When your social calendar fills up with dinners, drinks, parties and other gatherings, it can feel like there’s a weight pressing down on your chest. How can you possibly do everything everyone is asking of you and still find time for yourself?
Just remember: You are not obligated to accept every invitation you receive.
This is especially tough during busy times of year, like the holiday season, when there’s a never-ending list of get-togethers with colleagues, family and friends in the span of just a few weeks.
We reached out to experts who assured us that it’s more than OK to turn down an invitation and gave us some pointers on how to do so in a tactful way.
First, why people have trouble declining invitations, even when they don’t want to go.
It has a lot to do with how many of us were raised, according to social psychologist Susan Newman, who said we often equate being polite with saying “yes” to everything. As a result, we think saying “no” is somehow rude or insulting to the asker.
“For people who are ever-conscious of social protocol and the ‘right’ way to be a friend or relative, it seems there’s no way to decline an invitation without ruffling a few feathers,” Newman, author of The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it ― and Stop People-Pleasing Forever, told HuffPost.
“‘No’ is, for many, a negative word by definition, so there’s an assumption that each refusal will automatically have a negative backlash ― the asker will be offended or feelings will be hurt,” she added. “Or turning down an invitation will peg you as uncaring or selfish within your family or social circle.”
But constantly saying “yes” to things you really don’t want to do can be damaging.
Saying “yes” to everyone else and ignoring your own needs is a recipe for feeling overwhelmed and unhappy.
“As the invitations pile up, you can face feelings of powerlessness, resentment toward the people asking or anger with yourself because you were unable to say ‘no,’” Newman said. “Your own needs get pushed to the back burner. The stress of overload can manifest itself in insomnia, headaches, exhaustion and even make you more susceptible to colds or worse.”
Constantly saying “yes” affects you more profoundly than refusing an invitation impacts the host, who probably won’t be fixated on your absence.
“As hosts, they’re occupied with so many things,” Newman said. “As long as your response projects kindness and warmth, chances are they won’t take it too personally.”
So how can you give a firm but polite “no”?
Etiquette expert Diane Gottsman said people tend to over-explain when they decline an invitation. Instead, keep your response simple and straightforward.
“When you feel uncomfortable, it shows,” Gottsman, the author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas, told HuffPost. “Be ready in advance so you have a plan when an invitation comes through. Simply say, ‘Thank you so much. I need to check my calendar and get back to you.’ Or, you can say, ‘It sounds like it’s going to be a wonderful party but unfortunately I have already committed to other plans.’ Beyond that, it is not necessary to make an excuse.”
It doesn’t matter if your “other plans” are another party or staying home to wrap presents and watch movies in your pajamas.
“A plan is a plan regardless of the formality,” Gottsman said.
Newman gave some alternate responses you can use:
“Thank you for thinking of me. I would love to be there, but can’t.”
“Wish I could, but it is not possible for me to attend.”
“I’m already busy that day/evening/weekend.”
“Oh, too bad for me. I’m going to miss all the fun!”
It’s not a good idea to make up a reason why you can’t attend.
“If you lie, you run the risk of feeling guilty, which is precisely what you are trying to avoid when you refuse an invitation,” Newman said. “Embracing ‘no’ is about putting your needs first and breaking the habit of sacrificing yourself at the sake of others.”
And finally, don’t forget that how you spend your time is your choice and nobody else’s.
“Know that there is more pressure around the holiday season to gather and celebrate, but how you choose to divvy your time is entirely up to you,” Newman said. “Remind yourself you can see friends or family and gather at other times of the year.”