How to Politely Decline an Invitation in Any Situation
Sometimes you have to—or simply want to—say no. Here’s the right way to decline an invitation to limit hurt feelings.
The conundrum surrounding how to politely decline an invitation can be summed up in one word: priority. For 500 years, that word existed only in the singular form, and it meant the singular most important thing in your life at that moment. However, starting in the early 20th century, we added the plural form—priorities—because everyone had too many important things going on to choose just one.
“We all have a zillion and one things we are juggling that must be considered each time we get an invitation to something,” says Lia Avellino, a therapist and the CEO of Brooklyn-based emotional wellness center Spoke. “And while we may wish we could say yes to everything, we simply can’t act on everything our heart feels, which is why it’s important to learn how to politely say no.”
Yet even though you can recognize the need to decline an invitation, it can still feel really difficult to do in the moment. Even worse, some of the things we do that we think are helping when we RSVP—like offering elaborate explanations—actually make the situation worse, says etiquette expert Lisa Mirza Grotts, founder of the Golden Rules Gal.
So whether you’re responding to a dinner party, family get-together, work event or any other social event like a wedding or baby shower, here’s exactly how to say no tactfully, preserving your time and sanity, as well as avoiding a few common etiquette mistakes. This is great info not just for those being invited but also those doing the inviting. If you host a party, being gracious when someone declines an invitation is one of the top etiquette rules.
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The right way to say no to an invitation
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Rule No. 1, no matter what type of invitation you receive? Make sure to RSVP instead of ignoring the invite. Now that we have that out of the way, here are some guidelines from our experts to politely say no.
Respond in a timely manner
Don’t leave the host hanging. It’s OK to put off responding if you’re unsure at first, but give yourself a deadline to figure it out—and stick to it. Always RSVP within the time frame given.
Use “I” language
Stick to “I” statements when declining—they’re harder to argue with and less likely to make the other person feel bad.
Focus on the positive
It’s OK to say you’re sorry that you can’t make an event, but it’s better to reframe it as a positive, says Grotts. Rather than apologizing, say how happy you are that they invited you and that while you can’t make it this time, you look forward to getting together with them in the future.
Don’t say “maybe”
Procrastinating by saying “maybe” usually means it’s a no, so just go ahead and say no if that’s really what you mean, says Avellino. “Saying ‘maybe’ is a way of making yourself feel better, but it leaves the other person hanging, which is unkind.”
Someone thought enough of you to invite you to their event, and that’s always an honor, says Grotts. Acknowledge this by being gracious and always saying thank you for the invitation, even if it’s not something you’d ever be interested in.
Be honest … but not too honest
The amount of honesty you share when declining depends on your relationship with the other person. A work friend or acquaintance? Keep it honest but short and sweet. Your mom or best friend? It’s good to be honest and vulnerable about what’s happening in your life that makes it necessary to decline. Resist the urge to over-explain or give too many details.
Know when to text vs. when to call
Similarly, your relationship with the other person dictates the way in which you should respond. A short text is fine to turn down a happy hour with co-workers, but if you’re RSVPing no to your sister’s wedding, you need to call her or speak in person. If you receive a digital invitation, it’s fine to decline via digital means. Just make sure to follow proper email etiquette.
Don’t try to control the other person’s feelings
“There’s the assumption that we can decline without hurting anyone else’s feelings, but we can’t ensure the other person’s experience,” says Avellino. “They may feel sad or disappointed when you decline, but that’s OK, and most people will understand that life just gets busy.”
How to politely decline an invitation to a casual get-together
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Invitations to a casual event like a girls night out, brunch, date night with friends or happy hour require a response, but keep it brief and light, says Grotts. Keep in mind that anything you say when declining will likely be shared with the rest of the group, so don’t share details you wouldn’t want everyone to know, she adds.
Examples of how to decline
- “Thanks so much for including me in your girls night out! I won’t be able to make it this time, but definitely ping me next time you go out.”
