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Often I'd like to tell people to feel free to drop by, for instance for a birthday, without wanting them to feel obliged to do so.

Especially my mother interprets any hint that she and my father might drop by, as an explicit invitation and often feels obliged to come, even if she already had something else planned.

How do I word such an invitation?

How do I tell someone that they should feel free to drop by, without having them feel obliged to come?

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    Keep in mind that you have no control over whether they will feel obligated to show up, no matter how much you stress the "you don't have to" part. – Erik Aug 15 '17 at 14:51
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No one can control anyone else's behavior, or how your words are interpreted. Invitations to "drop by if you want" are often tricky to navigate. If you don't drop by, will someone's feelings be hurt ("Where's mom? Why didn't she come?")

Sometimes these "invites" are interpreted as "I don't want to specifically invite you, but I don't want you to feel left out either." Like I said, they're tricky. A lot depends on the depth of the relationship and the amount of trust between two people. Also, how far in advance are these semi-invites being handed out? If it's far in advance, it's even trickier to know if you're expected to come or not when expressed in that particular manner. A direct invite is better.

I would directly express your concern with your mom, and be honest about how much you want your mom to feel welcome to drop by. Don't hint if you really don't want her to come by. Be open if you do. If it were my mother, I would say something like,

Mom, we're having a casual get-together for (someone's) birthday. We're not sending out invitations, and I know it's last minute, so if you're free, we'd love for you to come. Do you have any prior commitments?

No? Great!

Yes?

Mom, we understand perfectly if you want to keep your prior commitment; your (commitment) is important to you. We can definitely get together another time. Let's plan a time for that, ok?

That seems to me to be the most direct approach. What she does with that is her choice.

7

For the type of person who will drop what they're doing to accommodate you, try asking what they're doing first, before extending the invitation.

So when you're asking your mother if she'd like to come by for your birthday party, start with:

So Mom, have you got any plans for (Weekend of Birthday) coming up?

This way, you can find out for yourself if they're busy that day, and hold back the invitation if they're busy with something important.

Like @anongoodnurse says in their answer, it depends on the person, and you can never fully account for how a person will react to an invitation to an event. If you suspect they'd want to be invited, even if they can't come, you should offer them the opportunity anyway. And, as @IgorG mentioned in comments, if they don't appreciate beating around the bush like this, it'd be better to simply ask "would you like to X" - giving them the option, rather than pushing it on them.

And keep in mind - even if the event sounds important, they might be able to re-schedule it, so if it's something you know they'd want to attend (like a big birthday party for, say, a 30th birthday) you might want to mention it anyway, so that the two of you can work a way out for her to be there.

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It's possible that this is happening with your mother ... because she's your mother. As such, it may be all but impossible to affect the desired outcome by simply posing the invitation differently – at least as far as your mother is concerned. I've provided a little advice about that below, but first I'll address the question you actually asked.

Saying it like this should not make anyone feel obligated:

We're holding a little impromptu/informal gathering [when]. If it fits your schedule, feel free to stop by!

But if I'm not mistaken, that's basically the way you're saying it already. It's polite, inclusive, and in no way makes it sound mandatory. However, if you feel you need to be more clear about there being no obligation, then that's exactly what you should do. After announcing the event and extending the invitation in your normal, informative way, try adding something to clarify that point directly:

To be clear, my family will be doing this even if no one else shows up, and we'll be happy either way. I'm just letting you know it's an Open Door event.

Hopefully, that will help curb your extraordinary appeal!

In the case of your mother, it's possible that it's just her love for you (and her personality) that's causing this phenomenon. It might be best to just accept that she'd prefer to put you first and be thankful for that – especially given that hundreds of millions of people are not so fortunate. But if you do choose to address the matter, it may require more of a heart-to-heart than a rewording of your invitation:

Something has been on my mind, Mom. I've been trying to figure out a way to phrase my invitations so you won't feel obligated to come. I love that you take every opportunity to put me first, of course, but I know that sometimes you even cancel your own plans to do so. That makes me a little uncomfortable; I want you to have your own social life, too. Can we maybe do this – I'll make you a promise if you make one for me?

  • I promise to never say that an event I invite you to is "no big deal," and that it won't bother me one bit if you can't make it, if either of those things aren't true.

  • In return, you promise me that you'll hear me and believe me when I do say that and that you'll try to enjoy yourself in ways aside from spending time with your favorite son! LOL

Deal?

OK. Good luck!

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I think the words you picked are perfectly fine:

Feel free to drop by but do not feel obliged to if you already have something else planned.

Simply repeat the "if" part if needed. Beware of Aunt Reenie's very good comment though.

My own two cents on top of that: There might be a cultural or linguistic catch behind it but, to me:

tell people they should feel free to drop by without necessarily inviting them?

is pretty contradictory. "Feel free to drop by." is definitely an invitation so you should also expect people to accept it, no matter what stands already in their agenda. That your

mother [...] feels obliged to come,

is in turn your interpretation. If you invite her to come and she does, that means that she prioritized your party but not necessarily that she feels obliged to. Just like sending an invitation or not is your take and yours only, if she wants to come or what appointments she drops is hers only.

At the end of the day, if the fact that she decides to show up makes you feel uncomfortable, then you should rather not send/give any invitation. As Aunt Reenie shows, if you want to send an invitation of the type:

I invite you but I don't expect you to come.

than do rather not say anything. You don't have to invite every person important to you every time.

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