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Greatest Hit: "The Invitationals"

Posted by Robin Abrahams  March 27, 2013 08:37 AM

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As we are getting into the season of outdoor parties, graduations, and weddings, I thought it a good time to re-run this blog post from 2008, on the finer points of creating a guest list. 

There is a question that I get in many, many versions, and which I suspect gives me as much tsuris in my life as it does everyone else. It is this:

Whom should I invite to my (wedding, Superbowl party, child's bar/bat mitzvah, barnraising, etc. etc. etc.)?

Variations include, "Do I have to invite everyone who invited me to theirs?" "Do I have to invite family/in-laws?" "Can I invite some people from work and not others?" "If I know someone can't attend should I invite them anyway?" and so on.

And I have no idea. I'm not even going to give examples from my own life in this post, because I don't know who of my friends and family read my blog, and I don't want anyone to find out about some party I had that I didn't invite them to and feel hurt. I'm posting only in hopes of reassuring readers that no, it isn't you. This is a real dilemma for everyone.

We all have the Platonic ideal of a party in our minds, in which time and cost is no object, in which everyone we want to invite, from our oldest and bestest high-school friend to that woman we got to talking to in the grocery line yesterday who just seems so cool--is there, and we don't have to invite anyone we don't want to.

This party does not exist, and maybe letting go of the idea that it can will at least help some of the strain. Space, time, and money always impose constraints and you will never be able to invite all the people you really want. And social politics impose constraints and you will probably always have to invite a few whom you'd rather not.

Here are some things that I've found can help with, if not solve, the problem:

1. If it's a wedding you're worried about, consider eloping. Really. There are a lot of states where you don't even need a witness to get married. Go away with your intended, tie the knot, and have a first-anniversary party instead of a reception. Perhaps you are attracted to the idea but think that family members would be terribly offended. You might be right, but any relative who would give you grief over eloping (rather than just, you know, being happy that you've found someone to spend your life with) would probably give you grief over the choice of venue, degree of formality, degree of religiosity, invitation wording, guest list, and so on. So you may as well rip that band-aid off in one fast move.

2. If you do decide to have a wedding, have a short engagement. The Traveling Psychologist and her fiance had their wedding six weeks after they got engaged, and as you can see, it was lovely. During the six weeks allotted to wedding planning, TP also had to finish up a semester, compute final grades, and if I recall correctly, finish a grant application. Know what? If you have 18 months to find the perfect wedding dress, it will take you 18 months to find the perfect wedding dress. If you have a single Sunday afternoon to find a good enough wedding dress, it will take a single Sunday afternoon, and you'll look just as pretty and be just as married. Nothing frees you from the tyranny of the Ideal of the Perfect Wedding like severe time constraints.

And those same time constraints made the guest list easier, as well, because it becomes obvious whom you have to invite and whom you just can't. (TP also had the wedding and reception on a harbor cruise, which is a very nice way to keep the numbers down--you can always shove more people into a church, but you really can't shove more people onto a boat.) And an 18-month engagement is enough time for relationships to wax and wane, which means that the ideal guest list will fluctuate. Most friendships hold pretty steady over six-week periods, once you're out of second grade, so there's no time for awkward "I asked Sally to be my bridesmaid but now we're really not that close anymore but I can't un-ask her, can I?" situations to develop.

3. Quid pro quo is overrated.
The reciprocity norm is ingrained in the human species--"They say that life is tit for tat, and that's the way I live/So I deserve a lot of tat for what I've got to give!" in the inimitable words of Matron Mama Morton. But reciprocity doesn't always have to be exactly in kind. If you were invited to a casual acquaintance's Big Fat Amish Barnraising, and you tend to prefer smaller, intimate barnraisings yourself, you needn't feel obligated to invite them. Do something for them, but you don't have to do that.

4. Have categories of invitees so clear that you would be able to explain to someone why they weren't on the list if they should find out. "This is family only," "I'm not inviting anyone from work," "It's a girls' night out," "I'm only inviting people who are really into football," and so forth. It's easier to exclude people as a group than it is to exclude them as individuals.

5. Entertain small and often rather than big and infrequently.
Having frequent small parties, however you define "small" (for us, it's four to 10 other people) enables you to eventually host everyone you'd like to. Having one or two big bashes a year is more work and more agonizing over the guest list. Mr. Improbable and I do "pizza and cheap champagne" nights every month or so, and planning the guest list for these is downright fun, as we go through our address books and figure out which subset of our friends would have good chemistry.

6. Recognize that everyone understands.
Yes, there may be some people who are insulted to be left off your [insert event name here] list, and if you find out about them, take them out to a nice lunch and engage in some conciliatory grooming. But chances are most folks will understand--because we've all been in the position of having to make those tough calls.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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