“Happy hour sounds like so much fun, but I’m already committed for that time. Say hi to everyone for me!”
- “You are so sweet to think of me for brunch, but I’m not available this weekend. I’d love to go another time.”
“Game nights are my favorite, but I have to bow out this time. Have fun, and remind everyone I’m still the reigning Scrabble champ!”
How to politely decline an invitation to a party
From food to decor to entertainment, parties can be a lot of extra work and expense for the host, so keep that in mind when RSVPing, says Grotts. Be prompt and kind, whether it’s a blowout birthday party or a casual summer barbecue. However, if you find yourself constantly declining invitations from a particular person, it might be time to reevaluate that relationship, notes Avellino.
Examples of how to decline
- “Happy birthday to Bob! Fifty is a huge milestone! Unfortunately I won’t be able to celebrate with you guys this year, but I’ll be with you in spirit.”
“Thank you so much for inviting me to your holiday party—it really means a lot that you’d think of me! I’m already committed to a different event that evening, but I’d love to catch up after the holidays.”
- “Some of my favorite memories are from your summer barbecues, and while I’m sad that I won’t be able to make this one, I look forward to making more fun memories together in the future.”
“Your New Year’s Eve party sounds like a blast! Thank you so much for inviting me, but I already have plans that evening. Perhaps next year we can ring in the new year together!”
How to politely decline an invitation to a work event
“Work events are a special case because they’re not just social,” says Avellino. “Before responding to the invitation, consider what the impact on your career may be, what opportunities the event may offer and who will be there.” If the event will have important people there and may be an opportunity to network, or if you’ll be seen in a negative light for declining, then you should say yes regardless of whether or not the event is optional, she says. But if you really can’t make it, do some triage to mitigate any fallout. Be careful not to overshare personal details—one of the top bad work habits that could make you seem unprofessional.
Examples of how to decline
- “Our team has worked so hard together, and going out for drinks and karaoke sounds like a great way to decompress together. I’ll have to pass this time because I have a family commitment, but I’m looking forward to hearing all about it.”
“The monthly office potluck is such a great way to get to know everyone, and I’m so sad to miss it this time. Please let me know if you need help organizing future events.”
- “I’m so grateful to be included on the guest list for this year’s charity gala—it’s such an honor! I will be out of town on that date, but please accept my contribution to the cause.”
“Thanks so much for inviting me to the end-of-year employee dinner, but I regret that I’ll have to miss it this year due to other commitments.”
How to politely decline an invitation to a family event
Declining an invitation to a family event, like a child’s birthday party or a milestone anniversary party, can feel like the toughest situation to navigate. “The key is to focus on connection,” says Avellino. “Let them know that your relationship with them is valuable and special to you.” Take extra care and thought with your response, and perhaps offer a bit more information than you would with acquaintances or co-workers. Depending on the event, sending flowers is a thoughtful gesture.
Examples of how to decline
“Thank you for all your hard work putting together Grandma and Grandpa’s anniversary party. I know they will love it and that it will mean a lot to them. As I’ll be eight months pregnant then, I won’t be able to travel, but I’ll be sending my love from afar. I’d love to FaceTime in if that’s an option.”
“Jack’s 8th birthday party sounds like a blast—the dinosaur theme you picked is perfect, and I know it will be a big hit. Unfortunately I don’t think I can handle a big party right now. As you know, I’ve been going through a really tough time lately, and I really think I need to take some time for self-care this weekend. This wasn’t an easy decision to make, and I’m grateful for your understanding and support. I have a present for Jack that I’ll bring over on Monday and give him a big hug. I love you both!”
“The family reunion this summer sounds epic, and you are so sweet to invite us! We already have a vacation planned that week (with non-refundable tickets), though, so we won’t be able to come. We’re so sad to miss it, and we love spending time with you all, so I hope we can get together soon!”
How to politely decline an invitation to a bridal or baby shower
How you say no to this type of invitation depends a lot on how close you are with the guest of honor, says Avellino. If it’s a co-worker, it’s enough to send your regrets along with a shower or baby gift, but your sister or niece deserves a call and a follow-up afterward, as well as heartfelt congratulations messages.
