentally, the same year I turned 40 — I’ve had a long time to sniff out what may be the less-desirable venues, which is to say the readings where nobody comes and/or the attendees aren’t — as my late mother would say — from the book buyers. When invited to those events where I would be a keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Friends of Any Given Library or X Worthwhile Charity, I have learned to ask, "Would it be all right if I arrive after the, um, business items?"Experience has taught me that I am not always interested in the raffle of items donated by local merchants, or last year’s minutes, or this year’s awards and thank-you gifts to the hardest-working cochairs without whom…, and so on. Accordingly, I inquire in advance, "Your event begins at seven o’clock? And what time, might I ask, would I actually be needed?"I don’t want to be seen as a diva and certainly want to be a trouper on behalf of my publisher and our mutual wares. More social algebra: Will I flop, or will I draw a crowd? What if I say no and I’m wrong? Can I ever really be sure what to accept and what to decline? Yes, if I’ve done the event in the past and know it’s a dog. Take the pre-Christmas bookstore sale-a-thon where at least 10 authors sit with their works, thereby encouraging customers to confuse the event with a crafts fair. They browse; they pick up your book, turn it over, read the flap, compare the photo to the live person in front of them, smile weakly — then move on to the best-selling author two chairs down. The first time I attended, I consoled myself that there was a payoff: the deli downstairs had corned beef and chopped liver and really good pickles. Second year, I brought my knitting; the same year I noticed that the paperbacks piled at my station had been signed by me at the first author-thon. Third year, I declined, and I told the truth: too many authors, not enough customers, snow predicted.Sending Regrets and Not Regretting ItA fellow author tells me that I once intoned, "You never regret saying no." She reminded me of this recently when I told her I’d accepted an invitation to keynote a writing retreat in New Hampshire and to stay for two nights."I’m surprised you said yes," she scolded. "In fact, I keep your advice on a note by my computer: ‘You never regret saying no.’" "There was a clincher," I told her.She waited."They’re sending a car to get me. And it’s at a spa.""Got it," she answered.As I’m turning someone down, the good girl inside me winces. But almost immediately after I’ve uttered, "I’d love to, but…," I feel relief — and something akin to backbone. Ahead of me lies one less obligation, one less sticky note on my screen saver, one less trip to plot on MapQuest. My calendar thanks me: A blank day means I write all morning in my pajamas, savoring the dividend of calling my time my own.I have a companion quirk to the saying of no: I must explain why I’m turning down an invitation. I always respond with an excellent reason, fiction or nonfiction, and I ask the same in return. When I invited someone to a recent reading of mine, 100 yards from her door, she answered with the same recycled excuse: "I have tickets for a play that night." I e-mailed back, "...but you’d have loved to come and meet me after all these years of doing business by phone?" Rude or hypocritical — or both? It’s just that I expect a little effort, a gushing, convincing so-sorry-but-no along with the offer of future social intercourse. This way, one can then infer from the turndown that it is merely the result of a regrettable and unavoidable scheduling conflict, and not a divorce.Another thing I’ve learned is that almost everyone accepts no with grace, as if it’s what he or she expected to be the answer all along. The committee that recruits talent for the conference moves down the list to the next author’s name. The parents of the bride cheer when my turndown arrives, reducing their bottom line by one hugely expensive rack of lamb and my share of fashion-forward canapes.Off the hook, I send a gift, regrets reiterated on the card. Later I hear about the deeply disappointed dentist couple slated for my table; they’ve been keen to meet me because their daughter is a talented writer in need of advice.I am tempted to say, "Whew. That was close. Nothing worse than a stage mother with a writing sample in her purse." But I don’t. A fiction writer’s job, after all, is to spin tales and sound convincing. "Greatly looking forward to next time," I reply.Originally published in MORE magazine, November 2006.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:08

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