Wedding Etiquette 101: Common Guest Faux Pas to Avoid

Ladies and Gents, if you haven't noticed yet it is engagement and wedding season!  Whether your Facebook feed constantly reminds you with status updates and photos, or your bank account is looking wimpy from all the travel and gifts, there's no question this season of love is in full swing.

I've had a couple of conversations and questions lately that inspired me to write about wedding etiquette.  It seems, for some reason, many etiquette rules weren't clearly passed along through the generations, and that many of us will never know our offenses until we are the ones getting married!  I myself was guilty of several of these items, and reached into my past after my own wedding to make sure my wrongs were made right.

To spare many a bride and guest from a variety of awkward situations, here are some of the most common wedding faux pas and how to handle them.  I will be blunt and to the point so as to be as clear as possible - no hurt feelings intended.  Remember, if you've made any of these mistakes before, it's ok!  It is never too late to acknowledge them and move forward with the lesson learned :). NOTE:  These answers assume an average sized wedding (50-200 guests) within an average budget ($10k-$35k).  Weddings on the ends of the spectrum (financially conservative or very very fancy) may have different etiquette norms.

Q:  I am wondering if I will be in the wedding party.  Can I ask?
A:  No.  The crafting of the wedding party is a very special, delicate process.  No one wants their friends to feel left out, of course, and many efforts will be made to make sure the wedding party selection process is as sensitive to the feelings of others as possible.  But it is not easy to do when there are so many factors that go into it.  Just to name a few...  friends of "honor" versus regular attendants and who is given the title, siblings and siblings-in-law and how they are included, budgets and how they can accommodate the party at celebratory events, reaching a number that is equal on each side (if desired), availability of wedding party members to support celebrations, etc. etc.  All this to say, whether you want to ask about it in advance or want to ask afterwards why you were or weren't included, this sensitive issue is best handled at a time when you are sure emotions have died down and the bride and groom are not already overwhelmed with many other details.  Always assume the best, though.  This is not a process taken lightly.
Q:  I was invited to a bridal shower.  Do I have to give a gift?  And does it count as my wedding gift or do I have to give another one?
A:  Bridal showers are intended to shower the bride with gifts to help her set up home.  If you are invited, you are requested to help with a gift, even if you do not attend the shower.  And yes, this gift is in addition to your wedding gift.  I know... this one I struggled with myself as a bride.  I felt so GUILTY asking my friends, who were already going to spend money on a wedding gift and arrangements to attend the wedding, to shower me with gifts.  I was SO troubled by it that I invited other people to my shower that I wasn't able to invite to the wedding to try and "share the celebration and spread the financial burden."  Yes, this was a terrible, horrible idea and a massive faux pas in itself.  Lesson learned.  

In the end I realized that there really is only one time in a couple's life that they can get a ton of help building their home, and that is their wedding.  Even if you just buy a few small, inexpensive things from their registry or make something special that fits the theme, it will be a huge help (and very appropriate).

Q:  Do I need to send a gift if I receive an invitation to a wedding but don't go? 
A:   Yes. Gifts (or at the very least a card) should be sent to the bride and groom by all who receive and invitation.  Many people have no idea this is an etiquette rule, but this is true for nearly all invitations and announcements your receive!  Baby shower, bridal shower, high school graduation, new home purchase... all are milestones that are celebrated, come join the fun!  With regard to weddings specifically, the idea is that the bride and groom were prepared to treat you to a wedding celebration because they value your presence in their life.  Your gift does not have to be of any specific nature if you are not attending the wedding and are not close to the couple, but a simple acknowledgement of the special occasion is proper etiquette.  The exception is if you receive a wedding announcement.  A gift is not customary for such announcement, but a card or note of congratulations is a warm gesture.

Q:  If I receive a wedding invitation, who does it include? 
A:  Pay attention to the envelope of your wedding invitation!  It specifies exactly who is invited and whether guests or children are allowed.  The rule of thumb is if someone is listed on the envelope (or "and guest" appears), they are included. It may not seem like a big deal, but brides, grooms, and their families spend hours (or months) carefully creating their guest list and designing their whole event around their number of guests.  If you didn't pay attention to the envelope and it is long gone, see if you can find a person close to the wedding family that can check for you under the radar before you call attention to you misstep.  

Most commonly, if you are engaged or married your significant other will be included on the envelope with your name.  If you have children, the notation "and family" signifies children are invited.  If guests or children are not listed, THEY ARE NOT INVITED.  And brides, don't make the mistake of not including engaged and married significant others.  Then YOU would be guilty of a major faux pas.

