Obama disinvited several guests from his birthday bash. Experts share how to gently do the same.

·8 min read
Conan O'Brien was among those axed from Barack Obama's birthday party guest list after COVID forced Obama to scale back the affair. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Conan O'Brien was among those axed from Barack Obama's birthday party guest list after COVID forced Obama to scale back the affair. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Picture it: Your long-awaited soirée is approaching and all the invites have been sent out. The guests have RSVPed, the band and venue have been booked, then all of a sudden, changing COVID restrictions force you to downsize.

In other words, you have to scale back — by disinviting a certain number of guests. Ouch!

It’s never easy. Just ask former President Barack Obama, who had to scale down his 60th birthday bash on Martha’s Vineyard last weekend by cutting a significant number of VIP guests — including, reportedly, Stephen Colbert, Larry David, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien and even his top adviser David Axelrod, among others.

It’s been a rough year for party hosts.

According to Forbes, at the start of the pandemic, nearly 100 million attendees of sporting events, conferences and other events worldwide were forced to change their plans in 2020.

New data from Wedding Wire also revealed that weddings had to make big shifts in 2020. For the 43 percent of couples who got married last year, over half had to make modifications to adapt to health and safety regulations — including social distancing, and in some cases, opting for virtual celebrations leading up to the event.

It’s clear the pandemic created several hurdles in our social lives. And sadly, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines have loosened up for those who are fully vaccinated, the pandemic's impact is still being felt as large-scale events are shifting to more intimate venues.

Enter the dreaded moment you have to tell your guests they’ve been disinvited. It's never easy, but here, experts offer a few tips on how to make the experience a bit smoother on everyone involved:

Decide what kind of event you're throwing beforehand

Before you even start planning the event, it's important to know what sort of COVID precautions you want it to include — or need it to, based on event-space protocol: Is it going to be a fully masked, fully vaccinated indoor event? An outdoor, physically distanced event? Something in between?

According to Elaine Swann, etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol, approaching the event planning from this perspective will help you modify your guest list from the start, so you can (hopefully) limit the amount of disinvites should capacity rules change and that need arises.

"It's no different than saying: Do I want my drunk friends here? Or do I want my friends that are going to enjoy this kind of low-key evening? If [the latter is] the case, you will typically leave your drunk friends off the list, right?" Swann explains to Yahoo Life, recalling standard pre-COVID ways of whittling down guest lists. "We have to approach it from the same perspective."

Once you know the type of event you're throwing, Swann explains, you'll be able to observe the guest list with a critical eye.

A helpful tip would be to divide your guests into lists from the get-go, according to their vaccinated status and comfort levels, then make hard decisions from there. "You have your A List: those who you know for sure are vaxxed. You have your B List: those who you're not quite sure of. And you have your C List: those who you know are against [being vaccinated]," says Swann.

This way, she adds, you can save yourself the heartache of needing to rescind an invitation from someone you know is unvaccinated or someone who is uncomfortable being near someone who is unvaccinated.

Choose, with care, whom you're disinviting

"There is no one-size-fits-all" when it comes to choosing whom to disinvite, Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Texas, tells Yahoo Life.

However, a helpful tip to narrow it down is to consider the relationship you have with the person and their role in your life. For example, just because they're a blood relative does not mean you should forfeit someone else's invite, especially if that person is more vital to your life. Of course, Gottsman explains, "If they are paying the bills," or are elderly and may not get to a family event again, you have more of "an obligation."

It's never an easy decision and you don't need to take it on alone, she says: Looping in others you trust — especially those who will be attending the event themselves so they can see the bigger picture — might help direct your judgment in a better way.

Still, while everyone is going to have an opinion, especially parents or in-laws (if it's a family affair), says Gottsman, "as an adult, you have to make your own decisions based on sound judgment."

Prepare guests for the possibility of more changes

"One of the things we can do right now when we are planning events is to include in the invitation that you are watching what's happening in your local community, and if anything changes you'll be sure to let them know," explains Swann.

"This way, if they get a notification that it's been downsized, it won't be such a shock," she adds. "In the back of their mind, they were preparing for it."

Gottsman adds that the safety of your guests is of the "utmost importance." If the venue requests that you downsize, that's its prerogative — and may be a legal obligation, depending on local safety mandates or ordinances. While this is something you can't control, what you can control is the peace of mind of your guests who do make the cut.

"It’s the host’s job to make their guests feel comfortable and safe at an event," says Gottsman. "Everyone has different comfort levels, even among the vaccinated, and a host can only try and do their best to set the groundwork. Let people know what they can expect when they arrive, and give them conditions that are proactive — like hygiene stations, bottles of water, individual drinks rather than a make-your-own cocktail bar, plated food rather than a buffet."

Be direct but compassionate

Expect that people are going to be hurt by being disinvited, but if you handle the situation with grace, says Swann, that's what they're going to remember most.

"We cannot control other people's emotions," says Swann. "But what we can control is the way we interact with them. If we are reassuring, if we are kind and measurable and thoughtful in what we say and how we say it, the relationship has the ability to survive this particular disappointment."

To break the news, she says, "reach out to your guest that you're disinviting and tell them that in light of all of the new developments, you've had to make the difficult decision to scale back your event and that it will be a much smaller affair, but you're looking forward to us getting together at another time," she recommends. That way, she says, you're being clear with them about being disinvited, but at the same time, you "give them some hope."

She adds, "They'll be able to see that it has nothing to do with your relationship with them, but everything to do with what's happening in our world right now."

Adding a personal touch also helps, Gottsman notes, such as doing the disinviting with a phone call, a handwritten note or even a personal meeting. Otherwise, she warns, you run the risk of coming across as cold.

Also, she suggests, keep it private by not announcing your disinvites on social media or blasting it in a group text. Additionally, once the event takes place, try to limit the amount of sharing you do on social media. "Try not the make the situation worse," says Gottsman. "Remember: Whatever you say is going to affect the relationship moving forward."

Take ownership

It's always a challenging thing, Swann notes, but the most important thing is to stand your ground.

"The three core values of etiquette that I live by, and I encourage people to live by, are respect, honesty and consideration," she says. "My recommendation is to put forth the greatest effort to always be honest in everything you say, and brace yourself. You have made a decision. Stand firm in that decision."

Swann warns not to place the blame on any one person — including the venue — if it's not true. After all, "Murphy's Law could alway happen, right?" So instead, accept your decision "and live in it."

"Own it and stand firm," Swann suggests. "Don't try to make a bunch of excuses. Don't let it turn into this long discussion. Just acknowledge it and own it. Say, 'I apologize. I'm sure it did hurt, but it was really a difficult decision for me and I hope you can understand. I love you and we will definitely get together again.' And that's it."