As we head into the pre-Christmas party season, in the latest article for her online magazine 60.life our guest columnist Jan Masters takes an amusing look at “learning the art of declining the kind of invitations I agree to in the moment but as the date of the ‘do’ looms large, wish I hadn’t.” Sound familiar? Read the full article to discover why we always seem to sign up for things we don’t want to do.
I know millions adore them. They’re just not my fave. Musicals. Especially ones where the performers stroll about the stage doing that speaky-singy thing. Or delivering laboured rhymes of the sort that sticks in my mind from Les Mis; ‘If I come out of this alive, you’ll find me at number fifty-five’. Which struck me as lucky. Presumably, if he came back dead they’d have found him full of lead, or in the shed.
After sitting through a fair few musicals in my life (the husband loves Stephen Sondheim) in the last couple of years I have been to precisely none. The reason? I’ve actively chosen not to put myself through the torture…even though some might say I oughta.
It’s one small step in learning the art of declining the kind of invitations I agree to in the moment but as the date of the ‘do’ looms large, wish I hadn’t. It’s not that I’m a grinch, honest. I’m a gregarious soul. But I’m also a people-pleaser, and the upshot of saying ‘yes’ to most invitations for most of my life has resulted in time spent at certain events with one thought running through my head; “What in the name of sanity am I doing here?".
I’m talking the evening wedding party, where the only people you know are the bride and groom. When the congregation has been boozing since midday and is suitably loose of mind and limb to want to dance to Agadoo. At this point, all you can do is pretend to chat animatedly to the person you came with.
I’m talking the back garden barbecue where you’re cold and bored, chasing a charred sausage round a paper plate, making small talk with a friend of a friend who’s a mining consultant from Trieste and you’ll never see again.
Equally, I’m talking about potentially lovely get-togethers I haven’t enjoyed, simply because I’ve over-committed myself and ended up distracted and stressed. This is why, in my 60s, I’m grappling with invite management in order to make sensible diary decisions.
So why do we often sign up for things we end up not wanting to do when the time comes? According to Hal Hershfield, a professor of behavioural decision making and psychology at UCLA, it’s because we believe in an aspirational version of our ‘future selves’. For example, that somehow, we’ll be freer or feel more of a party animal. Then when the time comes, it turns out we aren’t and we don’t. We’re still the same person.
What leads us down this path, he suggests, is the blankety blank diary. All that space months from hence conjures up the mirage we’ll have masses of spare time in the future – in other words, you’ll be singing, ‘Nothing to do, Nothing to do’ to the tune of Blankety Blank (you can try that at home).
When faced with this clear diary, Hershfield suggests casting your eye over the past couple of weeks and if they’ve been crammed with commuting, PowerPoint presentations, chores, family duties, ferrying children, exercise classes, coffee with friends, dog walks…to the point you’ve had to adopt the recovery position several times (curled up on the sofa with Sauvignon and Succession) chances are next month isn’t going to be radically different. In short, you need to get better at pacing your ‘future self’.
Another trick Hershfield offers is to pretend the invite for wild swimming/carol singing/a cheese rolling contest is for this very week, as opposed to languishing in the sunny uphills of the distance, then ask yourself would you still want to go. If the answer is no, that gives you an indication of your likely antipathy as you’re handed a wheel of Double Gloucester.
"I usually do the macarena"
I know, I know. I’m doing a good impression of a Grinch. But I’d rather say ‘no’ upfront than say ‘yes’ and weep into my pillow. Or worse, cancel. Because I hate ducking out of things for fear of appearing unreliable, flaky or that I don’t care.
But if I really do have to cancel, I find honesty is the best policy. I don’t create an excuse like my dog is ill, when in reality she’s as perky as if she were perched on Clare Balding’s lap at Crufts. I come clean and if that means admitting I’m in a mental health stew, so be it. You’d be surprised how understanding people can be.
Also, after I’ve cancelled them, I try to remember that when someone blows me out and I find myself with unexpected time on my hands, I generally do the macarena. So it’s just as likely my cancelling them isn’t going down like a lead balloon, but rather, gifting them an opportunity to send up a few party poppers. Enjoy.