A Wedding Etiquette Guide For Guests

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Weddings are full of traditions and customs that aren't readily apparent until you've done or said something inappropriate. Think of this summary as a cheat sheet that will remind you of the common sense stuff and keep you on the right side of everything else.

Before the Wedding

Long before you get dressed for the big day, you'll probably hear about the intended nuptials and receive a mailed invitation. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind as you plan your participation:

  • Read the invitation carefully and mark the date on your calendar. It may be a "regrets only" invitation. This means you only have to respond if you aren't planning to attend. Others require a response either way. This is called an RSVP, which stands for répondez, s'il vous plaît or "please reply."
  • Respond promptly to the invitation. This helps with wedding planning and makes you one less detail the bride has to worry about.
  • If you don't plan on attending, it's still good form to send a gift. This can be planned to arrive around the time of the wedding or as much as a few months to a year afterward.

Plus One and Other Issues

When it comes to attending a wedding, the issue of bringing a guest or not can be a sensitive one. If the invitation includes wording like "and guest" or "with guest," then it's okay to bring a plus one. If not, you're expected to attend solo. Asking the intended bride or groom (mother-in-law, sister or whoever else) to add your friend to the guest list is considered poor form. Often the number of guests invited to a wedding and reception has a direct bearing on budgetary factors. Avoid embarrassing yourself and your hosts by paying attention to the wording of the invitation as it relates to guests, and follow those guidelines without comment or complaint. Of course, if you're allowed to bring a plus one and elect not to, that's fine. Just be sure to say so in your RSVP.

wedding etiquette for guests wedding etiquette for guests

 

The Gift

When planning a wedding gift, it's always a good idea to stick with the wedding registries the bride and groom have selected. These are wish list items available through specific retailers or websites. Your friends went to a lot of trouble choosing the items they want, and they will likely be happiest if you stick with those. Sure, you may be the uncle whose signature gift is always a gas grill, but just this once, stick with the script unless you've been specifically told otherwise.

If you're working on a tight budget, buy the gift early while there are still lots of registry items to choose from. If you wait too long, you may end up with a short list of potential gifts that are too lavish for your budget or seem too mundane to spark much gift giving enthusiasm.

During the Wedding

You might think arranging for a gift and showing up at the church may be enough, but there are some things you should know about appropriate conduct during the wedding too:

  • Dress appropriately: Formal weddings may call for special guest garb like white tie, black tie, semiformal (probably what you're used to seeing at a wedding -- a nice suit, white shirt, a tie and dresses for the ladies), and casual. The invitation should give you an indication of the expected dress. If not, ask before you decide to wear your shorts and sandals. If you have to guess, it never hurts to err on the formal side. Oh, and never wear a white or even a light cream colored dress to a wedding. It may be considered okay by some big town etiquette experts, but for most communities, it's still a big no-no not worth insulting the bride over.
  • Arrive early. Showing up at the church twenty minutes to a half-hour early is a good idea. You'll be able to park easily, and if there are any traffic jams along the way, at least you won't be late. There are few things worse than arriving at the church after the ceremony has started.
  • Turn off your cell phone. It's easy to think that those people whose cell phones start chirping at the theater are tacky -- until you're the one who forgets to turn off your phone. Don't be that guy. Make sure your phone is off or on vibrate before you leave the house.
  • Keep your voice down. While sitting comfortably waiting for the ceremony to start, keep your voice low to avoid bothering other guests.
  • Watch the camera work. You may think your photos are top quality, but if you're one of five people, plus the official photographer, flitting around getting close ups and candid shots, you could become more of a bother than a friendly photog.
  • Don't blow off the ceremony. Yes, you may have had a late night and overslept, but skipping the ceremony only to show up at the reception is rude. Set your alarm.

At the Reception

Once the ceremony is over, the atmosphere becomes less serious and more festive, but there are stills guest etiquette rules you should follow:

  • Sign in. Your handwriting may be lousy, but it's still important to sign the guestbook. Remember, the guest book is a lasting reminder and keepsake for the bride and groom. Be a part of it.
  • Offer your congratulations. Even if there's no formal receiving line, seek out the parents and offer your congratulations. It's the polite thing to do.
  • Show some enthusiasm. Wedding receptions are intended to celebrate the happy couple. Smile, laugh and show everyone that you're having a good time.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Exchange a few words with the bride and groom, but keep it brief. They have a lot of people to chat with and lots of things to do before they can sneak away. Please, save the college dorm anecdotes for another time.
  • Don't get drunk. You've heard story about the boorish wedding guest who got wasted and threw up on the groom's shoes. Don't become a punch line or a cautionary tale for future brides. Drink in moderation.
  • Wait for the traditional dances - There may be a number of family related dances planned, like the first dance for the married couple and a father-daughter dance. Don't grab a partner until the floor has been opened to guests. If you're not sure, wait until you see a number of people dancing before you join in.
  • Don't switch tables. Yeah, you may think Aunt Edna's perfume is overwhelming, but her poor choice of scent doesn't justify leaving your assigned seat. Assume there's a good reason you're seated where you are and remain there for the duration.
  • Report any problems to the best man & maid of honor. If the bathroom is backed up, the wedding cake just fell off the table or the flower girl has lost her shoe, avoid disturbing the happy couple with the details. That's what the best man and maid of honor are for.
Last Updated: February 15, 2012
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About Sara Elliot Sara Elliott is a freelance copywriter and dedicated blogger. Her popular gardening, cooking and crafting blog, The Herb Gardener, was cited by The Wall Street Journal for its fun and frugal tips. Sara has a degree in English, and you can find her health, crafting, and lifestyle pieces on sites like DiscoveryHealth.com, HowStuffWorks.com, Savvi.com and TLC.com.

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