Wedding Guest Etiquette

Erin Hagedorn of the Improper Bostonian asked me to answer a few questions about wedding guest etiquette for an article in her magazine. She did use some of the answers, but I thought it useful to provide all of them to you for reference.

Help! I need somebody, Help!

At my own wedding, I was trying to unpin my tiara made from fresh roses and real pearls so that I could put on a necklace that had been custom made for me as a gift. (I could not wear both at once, because less is more of course!) I asked for help from a cousin’s wife and she, not understanding that this was not her day to be a diva and that I was the star of that day’s show, replied, “I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I don’t have time. They’re waiting for me in the limo.” By the way, that was my limo, and I needed to get to my reception as well! My point is that nothing happens without the Bride, and if the Bride asks you for help on her special day, you should oblige. Ok, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the questions that Erin asked me to answer:

Erin Hagedorn: If you don’t know people at the table you’re seated at, is it OK to just converse with your date?

Samantha von Sperling: If you don’t know people at the table you are seated at, it is not okay to just converse with your date. You should introduce yourself to everyone at the table and make an effort to engage in, if not interesting, at least polite conversation. Keep in mind that the table you are assigned to is a product of pain-staking thought.

Usually a hostess will try to seat you with people she thinks you will enjoy, but, honestly, it might not have anything to do with you. It could be that it was a product of trying to keep other guests separated (i.e. ex-spouses). My own seating arrangement was like planning a U.N. Summit. Some people just cannot sit next to each other.

At my wedding, a guest came up to me before the entrée was served, told me that she was having a terrible time at her table and insisted to be moved to a different table. Be a gracious guest. Don’t complain to the Bride in the middle of dinner that you do not like where you are sitting. Make an effort to have a good time where you are, or at least grin and bear it. You may be able to switch with someone or join another table at desert if things become more laid back. 

Erin Hagedorn: Is it appropriate to ask a good friend if you can be in their wedding party?

Samantha von Sperling: As much as you may want to be involved in the wedding party, it is not fair to pressure the Bride this way. She knows who she wants in her bridal party and who she may have to have (i.e. a sister or soon-to-be sister-in-law). Don’t take it personally if you are not asked. A wedding is one day. A friendship is for life. Be a real friend when she needs you most and offer to help her in whatever way you can. She won’t forget your acts of kindness and support. 

Erin Hagedorn: Should you always buy a gift from the registry if the couple has one?

Samantha von Sperling: If the couple has a registry obviously they have selected items that they like and/or may need. Please note here that a thoughtful Bride will register items on a scale of pricing so as not to make guests and grad-student friends uncomfortable. However, if you live in another country where the store is not accessible or you wish to give something else that you think would be unique or that only you could give them, go ahead. It’s the thought that counts!

Erin Hagedorn: Do you really need to cover your shoulders if you attend a wedding in a church?

Samantha von Sperling: It is poor etiquette to bare your shoulders in a house of worship. Generally it is better to bring at least a wrap, shawl or pashmina to cover your shoulders. Bare shoulders may be acceptable in a non-orthodox, outdoor summer wedding.

Erin Hagedorn: Is it OK to ask the bride if you can bring a guest if your invitation is made out only to you?

Samantha von Sperling: No, it’s not okay to ask to bring a guest if the invitation is made out only to you. Remember each place setting is an additional expense to the Bride and her family. Also keep in mind that some establishments have seating capacities, and she may also be trying to place the same number of people at each table. Certainly you can not expect the Bride to forego a cousin so you can bring your new boyfriend. Here is an exception: You know the Bride extremely well, she is not on a shoe-string budget, you yourself just got engaged, or your aged aunt is flying in from Timbuktu, and it is an emergency. Only then can you ask, but you do not expect.


Erin Hagedorn: Is it appropriate to wear white to a wedding? What about all black?

Samantha von Sperling: Historically only virgins are allowed to wear all white at a wedding. Currently, an all-white outfit is seen more as stealing attention away from the Bride. Remember it is her day. Ivory, on the other hand, is okay. An all-black outfit for a winter wedding or a wedding in a cold climate is acceptable; a black summer dress is also okay, but it can be a bit drab. 

Erin Hagedorn: Is it better to bring your wedding gift to the wedding or mail it ahead of time?

Samantha von Sperling: The Bride should be delighted that you were thoughtful enough to give a gift period. However, note that the happy couple may be catching a plane after dinner or have some such other arrangement. Weddings can be chaos. It may be easier for the Bride to receive a gift beforehand by mail. (Note here that this may be different culture to culture.) 

Erin Hagedorn: If you arrive late to the ceremony, what do you do?

