December 6, 2012

‘Tis the season, and all that. 

The party invitations are rolling out. 

And just as surely, the silence rolls back in. 

You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot get a human being to RSVP. You can get a camel through the eye of a needle. But just trying getting that camel to RSVP first. You know that thing Meatloaf said he wouldn’t do for love? I am pretty sure it was “RSVP.”

It used to be that we had some excuse. RSVP’ing to events required you to send a messenger, or a pigeon, or mail a letter, which was a convoluted process with stamps and envelope-licking and visiting blue boxes on the street corner. Then we evolved to the point where RSVP’ing required a phone call. If there is one thing that modern people hate, it is a phone call. We would rather type to you for hours on end than hear a voice on the line for two minutes that could have resolved everything much more simply. That would be too awkward. 

People who send out invitations have sensed this, so they have adapted. Some people invite by email, where you actually have to type a few lines to say “Yes” or “No.” But most people have reached the point where all you have to do when you receive their invitation is click one of three possible buttons.

Yet somehow even this is too hard a task. I am more often guilty of this than bothered by it, and I have no explanation. I wish I could say that “suddenly, before I click the button, I realize that doing so will collapse the wave function, destroy the uncertainty about the path where my future is headed, and, I fear, kill a cat somewhere,” but this is not what happens, and I suspect it is bad physics.

But short of that, I don’t know what it is. Look at these buttons. They barely give you any information. “No” means “No.” “Yes” means that “there is a slightly greater probability that I will show up, but it is by no means certain.” “Maybe” gives you literally no information whatsoever. “I might attend the party, or I might not,” is in no way a useful reply. I suppose it does tell you that someone has seen the invitation.

What makes it so difficult? Are we that afraid of making any definite plans for the future, lest we suddenly experience a Big Life Change? “I would say yes to Friday,” we think, “but what if George Lucas finally calls me back and demands my presence.”

Or are we too lazy? Is there some way to make it easier? I can’t really think of anything, but maybe when the Singularity comes, and we are all uploaded into machine shells, someone can build an algorithm.

But I suspect we’ll figure out a way around that, too.

The only way to divine whether people are actually going to show up is to call them. And that is just what you were hoping to avoid in the first place.

If you really want to know if someone is coming to your party, the only truly foolproof method I have found is just to wait for the party. If they are there, they are probably coming. If they aren’t, well, better luck next year.


The presence of a firebearshark between you and the RSVP button is one convincing explanation.
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.