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How To Politely Decline An Invitation To Thanksgiving Dinner

COVID-era Christmas and other holiday dinners are an etiquette minefield.
Having to say no to a holiday dinner can be hard.
Having to say no to a holiday dinner can be hard.

One of the more complicated parts of navigating the world right now is figuring out what feels safe to you, and how that fits in with the decisions being made by the people around you. Figuring out your own boundaries is complicated enough, and then you have to hope they match up with your parents’ boundaries, or those of your friends, or your in-laws, or your neighbours.

Ahead of the holidays, a lot of us will likely have to make tough calls about whether it feels safe to get together. With rising COVID-19 case loads and vague, sometimes conflicting messaging from our governments, it’s a stressful situation without a ton of clarity — but the safest choice is not being indoors with people who you don’t live with.

If you’ve decided you don’t feel safe going to a Thanksgiving dinner, a Christmas gathering or anywhere else this season, and you need to politely decline an invitation from a well-meaning friend or family member, here’s how to do it.

Stick to your decision

It’s not easy to figure out our own boundaries right now. But once we’ve arrived at a conclusion, experts say it’s best to stick to our guns and not let ourselves by swayed by anyone else’s choices.

“The challenge is to not second-guess ourselves,” psychologist Dr. Vaile Wright told USA Today. “Once we made whatever that risk-benefit analysis is for us and our families about what feels safe and OK for us, then we need to just be OK with that decision and kind of move forward.”

Be clear and straightforward

You shouldn’t have to get too detailed about your own decision-making process. Just saying something like, “I wish I could be there but I’m avoiding indoor gatherings because of COVID,” is clear and understandable.

“Your sole purpose is to accept or decline an invitation. We’re taking on too much with the feeling that we need to go into detail and explain,” etiquette expert Elaine Swann told the Los Angeles Times.

Going into too much detail “is where you open yourself up for conversation and scrutiny and debate,” she said.

Being very clear about what you plan to do is the best strategy.
Being very clear about what you plan to do is the best strategy.

Use “I” statements to avoid sounding judgy

When you’re talking to the person whose invitation you’re declining, focus on your own thinking rather than theirs, so that what you’re saying doesn’t sound accusatory.

“The tricky part of this, of course, is the potential that the other person might feel like we are judging their position or saying, ‘You shouldn’t be doing X,’” University of Toronto psychology professor Steven Joordens told Global News.

Wright told USA Today to avoid “you statements.”

“Saying something like, ‘You aren’t following the rules, therefore I can’t come over to Thanksgiving,’ is going to make the other person defensive and you’re not going to be as effective,” she said.

Instead, say something about yourself, like ”‘I feel uncomfortable bringing my family around this year, so we’re going to have to say no to Thanksgiving.’”

Convey your disappointment

According to Joordens, talking about the dinner as something you’re sad to have to opt out of, rather than something unpleasant that’s being hoisted on you, will make a big difference.

“It’s very perfectly reasonable to say, ‘You know, I really appreciate it. You don’t know how much I would love to spend that time with you. Like all of you, I’m really missing that horribly. But I’m worried,’” he told the outlet.

If it’s clear to the host that it’s the circumstances you have to say no to, not their generosity, they’re less likely to feel rejected.

Saying something like “It’s hard for me to tell you this because I really want to be there, but I won’t be able to enjoy myself because I’ll be too nervous” might get the message across.

Suggest an alternative

Suggesting a Thanksgiving Zoom call, or a long phone call the next day, might make your declining the invitation easier for the host to accept. That way, you’re not offering them a blanket no, you’re offering something else instead.

Offering to talk to parents over Zoom or FaceTime might make it easier for the
Offering to talk to parents over Zoom or FaceTime might make it easier for the

Practice if you’re nervous

If you’re someone who doesn’t have a ton of practice being assertive, it can be helpful to plan out what you’re going to say and how you want to say it. Saying something out loud a few times can make a big difference in how convincing and firm you make it sound.

Joordens suggested to Healthing that preparing a script can help, if you’re someone who tends to stumble over your words or lose your conviction.

Consider sending a gift

If it’s a formal dinner and you have the means, you could consider sending over flowers or pitching in for a pie. Even sending a card is a nice gesture, either before or after the meal itself — just something that shows that you’re thinking about that person, and that you do actually want to spend time with them in the future.

Don’t take it personally If they get mad you

If you’ve gone out of your way to be kind and considerate and someone still doesn’t accept your choice, that’s not your fault. These are unprecedented times, and everyone is struggling to some extent. Making the right decision for yourself is more important than putting yourself at risk when you don’t want to.

“We are dealing with a worldwide pandemic and this is what our current state of affairs looks like,” Swann told the LA Times. “It’s really important for us to be mindful in that regard and be bold and empowered enough ... Right now you’re doing your part for the health of yourself and your loved ones.”

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