Samantha von Sperling: Naturally, do your best to not arrive late at the ceremony. If it is beyond your control (your airplane is late, you’re lost in the Big Dig, and makeup took longer than anticipated), you should wait until the ceremony is over before joining the other guests. One option is to wait to join the festivities at the site of the reception; another option is to risk sneaking-in quietly. Note that the latter is typically unsuccessful, as most of us were not trained in covert operations and sneakiness usually results in clumsiness.

Erin Hagedorn: What is an appropriate amount to spend for a wedding gift? And a shower gift?

Samantha von Sperling: It is appropriate to spend between $50 and $1000 for a wedding gift depending on your budget and relationship to the Bride or Groom. What you send as a gift says a lot about you. If the Bride knows you are a notorious cook, then the “Le Creuset” on the registry is appropriate. If neither you nor the Bride like to remain longer in the kitchen than absolutely necessary, it may be prudent to consider a gift not sold at Crate and Barrel or Williams Sonoma. 

Erin Hagedorn: If you don’t go to a wedding you get invited to because you don’t want to attend, is it OK to not send a present?

Samantha von Sperling: If you do not attend a wedding you were invited to because you did not want to attend and then choose not to send a gift, you are sending the message that you are choosing to terminate your relationship to this person. In other words, this is construed to be a rude and aggressive gesture. 

Erin Hagedorn: If you can’t attend a bridal shower, should you send a gift anyway?

Samantha von Sperling: If you cannot attend a bridal shower to which you were invited to it is still appropriate to send a gift. Even gifts like flowers, chocolates and gift certificates for manicures and pedicures do not go unappreciated. 

Erin Hagedorn: Is it OK to take photos during the ceremony if it isn’t specified?

Samantha von Sperling: It is good practice not to take photos during the ceremony. Some clergy forbid it, as it can be very distracting. There will be plenty of photo opportunities afterward when the Bride and Groom do not have their backs turned. These days, many couples will have arranged for electronic recording of their ceremony with the less-noisy and flash-less video camera. Again, these arrangements would have to be made with the clergy before the wedding, and unless the happy couple is pestered by paparazzi on a daily basis, there is usually only ONE video camera per ceremony. 

Erin Hagedorn: If the invitation includes a blank RSVP card, what should you write?

Samantha von Sperling: If the invitation includes a blank RSVP card, write your entire name on it or Mr. & Mrs. John Smith (substituting “John Smith” with your name of course) followed by the words “will/are (un)able to attend”. Sign and date the card, and don’t forget to include a brief, personalized “Congratulations again” and “Thank you”. If you are unable to attend, do include a brief message expressing your regrets and how you feel honored to be invited to the wedding. 

Erin Hagedorn: How long after the wedding should you send your gift?

Samantha von Sperling: Typically, wedding gifts should be received by the couple before their wedding day, but if you do send your gift after the wedding day, send it at soon as possible. Certainly send it within one year of the wedding. 

Erin Hagedorn: If you get invited with a plus one and you don’t have a serious girl or boyfriend, can you bring a friend along so you can have someone to talk to and so you can flirt with the other single guests?

Samantha von Sperling: If you get invited to a wedding with a “plus one” invite and do not have a serious girlfriend or boyfriend to bring along, you should RSVP or phone the Bride and thank her for the kind invitation but that only you will be attending. To not do this would be selfish, as the Bride can now add someone previously excluded from the list or be thrilled at the reduction in cost. Note that this does not preclude you from flirting with other single guests. 

Erin Hagedorn: Is it OK to get blitzed at the wedding?

Samantha von Sperling: It is absolutely not OK to get obnoxiously, fall-down drunk at a wedding. A little tipsy is acceptable as long as the drinking is kept under control. And if you are an aggressive, belligerent drunk, don’t even think about it!

My assistant told me about his cousin’s wedding where the bridesmaids jumped onto the table and lifted up their skirts to dance the Can-Can. Unless you are in Las Vegas and the Bride and Groom are being married by Elvis accompanied by show girls, this is not appropriate behavior.

Do not over drink or eat anything you should not. It stresses the Bride out when guests become ill and pass out in the middle of dinner.

Erin Hagedorn: If an engagement party invitation says “don’t bring a gift”, do they mean it?

Samantha von Sperling: Interpret that like an invitation to a party. Yes, the hostess will insist you don’t bring anything, but nevertheless you will probably present a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers as you arrive at the party. 

Erin Hagedorn: If the couple breaks up within a year of getting married, should you expect your gift back?

Samantha von Sperling: No. Absolutely not. A gift is a gift. My mother presented a blank piece of paper to my husband-to-be and stated that this was the return policy. Neither I, nor the piece of paper, may at any time be returned or exchanged.

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