How to Politely Decline That Virtual Happy Hour When You Very Clearly Don’t Have Plans

Photo: Getty Images/JGIJamie Grill
In light of the social distancing guidelines surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, you'd think your social calendar would be a complete blank slate, right? Well, not quite. To the peril of introverts in quarantine, it's precisely because we’re all staying home that everyone knows we're home, which means our time is readily available. It's no longer easy to last-minute cancel requests to hang out (or politely decline those requests completely) because a new wild world of virtual socializing is booming via Zoom, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and any number of other platforms.

In this world, there is nowhere to go and not much to do, so those faux excuses (or, ahem, bold-faced lies) you formerly leaned on to get you out of drinks with your old co-worker or a catchup with your high school lab partner or even dinner with your bona fide best friend? Yeah, those tactics aren't going to work now because everyone knows your secret: You have no plans. And in this time of virtual socializing, knowing how to politely decline an invitation is actually pretty tricky.

But before getting into how you can rebrand your RSVP of no (because, rest assured, it is still possible), know that if you're feeling any tinge of guilt for even wanting to say no, there's certainly no reason to feel like a bad friend. "Introverts often feel these social and emotional obligations stronger than extroverts, and may even perceive greater disappointment than is really felt by the other person," says Helene Brenner, PhD licensed psychologist and creator of the My Inner Voice app.

Furthermore, according to a recent study by Michigan State University, feeling obligated—to hangout or otherwise—can negatively impact relationships. The findings stress that doing little acts of kindness or fulfilling small favors can strengthen your relationships, but massive asks make people resentful.

"Our longest lasting friendships continue because we enjoy them. But if obligations pile up, it might compromise how close we feel to our friends," study co-author William Chopik, PhD, writes of the findings. "Because friendships are a relationship of choice, people can distance themselves from friends more easily than other types of relationships when faced with burdensome obligations."

Well now, under the social laws that accompany social distancing, not quite, Dr Chopik. While we may be physically and geographically distant, without alternate plans (or even fake plans) to use as an excuse, it's harder than ever to grant ourselves distance from what can ultimately be hyper-draining social gatherings—even if they're just occurring online.

"You can say, 'I am staying really busy taking care of my family and the new normal' or 'Thanks for the invitation, but I’m going to pass.'" —Diane Gottsman, etiquette expert

Regardless, the study does provide a pass of sorts for RSVPing no to these setups. Even Diane Gottsman national etiquette expert and author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life, notes that it's okay to politely decline if your heart and head are not in it right now (or never would've been, realistically, in the case of your high school lab partner). "Everyone has a different set of circumstances, and it’s important to protect your well-being, especially during this difficult time when anxiety runs high," Gottsman says. "If you do not want to join a meeting or a chat, it’s not necessary to over-communicate. You can say, 'I am staying really busy taking care of my family and the new normal' or 'Thanks for the invitation, but I’m going to pass.'"

Furthermore, if you simply value one-on-one time with a pal over entertaining a bunch of virtual (literal) quasi-strangers, then it’s okay to voice that! "You can also say ‘I appreciate the invitation, what would mean more to me is hearing your voice and having a quick conversation," Gottsman adds. And if you’re really feeling overwhelmed to the point of glitching, it’s actually okay to [hushed whisper] ghost your friends for a minute. Like, I don’t support that as a lifestyle choice, when this is all over, I am going to hug everyone I know and relish eating out every night. I will become so creepy and so poor, I can’t wait.

But as Dr. Brenner points out, we’re all resetting from being over-committed, and it's important not to "fill your plate" with new obligations and pressures. "It's okay to push the pause button on interacting and enjoy your own company," Dr. Brenner says. "It's good to know people are out there if you need them, so that's something to also appreciate, when you do feel like reconnecting."

Gottsman agrees, and adds that most people don't really care if you don’t go to the (Zoom) party. "Friends all have different situations and most often will understand," Gottsman says. "Some people enjoy being social online, and others do not. I will say, however, if you are not joining because it is out of your comfort zone, just give it a try. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it."

Totally fair. And if it's extremely not for you? Well, at least you know how to politely decline and have a few go-to outs to keep in your back pocket.

There are a lot of ways to be connected with people, and we rounded up our favorite ways to bond long distance. And seriously, it's okay if you're not writing the next King Lear right now. 

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