When clicking 'Yes' often means 'No'

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Let's call it the aspirational RSVP - when someone replies "Yes" to an invitation, even though he knows or is fairly certain that he can't or won't attend.

"Aspirational RSVPs have become rampant, thanks to Facebook," said painter and translator Daisy Rockwell. "Very often, when I post an event there, people will choose 'Join' simply as a show of solidarity. If you ask them if they plan to come to your Massachusetts event all the way from California, they are affronted, as though you are criticising their noble sentiment."

Reservations-making without commitment is the apotheosis of digital glibness; it is a vote of confidence built on rickety scaffolding. There may already be a backlash to it: In a world in which "Maybe" is now an option on many invitations, it is easier to understand why a restaurant may charge US$200 (S$269) a person for cancelling without adequate notice.

I have been guilty of the aspirational RSVP twice, but in both cases, they were for large magazine functions where I knew my absence would not be felt. Yet, I also realised that as at many large functions, guests were probably being invited in waves, so my having said "Yes" most likely prohibited someone else from being invited. I would cast a net over a metaphorical table of delicious viands; I was a dip-blocker.

A friend who is a former diplomat in India wrote in an e-mail message: "The aspirational RSVP is a fact of life in India. You never assumed that simply because a guest RSVP'd, that meant he intended to attend. On the morning of a dinner we were hosting for a prime minister once, our staff were frantically calling invited guests to ensure they were going to show up. It didn't work - there were several high-profile absences who had informed us at least twice that they would attend."

Such absences, he wrote, "precipitated a game of name-card shuffle on the tables".

To be sure, context is important when gauging one's misdeeds. It is a far greater sin to go AWOL on an intimate dinner party than on a foodless gallery show or a body-packed rager. Moreover, "Yes" in New Delhi or on Facebook may have a different valance from "Yes" in Boston.

What other dark forces prompt an aspirational RSVP? A celebrity or VIP may say he will attend, particularly if it is a fund-raiser, so that the hosts can brag that he is coming. Others do it in a deluded hope that cataclysmic, paradigm-shifting events will occur, thus ultimately allowing them to attend - their boss' announcement of gender reassignment will derail the company picnic; cousin Sue's wedding will be rescheduled when her chocolate fountain clogs and burns several bridesmaids.

"I RSVP 'Maybe' to indicate my sincere wish to go," cartoonist Flash Rosenberg wrote in an e-mail message. "Then I politely bow out by jauntily offering to send my spirit. As the cost to live in New York City is so high, I must stay home and work. But my spirit is free to go out any time to a party."

He added: "Just this week, I got a Paperless Post invitation for a party to honour a very close friend in Philadelphia who is leaving her job after 25 years. But uh-oh, this RSVP card did not have a 'Maybe' option. So I had to click 'Will Attend' and write: 'I would love to be there, but won't know if I can make it until the last minute. My 'Will Attend' is for my Spirit, who wouldn't miss it. The more mundane me is a 'Hopeful Maybe' - so don't add me to the catering count.'"

Such charm tends to fall on deaf ears. Stand-up comic Tanael Joachim, who produces a monthly comedy show on the Lower East Side, said typically three-quarters of his Facebook reservations are no-shows. "By a huge majority, it's a young people problem," he said. "There's no real commitment with social media. If you don't have to face people and see that they're displeased, you create a culture where it's easy to be flaky."

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