Q: Responding to an invitation with a polite "Thank you for the invitation -- it sounds like fun, but we will be unable to attend" has never made me uncomfortable. What does make me uncomfortable is the reaction I'm often given when I decline.

For example: "Why not?" "Well, you could come later." "If money is a problem, don't worry -- we'll pay." "Come alone if he can't make it -- you can ride with us in our car." "I told everyone you'd be there."

During these often ceaseless comments, I'm forced to continuously reword my original response, which I foolishly believed was sufficient.

Should I be revealing a detailed account of the events that led to my decision, or should the person extending the invitations accept my response graciously?

A: Should you give in to bullying? Certainly not.

Perhaps bullying is a harsh word to use in regard to what is, after all, an offer of hospitality. But current practices of urging people to eat or drink more than they wish, or to accept invitations after they have declined, are more coercion than kindness. They should not be legitimized by argument, nor bolstered with excuses.

The answer to "Why not?" is "Because I simply can't, as much as I'd love to."

The answer to that offer of paying, whether or not money actually was the problem, is "No, no, of course not -- I just can't make it." A generous host who had reason to suspect that money was a factor would have made a tactful offer ("We'd like you to be our guest" or "I have an extra ticket and would be grateful if you used it" or "We think it would be simpler if we just flew everybody in so we could meet at the harbor") that could have been accepted.

And the answer to "I told everyone you'd be there" is: "What a shame; I wish I could be. Please tell everyone how sorry I am."

The alert reader may notice that Miss Manners has omitted "Come alone if he can't make it" from the bullying category. One must never carelessly lump social efforts together without examining each one for good intentions. This one could well have a thoughtful purpose.

We are changing from a system of entertaining couples only in tandem to one in which they may socialize independently for reasons of scheduling or tastes. Reassurance that you would be welcome alone, and even especially looked after, is therefore not out of place. A polite negative response would be "Oh, dear, how kind of you -- no, I'm afraid I can't make it, either."

Q: Is it permissible to get your salad bar goodies in a restaurant and start to eat before the others of your party return with theirs?

I have seen it done, but at other times guests have waited. I have been to a number of very select supper clubs, and it is crucial to me to feel I'm doing it in the correct way. Right is right -- right?

A: Right. Wait for the others to return. Your salad is not going to get cold.

Feeling incorrect? Address your etiquette questions (in black or blue-black ink on white writing paper) to Miss Manners, in care of this newspaper.