Seriously Kidding

The RSVP hazard: Yes, No, Maybe

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Accepting invitations to events and not showing up is a big problem. Hosts and invitees give their take on the phenomenon

The invitations were sent and the seats allocated. The host is ready. The food has arrived. But wait - where are the guests who RSVPed?

Welcome to the new normal.

Events organisers and party-throwers in Singapore are seeing a rise in no-shows, even among guests who have confirmed their attendance. The absentee rate has been estimated by some to be as high as 20 per cent. And social media and the proliferation of e-invites have, predictably, been fingered as the reasons for behaviour that was once frowned upon, but now all too common.

"I used to be very particular about getting the number just right," says Mr Jeffrey Chung, 48, owner of Jeffrey Chung Models. "Now, I know better and always end up inviting about 50 per cent more guests to my pageants and fashion shows, so that we can get 80 per cent of the seats filled.

"I need to be more kiasu, or it looks very ugly when there are too many seats left empty."

Mr Chung now sends both physical and e-invites, and then calls up invitees before the event to be on the safe side.

Earlier this month, The New York Times ran a column by American humorist and self-styled modern-day Mr Manners, Henry Alford, lamenting the new trend of "reservations-making without commitment" in the digital age. In the piece, titled "The Aspirational RSVP: Saying Yes When You Mean No", Alford wrote: "When you're staring at empty seats and uneaten onion puffs, it's easy to point fingers at the usual suspects: millennials, Mark Zuckerberg, the muscularly thumbed."

The e-invited in Singapore tend to agree with Alford's assessment that there is a descending scale of guilt when it comes to going AWOL (military acronym for "absent without leave") after RSVPing. It is less of a sin to say yes, then not turn up for a packed, food-less event, than it is to stand up the hostess of an intimate dinner party.

People polled by SundayLife! say that e-invites simply lack the personal touch that individual invitations possess and are, therefore, an excuse to flake out. More so, if the event is free or the host is merely an acquaintance. Says student Zhang Yikang, 21: "A Facebook invite isn't individualised - anybody can just blast the invite out. You don't feel obliged or responsible, being one of the masses, to show up."

Civil servant Candice Chan, 35, echoes the sentiment: "If I see that 500 other strangers have already been invited, I feel there's just no sincerity."

Here is one more response from Generation Z, for good measure: "If it was a wedding, I'd be more responsible towards the host regarding my attendance. Whereas if it's something less personal, I might not see the significance of the RSVP," says student Bernard Yang, 22.

"I guess formal invites still stand out more than an

e-invite, which might get lost amid a sea of notifications," he adds.

Savvy marketers now view RSVPs to e-invites as a rough indication of numbers, rather than cast in stone.

Says Mr Kavan Spruyt, marketing manager of hospitality brand Limited Edition, which owns nightclub Kyo: "E-invites are a good gauge of whether our event appeals to our target audience. However, when someone clicks 'join', it only indicates interest, not guaranteed attendance."

Still, when RSVP is as easy as clicking a button, people often forget that indiscriminate clicking results in real-world wastage - from hosts over-catering, to a good seat remaining empty in a sold-out show.

Ms Debbie Andrade, Pangdemonium's sales and ticketing manager, says the theatre company encounters a few no-shows among invited guests on gala nights. "We have had, on occasion, a celebrity asking for complimentary tickets for a show and then not turn up," she adds.

Rather than let a prime seat go to waste, the company tries to upgrade other audience members to the VIP seats.

Experts say that one should be considerate when responding to and honouring invites - electronic or otherwise.

"Whether it is a personal invitation or an e-invite, the proper procedure is to inform the host of your absence in some form, even if it's at the last minute," says Ms Teo Ser Lee, director of etiquette school Protocol Academy.

That said, hosts "should expect these things by now" and "prepare for the possibility that some guests won't show up", adds Ms Teo.

Says Ms Lau Joon Nie, 45, assistant director of Newsplex Asia, which organises networking events and workshops for people interested in media: "As an organiser, I do appreciate it when people tell me they are unable to show up. It's basic courtesy."

Additional reporting by Lim Min Zhang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 28, 2015, with the headline 'The RSVP hazard: Yes, No, Maybe'. Print Edition | Subscribe