How to say “no” gracefully to holiday get-togethers

Protect yourself and others by staying in your own nest for the holidays. No outside guests other than by phone or the computer is likely to save lives.

Nervous About Get-Togethers Because of Rising Covid Cases? Here’s How to Say No Gracefully

Higher virus rates and colder weather are making social interactions riskier. But there are ways to artfully decline.

PHOTO: NOAM GALAI/GETTY IMAGES

By Elizabeth Bernstein Updated Nov. 17, 2020 4:03 pm ET

Dear Bonds,

With Covid-19 cases on the rise, I’m increasingly uncomfortable accepting invites for my family to get together with people, such as playdates for the kids or small gatherings with family or friends. Yet with the weather turning cold, and Thanksgiving and other holidays coming up, people I know are planning more events inside—and they seem to expect others to show up. How can I gracefully decline an invite for a gathering without hurting anyone’s feelings or getting criticized for it?

—Holding the Line in Connecticut

Dear Holding,

Let me make this easy. I’ll lay it out for you in six steps.

Be confident. You know what’s best for yourself and your family. Make your decision—jointly with your spouse or any adults you live with—about what gatherings or situations you are comfortable with and which you will avoid. Be clear on the details you can tolerate—the number of attendees, whether the event is indoors or out, whether you will be around people who don’t social distance or wear masks. Then do not second-guess yourself.

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Be polite. I would argue that stressful times, when everyone is easily triggered, require the best manners. To decline an invite, pick up the phone and make a call. Don’t text or email; it’s too hard to nail a tone of warmth or regret. And remember: Saying no doesn’t have to be a negative message. It can be caring and sincere. Aim for that.

Be honest. Explain that your family is being extra cautious at this time and you’re not attending group or indoor gatherings. It may help to explain why—because your parents are older and you need to be extremely careful to protect them, for example. Keep your explanation short and sweet. This makes you seem confident and firm. You do not need to defend your position. Remember: You know what’s right for you and yours!

Be reassuring. Tell the people who have invited you how much you care about them and truly regret missing the gathering. Remind them that in a perfect world you would be the first one to show up with a bottle of wine or some fresh-baked goodie in hand. But sadly, to our great shared heartbreak, we do not live in a perfect world right now.

Be supportive. You’ve set a good example. You aren’t going to change anyone’s mind by telling them their plans are dangerous or misguided. So don’t risk insulting them. The big goal is to have loved ones—healthy and still talking to us—when all this mess is over. So tell them you hope they have a lovely gathering. If it’s a celebration, consider sending a little gift, like flowers, so they can feel your love.

Be creative. Plan a holiday gathering at home. Just because you aren’t comfortable in a group doesn’t mean you can’t follow many of the season’s rituals and celebrate. Find other fun things for the kids to do, if they have to skip their playdates. Offer your family or friends an alternative event—a Zoom party, small outdoor gathering or rain-check for a later date. Remember: If we do this right now, we have a better chance of being able to joyfully gather together in person next year. Think how sweet that will feel.

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