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How to Be the Perfect Wedding Guest

Posted: 01/22/2013 8:40 am

Being a professional wedding planner, I often get questions from friends and family regarding proper guest wedding etiquette. For most people, weddings are unchartered territory, especially with wedding "rules" and traditions constantly changing. Making sure you are a respectful guest can become a bit of a challenge, to say the least. With brides and grooms really focusing on having a unique event, every wedding can be completely different from the last. Church ceremony, no ceremony; registered for china or registered for a mortgage. Here are some of the top guest-related questions I am asked (with answers!) along with tips for being a great guest.

Is it OK to skip the ceremony and just attend the reception?

Short answer: No! Longer answer: The entire point of a reception is to celebrate what was witnessed at the ceremony: the love and commitment between two people. Why celebrate something you didn't bother to be a part of? Free food? Free alcohol? You get to show off your air guitar skills to "Sweet Child of Mine?" Essentially, the ceremony is the important part and what comes after (a.k.a. what some consider the "fun part") is a chance to rejoice with the couple; to show them you are truly happy about what you just witnessed. It doesn't matter if the ceremony is at noon with 300 people in attendance and the dinner at 6 p.m. It gives you plenty of time to change, nap and play scrabble, and then get to the reception refreshed and ready to eat, drink and dance the night away.

Saying this, there is an exception to every rule (and, no, you cannot just use this part as an excuse). If you have to work (and cannot easily get out of it) or have a significant family event to attend (i.e., baptism, grandmother's 90th birthday party, etc.) then it is acceptable to miss the ceremony. Just let the couple know your reason in advance, if possible. You don't want them to think you skipped out, and you certainly do not want to pretend you were there.

My invitation says "and guest." What exactly does that mean? Do I have to be in a serious relationship to bring a date?

"Guest" does not exclusively mean your significant other. You can certainly bring a "friend" as your guest to a wedding. This is a good area to use your best judgment. Whether you are in a long-term relationship, just starting to date someone, or would like to be dating that someone, feel free to bring them as your guest. Even if that someone is truly just a friend, but you want to have a dancing partner (or not be the weirdo all alone in the corner), by all means, go for it. However, if you have other friends attending the wedding, I do not suggest bringing your best friend along as a date. You want to keep in mind the bride and groom have to pay for each person who attends. Also, you will need to give a gift that reflects two of you, not just one. If you do bring a guest, don't expect them to chip in for the gift, unless, of course, they know the couple as well and feel comfortable doing so. Remember, it is very nice of the couple to invite you with a plus one (assuming they do not know your "guest"), so try not to take advantage.

If a couple is not registering for gifts does that mean I should give cash?

You don't have to give cash if someone has not registered, but, honestly, that is usually what the couple is hoping for. It is best to ask someone close to the bride or groom (i.e., parents, wedding party or even the couple themselves) about what the couple would like as a gift. They will know whether or not the bride and groom are hoping for cash gifts. If you know the couple really well and think you can give a very personal gift, then go for it! Otherwise, I would stick to giving cash.

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  • The Bride's Family Should Foot The Bill

    With more couples marrying later in life when they're financially established, the rules concerning who pays for their weddings have changed. "Now, couples paying for most or all of their weddings is more the norm than brides' families paying," says Peggy Post. Even when parents are writing the checks, they no longer have to follow strict guidelines about which family handles what (i.e., the bride's pays for the reception and the groom's pays for the alcohol). Instead, couples who accept their parents' financial help should decide "what items are their highest priority, as in the things they want to pay for and have more control over, and the items that are less important, that they would be okay with parents paying for and controlling," says <a href="http://www.sharonnaylor.net/" target="_hplink">Sharon Naylor</a>, best-selling author of "<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Essential-Wedding-Etiquette-Sharon-Naylor/dp/1402205120" target="_hplink">The Essential Guide to Wedding Etiquette</a>."

  • Brides Must Wear White

    White is no longer just for virginal, first-time brides, nor do brides have to wear it at all. "Really, a bride may wear any color she desires on her wedding day," says Washington, D.C.-based wedding planner and etiquette expert <a href="http://www.claudialutmanevents.com/" target="_hplink">Claudia Lutman</a>. "Before Queen Victoria, who is solely credited as establishing the tradition of the white bridal gown, brides wore their best dresses, despite the color." (Dresses pictured, from left to right: <a href="http://www.bhldn.com/shop-the-bride-wedding-dresses/crashing-waves-gown" target="_hplink">Crashing Waves Gown</a>, <a href="http://www.bhldn.com/shop-the-bride-wedding-dresses/trumpeted-pavot-gown" target="_hplink">Trumpeted Pavot Gown</a>, <a href="http://www.bhldn.com/shop-the-bride-wedding-dresses/sweet-tea-gown" target="_hplink">Sweet Tea Gown</a>, <a href="http://www.bhldn.com/shop-the-bride-wedding-dresses/frondescence-gown" target="_hplink">Frondescence Gown</a>)

  • Guests Can't Wear White

    While white is typically "reserved for the bride," according to nationally recognized etiquette expert <a href="http://www.dianegottsman.com/" target="_hplink">Diane Gottsman</a>, other experts see the tides changing on this rule. "As long as guests do not upstage the bride or appear to be in competition with her, a winter white or summer cream dress is now considered okay," says Lutman. As Post <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/fashion/weddings/wedding-qa.html?_r=4" target="_hplink">advised <em>New York Times</em> readers in March</a>, what matters most is making sure you're not "unintentionally calling attention" or "causing offense to the bride." She said that guests should avoid wearing <em>any</em> outfit -- regardless of color -- if they doubt its appropriateness for the occasion. (Dresses pictured, from left to right: <a href="http://www.bhldn.com/shop-bridesmaids-partygoers-dresses/creme-fraiche-dress" target="_hplink">Crème Fraiche Dress</a>, <a href="http://www.bhldn.com/shop-bridesmaids-partygoers-dresses/persephone-shift" target="_hplink">Persephone Shift</a>)