Examples of how to decline
“I’m overjoyed about your upcoming wedding, and I know you will be such a lovely bride. I won’t be able to make your shower due to my daughter’s state diving competition, but I’d love to get coffee the week after and hear all about it.”
“Thank you so much for inviting me to your baby shower. Babies are such a wonderful gift, and I’m excited for your growing family. Please accept this gift and my sincerest congratulations.”
“I’m heartbroken to have to miss your baby shower, but I have a family commitment that weekend. But I’ll call you after it’s over, and I’d love to take you shopping at a later date to pick out some cute baby outfits together.”
- “Congratulations on your upcoming marriage! I regret that I can’t come to your bridal shower, but I wish you all the best—now and in the future.”
How to politely decline an invitation to a wedding
Most people don’t invite someone to their wedding unless they have a strong personal connection—and it’s important to honor that connection in your RSVP, says Grotts. Thank them for the honor of the invitation, emphasize how important they are to you and offer wedding wishes. It’s also always a nice gesture to send a wedding gift, even if you can’t make it to the wedding.
Examples of how to decline
“I wish you all the joy and happiness in the world in your upcoming union. It means a lot to me that you invited me to such a special moment in your lives! I won’t be able to celebrate with you in person at the wedding, but I hope you enjoy this gift.”
“I was so excited to see your wedding invitation—you are such a beautiful couple! While we can’t celebrate with you in person, know that we are sending all our love from afar. We’d love to take you both out to dinner to catch up the next time we’re in town.”
“It’s such an honor to be invited to your wedding, and I hope the day is full of love and joy (and perfect weather)! While we can’t make it to the ceremony, know that you are in our hearts always.”
- “We are sending our deepest regrets as we are unable to attend your wedding. May your day—and marriage—be full of joy and love.”
Mistakes to avoid when declining an invitation
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Now that you know what to do, be aware of a few things you shouldn’t do. It’s all too easy to fall into these traps, so proceed with caution!
Responding too quickly
You want to respond in a timely manner, but you also want to make it look like you’ve taken a moment to try to make it work. And if you’re on the fence, really consider your priorities, goals and capacity before saying yes; otherwise you risk having to back out later and might look flaky, says Grotts.
“Explaining too much isn’t for their benefit—it’s for yours. You’re trying to pad yourself with protection so nobody is mad at you,” Avellino explains. “Instead of offering excuses, just be clear, kind and honest.” You don’t owe anyone an explanation.
Similar to over-explaining, people often believe they need a “valid” excuse to turn down an event. In reality, making excuses may prompt the other person to try to fix the issue or change something to accommodate you—putting both of you in an uncomfortable situation. “It’s plenty to say, ‘Thank you so much for inviting me, but I won’t be able to make it,'” says Grotts.
Fear of missing out is a real phenomenon, and it can lead you to commit to events you don’t want to go to or decline an invitation and then regret it. “Accept that you may feel some FOMO or other negative emotions, but that doesn’t mean you made the wrong decision,” says Avellino. “You’re going to have to say no sometimes to things or people that are important. That’s just a part of life.”
How to smooth things over if necessary
Hurt feelings happen, especially when dealing with social events. Instead of trying to make sure no one ever gets their feelings hurt—it’s not possible or practical—focus on maintaining the relationship and being true to your values, says Avellino.
“If you sense something is off, you can ask directly if they are hurt or offended and if they want to talk about it,” she says. “But then you must allow others to have their own experience without you controlling it.”
You don’t need to apologize for having boundaries for your time, but you can reassure the other person that you care about them and they are important to you, adds Grotts. And at the end of the day, relationships are what the invitation is all about anyway.
- Lia Avellino, LCSW, therapist and CEO of Brooklyn-based emotional wellness center Spoke
- Lisa Mirza Grotts, etiquette expert and founder of the Golden Rules Gal