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Wedding Etiquette for the Guest

This is the time of year I begin receiving etiquette questions that revolve around attending weddings. Having just moved past my son’s big day (a ceremony we replanned 4 times due to covid), I can appreciate all the comments. Let’s explore 13 areas that made the top of the list.

1. The Wedding Envelope is Important: Most wedding invitations are sent with an outer envelope and an inner envelope. It is the inner envelope that is the most important, because it will tell you who is invited to the wedding. An example. The outer envelope might be addressed to Mr. and Mrs. John Jones. This could lead you to believe only these two are invited to the wedding. But the inner envelope might say Mr. and Mrs. John Jones, Stephanie Jones, John Jones, Jr. This tells you not only are Mr. and Mrs. Jones invited, but also their children. The inner envelope is where you discover if you can bring a plus one. If the inner envelope says Mr. Chris Alan, then only Mr. Alan is invited. If the inner envelope says Mr. Chris Alan and Guest, then Mr. Alan knows he may bring a guest. Whether the wedding invitation has one envelope or two, the most important thing to remember is only those names written on the envelope are included. Do not get upset about this. Managing the headcount at a wedding is cumbersome, and during the shutdowns of the past year, guest attendance was extremely difficult to handle. Imagine being the bride that had to uninvite guests!! Not fun. Be mindful there are only so many seats to go around, and if it comes to the bride and groom having to cut one of their close friends or allow another guest to bring a plus one they do not know, the couple will probably choose their close friend. No disrespect is intended, it is just the nature of being limited in space at most wedding venues.

2. Wedding Gift: If you are invited to a wedding, it is nice to send a gift. This is not an obligation, but it is respectful to acknowledge the invitation. If you do not wish to send a gift, then a congratulatory card is a nice gesture. If you send a gift, the easiest way to accomplish this is go to the couple’s bridal website. There is almost always a link showing you where the couple has registered for various items for their home. It is easy to purchase from one of these sites, and the gift will be sent directly to the bride and groom. I am often asked if you can bring a gift to the wedding. Some experts tell you yes, but most say no. Remember etiquette is not about a bunch of useless rules. These guidelines have been put in place to help everyone function well together in society. Why would it not be alright to bring a gift to a wedding? Walk through the steps with me. The guest shows up with a gift. Where do they put it? Are they going to hand it to the bride or groom? No, they are too busy. Is there a table for gifts? Maybe, maybe not. If a large batch of gifts are placed on a table, how are they protected? Someone from the wedding party must now be assigned to oversee the table. How will the gifts get home with the newlyweds? Either the bride and groom must load their car after the wedding, or someone else must be assigned this task and ensure all gifts are delivered safely to the newlyweds. The point is, bringing gifts to the ceremony adds an extra burden to the wedding party. In today’s e-commerce world it is easier for you to order a gift through their registry and have it shipped straight to their home. The store will even wrap it for you! Also remember it is acceptable to send a gift up to one year after the wedding. So, make it easy on everyone, including you, and have the gift delivered before the big day.

3. Wedding Announcement: If you receive a wedding announcement but not an invitation to attend the ceremony, it is up to you if you send a gift. It is still nice to do, but it is not expected. If the couple opted for an intimate, private affair with just family, but you are a close friend, then I would send a gift. If a larger group was invited, but you were not close enough to the couple to receive an invitation, then sending a congratulatory card is perfectly acceptable.

4. What to Wear: If the attire is listed on the invitation, then you know what is expected. If the attire is not mentioned, then the time of day the wedding will take place will inform you as to what you should wear. The location of the ceremony will also give you a hint. A daytime wedding is less formal. Depending on the season, a floral summer dress or a light-colored suit (with tie) would be nice. If the wedding is around 5p.m., then cocktail attire is more appropriate. If the wedding is after 7p.m., the unstated rule is black-tie. Dress respectfully. You are not going to a night club, and many weddings are in religious venues. Yes, it is alright for female guests to don a black dress. Gone are the days when this color was considered a sign of mourning when worn to a wedding. The only color still taboo is white. The wedding day belongs to the bride and groom. Wearing white takes away from the bride’s dress. If you are still confused regarding your clothing, just ask the wedding couple.

5. Don’t Be Late: Ideally you should arrive 30 minutes before the time listed on the invitation. Weddings do begin on time, which means the wedding party is lining up to make their entrance about 10 minutes before the start of the ceremony. If guests are still arriving when the bridesmaids, bride, and all other attendants are in the foyer, it can be disruptive. If your tardiness is unavoidable, do not enter the facility until the bride and her wedding party have walked down the aisle. You can then slip into the back of the room, unnoticed.

6. Participate: Depending on the ethnicity and religion of the bride and groom, there may be certain traditions or customs that take place. You do not need to do anything that might go against your beliefs but participate when you can. Standing for a song when the audience stands? Yes, you can do that. Be an agreeable guest.

7. Cell Phones: Does this even need to be said? Turn the cellphone off. No phone calls or texts are needed during this time. You are there to participate in a special event. Learn to be present. Also, do not take photos during the wedding. A professional photographer will be there to capture the moment, and a guest holding their phone over the heads of others disturbs those around them, and it might interfere with the real photographer that is being paid to capture the moment.

8. Receiving Line: Many receptions have moved away from this practice, and the bride and groom now walk the room to say hello to everyone while the guests enjoy their meal. I prefer this format. If there is a formal receiving line, though, do your part and get in line. This is equivalent to saying hello to a hostess in her home. And if it is a larger wedding, the receiving line may be the only opportunity you have to impart your well wishes to both families.

9. Cocktails and Hors d’oeuvres: Many receptions have a short time period upon completion of the wedding ceremony and the start of the reception for guests to mingle and grab a drink. It is a good time to speak with people you know and meet new acquaintances along the way. This cocktail hour is often used to allow the wedding party time to get pictures before they enter the reception. And remember, if there is a reception book, please sign it. Sometimes it is the only way a bride and groom know you attended.

10. Find Your Seat: When you enter the reception, there will be a table that tells you where you are to go, if it is a seated meal. If not, then you are free to grab a place wherever you wish. When arriving to your table, make sure you introduce yourself to the other guests seated with you. Where you were assigned is not an accident. You were placed at that table because the bride and groom felt you would enjoy the company of these guests. Maybe you share similar careers, or you attended the same college. Do not be a bump on a log. Engage each person at your table with conversation.

11. Dance: Traditionally, the bride and groom have the first dance, followed by the bride and her father, and concluding with the groom and his mother. After this, the dancefloor is open to all guests, unless instructed otherwise. Do your part and join in on the fun!

12. Traditions: Participate in the traditions of the new couple. If they have a bouquet toss or garter throw, join in. If you do not wish to participate, then stand to the side and cheer everyone else on. The key is to be a joyful guest and celebrate with the group.

13. Leaving: It is polite to stay through the meal and see the wedding cake cut. After this, you are free to leave. Say goodbye to the newlyweds upon departing, but if you cannot, speak to the parents of either side and thank them for a lovely evening. When the reception has concluded, do not linger. It is time to depart. Many facilities charge a fee if the event goes past the time agreed to on the contract, and you do not want to be the cause of adding an extra financial burden to the new couple. Party favors have become popular at most weddings. Please make sure to grab one on the way out, even if you do not think you will use it. A lot of thought has gone into this gift, and taking one is your way of recognizing the effort.

Manners are nothing more than the outward expression of the condition of your heart, and etiquette is the way in which we display these manners. Be kind, be respectful, do not judge, and treat others as you wish to be treated. You were invited to celebrate the new couple. Take your rightful place and enjoy!

Together with you,

Lisa Lou


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