Q: Can I bring a date to a wedding if I am dating someone?  What if I won't know anyone and am single, can I bring a friend? 
A:  No, guests are not automatically allowed for single guests or guests with a boyfriend or girlfriend.  Whoever is listed on your invitation is who is invited.  Asking to bring someone, believe it or not, is incredibly rude.  It puts the bride and groom in an awkward situation of having to rework their finances to accommodate people who were not initially invited AND can ruffle some feathers around people who were not invited while you get to bring a stranger along.  Trust me, even if the bride smiles and says "no problem," it is.  See the explanation above.

Q:  Is the RSVP date flexible?  What if I can come last minute, can I still attend the wedding?
A:  The RSVP date is rarely, if ever flexible.  Show respect to the bride and groom by RSVPing as soon as you can and sticking to your reply.  There are a TON of activities going on behind the scenes you do not know about that rely on an exact count of people attending.  Seating assignments are carefully designed, plates of food (or counts for catering) are paid for, transportation, hotels, wedding favors, and on and on are all planned.  If you must change anything about your RSVP, let it be that you can no longer attend - and make sure you appropriately apologize for the inconvenience and cost to the bride and groom.  A generous gift will make things right in most cases ;).  I had two people decide they were coming to my wedding four days before the event and had to uproot seating charts, food prices, and stationary plans all to accommodate.  While I was glad they could come, it was not welcome stress on top of everything else.

Q: If I have a question about the wedding, such as my travel arrangements or about some of the details, who should I call?
A:  Check the invitation or wedding website for a contact name BEFORE calling anyone in the wedding.   It's surprising how many people ask the bride and groom questions about what flights they should take, restaurants to try, what time the reception ends, and so on...  These questions come from every direction and really add up!  Do the bride and groom a favor and do everything you can to find someone else who can answer your question before asking them.  They will be even more excited to have you join the festivities if they haven't had to help you through all the details of your itinerary.
Q:  I might be a little late to the wedding.  Is that ok?
A:  Are you planning on walking down the aisle with the bride?
I jest, but I can't even express how often people show up late to weddings.  This is so, so SO not classy.  It is irreverent and inappropriate, baring any emergencies.  If you know in advance that you will be tardy, find out what entrance is most appropriate and how to go about not disturbing anyone.  ALWAYS plan to be IN YOUR SEAT 15 minutes prior to the start of the wedding, at a minimum.  Remember, the wedding will start on time, and the whole bridal party will be lining up in the entrance before it begins.  Do yourself a favor and plan your arrival conservatively to avoid becoming an unexpected addition to the wedding party ;)

Q: Is it true that you have until a year after the wedding to send a gift?
A:  NO.  This is the most crazy wedding myth that must be busted!   Sure, you can send a gift to anyone at anytime.  But a wedding gift is actually supposed to be sent in ADVANCE of the wedding, brought to the wedding itself, or at the very latest sent within three months after the event.  Would you send a friend a birthday gift a year late?  Or give a graduation gift to someone who graduated last year?  Weddings are no different - don't fall for this false excuse you heard someone else use when they were so very behind on sending a gift.  I did this on several occasions simply because I didn't know any better.  Spread the word - this one is false!

Q:  How much should I spend on a wedding gift?  And do I still have to bring a gift to a destination wedding?
A:  The rule of thumb is to give a gift that reflects your relationship with the couple.  This also applies to destination weddings, yes.  Another common measure is the cost of the dinner for the meal of each guest attending.  For people you are closer to, a more generous gift is appropriate as well.  Be aware if you do use the meal cost measure, the "cost per plate" is not the cost of you going out to eat.  It includes the beer and wine, appetizers, food, dessert, cake, and service staff.  When in doubt, ask a friend or look up the venue to make an educated guess. 

There is no etiquette rule that excuses guests from gifts because of the location of the wedding.  The decision to attend and take on the associated costs is yours alone, and the bride and groom will understand if you just can't comfortably take on the expense.  Additionally, the destination itself will afford many benefits to you as the guest, so enjoy!  Bringing/giving a gift to show your joy and support is very appropriate and will be appreciated.
With these things said, the Classy Not Pricey approach to weddings is to be as respectful and appropriate as possible by following these etiquette rules, while also making sure you are mindful of your finances as the costs rise!  If you aren't able to attend the events because of the total cost, it is really ok!  Brides and grooms completely understand, and while it is a bummer to miss out it might relieve a great deal of financial burden for you down the road. Consider which events will be the most important to you and what you can afford, and then make the decision and stick to it.  Also, if you are close to the couple and truly can't afford more than the very minimum, it's ok to talk to them about it!  Offer other ways of celebrating, like dinner at your home or another special gesture, to show your support of their milestone.

Have other questions about wedding etiquette?  Experience other faux pas that I didn't cover?

You might also like:  Classy Not Pricey Weddings : How to "Bride" on a Budget
                               Five Great Ways to Make the Most of Pinterest and Why We Love It!
                               Rethinking the Definition of Classy : Did Coco Chanel Have It Right?
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