Follow This 4-Step Formula to Politely Decline an Invitation

published Oct 11, 2023
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Hand holding an invitation envelope with hand lettering that reads "be there"
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Saying no to an invitation — no matter the reason — can be a tricky skill to master. But if a friend invites you over for a cocktail party or a child’s birthday party and you can’t make it (or you just don’t want to go), it is possible to tactfully decline, without damaging the relationship.

But how, exactly? I was curious about how to politely decline an invitation, so I checked in with a few etiquette experts for their advice. Here’s what they had to say.

Quick Overview

How to Decline an Invitation Politely

Remember that “no” is a complete sentence and you aren’t obligated to go to any event you don’t want to. Then, try out the CARE rule to politely decline an invite. 

  • Consider the invitation by saying something like, “Let me check my calendar” — then remember to follow up with your answer.
  • Express your appreciation by saying something like, “Thank you so much for thinking of me.” 
  • Respond clearly with your answer, and include a timeline for the person to follow up with you — even if that time is never. (You could say something like, “I’d love to try to make the next one.”)
  • Empathize with the person extending the invitation by saying something like, “I hope you have a wonderful time.”

“No” is a complete sentence.

First and foremost, do not feel bad about turning down an invite, says etiquette expert Genevieve Dreizen, cofounder of Fresh Starts Registry and the author of Simple Scripts to Support Your People: What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say.

Although you may naturally feel guilty or awkward, it’s OK to opt out of activities for any reason. “No is a complete sentence,” Dreizen says. “I do not believe in attending events or dates you’re not interested in, feel exhausted by, or simply cannot make.”

Going to things you don’t want to is not actually doing anyone a favor, as your energy usually matches your attitude. And no one is owed your time. 

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You don’t need to explain yourself.

Even with your closest friends and family members, you do not need to explain why you aren’t coming, if you don’t want to. It can take some getting used to but, with enough practice, it will become second nature, Dreizen says.

“I’d always prefer to get comfortable in not giving an explanation over a lie or fib,” she says. “It can feel like we need to explain to people why we cannot attend events or make dates, but the truth is, no one has access to your schedule and, moreover, they do not have ownership over your time. It preserves relationships more to simply respond kindly with love and a strong no.”

If the host or invitee pushes back or asks for more information, stand your ground. You can reply simply that you “just won’t be able to make that work,” says Dreizen. If you’re really struggling to do that, she suggests explaining yourself to someone else, like a close friend, instead of the person who invited you. “Vent it out and learn to let ‘no’ be enough,” she says.

Credit: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Follow this formula for how to decline an invitation.

If you’re struggling to come up with the right words to say no to an invite, consider the “CARE” approach, says Kristi Spencer, an etiquette instructor and the founder of the Polite Company. CARE is an acronym that stands for consider, appreciate, respond, and empathize.

First, consider the invitation. “Instead of giving a hasty yes or no, show that you’ve genuinely thought about the request,” says Spencer. “It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘Let me think about that, and I’ll get back to you.’ The key is to follow through and actually respond.”

Next, express your appreciation for the invitation. This part of your response might sound like thank you so much for thinking of me or thank you for the invitation. “This simple gesture conveys respect and kindness, regardless of your decision,” says Spencer.

Next comes your response, which should include a timeline for the person to follow up with you — even if that time is never. You might say something like, “No, we’re content with our current church and aren’t interested in visiting others.” Or, if it’s a recurring event you really would like to attend in the future, like a book club, you might say, “I’d love to try to make the next one.”

Finally, empathize. This step is especially important if you are declining an invite face-to-face. You don’t need to explain yourself, defend your answer, or even backtrack. But you should be willing to pause, listen, and end on a positive note. You might say something like, “I hope you have a wonderful time.”

“The worst response is no response,” says Spencer. “Saying ‘no’ with care is not impolite.”

The relationship matters more than the event.

You can use this formula for any event, whether it’s a dinner party, a housewarming, a board-game night, or something else entirely. What matters more when crafting your response, Dreizen says, is the relationship you have with the person who invited you.

For example, if you’re invested in the relationship and want to preserve it, you might say something like, “Oh, you’re so sweet to include me! I just can’t swing that at this time, but I am so excited to hear all about it.” 

If you’re not concerned with preserving the relationship, however, you might say something short, sweet, and truthful, like, “I really appreciate the invite, but I just can’t make it! Thanks so much.”