  • The Mother Of The Bride Can't Host The Shower

    Etiquette rules used to dictate that a bride's immediate family, particularly her mother, couldn't throw her bridal shower. "It was taboo because it was thought as being self-serving or raking in the gifts, but that's changed immensely," Post says. In fact, as more couples plan their own weddings, brides' mothers tend to feel left out as far as orchestrating the festivities goes, Naylor explains. Because of this, she says it is more than acceptable for a mother to "join in with the bridesmaids to <em>co-host </em>the shower, which skirts the etiquette 'don't.'" She adds that having mom's help can also ease the strain on bridesmaids who might be overwhelmed by the money they're spending on dresses, travel and other pre-wedding costs.

  • Single Women Are Obligated To Participate In The Bouquet Toss

    Unattached women who dread -- or feel downright offended by -- this tradition don't have to put on a happy face and make their way to middle of the dance floor when the DJ beckons. "As a single woman, if you don't want to chase down a bouquet, it is in your right to abstain," says Gottsman. "You shouldn't be chastised into doing it." But she warns that standing off to the side with your arms crossed or shaking your head at those clamoring for the coveted bouquet will come off as rude. Just quietly slip off to the ladies' room when the time comes if you'd rather not participate.

  • Your Registry Information Should Be Shared Only By Word Of Mouth

    "It used to be considered bad etiquette to spread the news of the registry any way other than by word of mouth," says Naylor. "But that rule was created when everyone going to the wedding lived a couple blocks from each other." Now, she says, guests appreciate having these details on the wedding website so they don't have go searching for where a couple is registered -- it's actually bad etiquette <em>not</em> to post this information. While this rule has changed over time, Gottsman says it is still in poor taste to put any gift-giving guidelines on your wedding invitations.

  • You Can't Ask For Cash

    While it's common in certain cultures (like <a href="http://weddings.weddingchannel.com/wedding-planning-ideas/wedding-etiquette/articles/giving-money.aspx?MsdVisit=1" target="_hplink">Chinese and Italian</a>) to give cash as a wedding gift, this wasn't always the case for Americans -- in fact, it used to be considered rude to ask for it. But Post says that giving money is becoming more popular as couples get creative with their registries. "It used to be that you only had traditional household goods and linens on your registry," she says. "Now, they are just so much more practical -- they can be for a home-improvement store, a wine store or even a down payment for a house." That said, couples should still provide a traditional registry for more old-fashioned guests, who might want to purchase a more conventional gift or feel uncomfortable giving cash, says Naylor.

  • Out-Of-Town Guests Must Be Invited To The Rehearsal Dinner

    While the rehearsal-dinner tradition began as a pre-wedding meal for those just in the wedding party, it's evolved into more of a welcome dinner for the out-of-town guests. Naylor says this shift can put a huge financial burden on couples, as the rehearsal dinner becomes "almost like a second wedding." To cut costs and avoid offending anyone, she suggests giving out-of-towners a list of restaurants in the area where they can go to dinner on their own or planning an evening cocktail party in lieu of a dinner. "It will cost less, and it will still give guests something to eat and something to do," she says.

  • Unattached Guests Over 18 Should Get A "Plus One"

    As another way to trim their wedding budgets, "many couples are not including 'plus ones' for their single guests," says Lutman. This goes against the once-standard rule that unattached guests of a certain age should be allowed to bring a date. The tricky part about breaking this rule is deciding what constitutes "single" -- for example, a couple may have guests who are unmarried but live with their significant others. Naylor advises making a rule of inviting only "the non-married couples with whom you socialize." Though some guests might be offended, "it's one of those sticky things that is necessary in today's financial era," she says.

  • You Have A Year to Send Thank-You Notes

    According to Naylor, this rule dates back to the days when it was customary to include a wedding photo with your thank-you notes -- and when getting those pictures from the photographer took at least six months. Now that photos are digital and take about half that time to receive, couples should put pen to paper two to three months after they say their "I do's." In fact, Naylor adds that couples are now expected to write a personal message to guests rather than just the standard "thank you for coming," so it's best to get a jump on those notes while the details of the night are still fresh.


Tips for being a good guest:

  • Arrive at least 15 minutes before the ceremony start time. If the invitation says 3 p.m., arrive by 2:45 p.m. This will give you time to say hello to friends and then find a seat. The bride is already nervous so arriving right when she is getting ready to walk down the aisle isn't the best thing.
  • Even if you are at the table in the back corner, don't talk while speeches are going on. Most likely, they can hear you at the front, and if not, the tables next to you definitely can.
  • Finish your drink before getting a new one (you don't know if the open bar that the bride and groom have paid for is a package or based on consumption).
  • When the staff asks you to please take your seat for dinner, do it! Getting a large group of people to sit down can take up a lot of precious time when guests don't want to stop their conversations. Just keep in mind, the longer you take to sit down, the longer it will be until the party starts.
  • Give your gift before or on the day of the wedding, not after. If you are giving it on the day, make the effort to do it during the cocktail hour while the gift table is out and lots of people are around. When you give your gift during or after dinner, odds are the gifts have already been locked away somewhere safe and you run a greater chance of it getting lost (or annoying the person who has to leave the party to lock it up).
  • Don't drink too much (just enough).
  • Dance! In the end, the bride and groom just want their guests to have an amazing time. Sometimes throwing the decorum rules out the window and joining that congo line is the "proper" thing to do.

I hope this helps you be the best guest you can be at the next wedding you are invited to!

 

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