DEAR MISS MANNERS: My wife and I are both fortunate to come from large families with whom we love to spend time, and do so frequently. We are also blessed to belong to more than one large circle of friends.
Consequently, we receive a fair number of invitations to various gatherings, from impromptu and very casual barbecues to more structured gatherings like birthday parties, weddings and dinner parties. We happily attend the vast majority.
When, for whatever reason, we cannot or would rather not attend, my contention is all that is required and expected is to say something to the effect of “Thank you for the invitation, we’d love to be there but we can’t make it. Perhaps another time.”
My wife insists it’s rude not to offer a specific excuse, even a humorous one, why we won’t be there, and if we’d simply rather not go, to make up an imaginary excuse.
This baffles me, and has put me in an awkward spot more than once. The next time we talk to the inviters, one will say something like “Oh, how did Jack do in his game?”
Because I don’t know or don’t remember that was the excuse we used, I’ll answer truthfully that Jack’s season ended weeks ago. When they say “Oh, we thought that was why you couldn’t come to the party last week,” I’ll have to stammer something about an imaginary postseason all-star game or the like.
My wife believes the closer we feel to the inviter, the more elaborate the explanation we are required to offer.
GENTLE READER: On the principles, Miss Manners is entirely with you. Ahead of you, actually, because she has always declared specific excuses to be unnecessary when one promptly and graciously declines by expressing regret. False excuses contain their own punishment.
Also, she does not regard most invitations as summonses, and reassures those who claim they feel guilty that they are perfectly at liberty to decline.
But in etiquette, as in law, one must be wary of applying general rules without knowing the particular circumstances. If the occasion is a truly important one for someone extremely close – Christmas with the family, your sister’s wedding, your best friend’s funeral – you are not going to get away with mere expressions of regret and jokes. If you don’t have an honest excuse that you can explain, then you just have to attend.