BY KAREN RUFFINI
For anyone who’s attended a wedding, you know that it’s an occasion for a couple that calls for happiness, celebration, and, hopefully, delicious wedding cake. But just because you’ve received an invitation doesn’t mean you necessarily know the rules when it comes to being the best wedding guest you can be. You’ll likely want to put your best foot forward, but with so many etiquette expectations, it’s difficult to keep track of what it takes to become a wedding guest VIP.
If you’re worried about breaking some of the wedding cardinal rules, you’re not alone. Before you head to celebrate a couple’s newly-wedded bliss, be sure to read this cheat sheet so you can feel confident that you’ll be a wedding guest all-star, from the ceremony all the way to the cake cutting.
Do mail in your RSVP on time
We’ve all been there: there’s an RSVP just sitting on your table, collecting dust. And, if you’re nearing the RSVP date, getting it in the mail should be on the top list of your priorities if you want to keep the bride and groom from going crazy.
“There’s an RSVP date included on the wedding invitation for a reason,” says Sandy Hammer, cofounder of AllSeated, a website that provides free event planning tools like floor plans and seating charts. “The couple needs to get their guest count together to finalize their seating arrangements, provide the venue and caterer with a final guest count, and make their payments, which often rely on the amount of guests in attendance,” Hammer said, adding “these details can’t be ironed out until all RSVPs are received, so don’t be the reason their wedding planning is being held up!”
If you’re wondering when exactly is the right moment to mail in your RSVP, Kourtney Marquis, founder of Marquis Events and former director of events for high-end wedding planner David Tutera, can tell you: right now. “The best rule of thumb when responding to a wedding is to simply send it back the same day you receive it, if possible. It comes with postage included 99 percent of the time, so there is really no excuse!”
Do read the dress code
Wedding invitations typically offer details like the date, time, and location. But don’t overlook the dress code! What if you didn’t realize the ceremony is on a beautiful beach, or the reception is considered Black Tie? Phillip Van Nostrand, a wedding photographer whose work has been published in places like the New York Times and Huffington Post, stresses the importance of figuring out the dress code. “Black Tie means no cocktail dresses,” said Van Nostrand, meaning an evening gown is the correct style for this kind of affair. “Men, figure out how to tie a bowtie!”
If you read the invitation but still unsure what it means, Google it or ask a friend. Believe it or not, there’s a difference between “Formal” and “Dressy Casual” and you won’t want to show up to one event looking like you belong in the other. Alexa Kritis, wedding planner and owner of Long Aisle Events, stresses that the dress code is on the invitation for the benefit of the guest. “Read the dress code simply for your own comfort,” Kritis says. “Why wear a tux or stilettos at a semi-formal beach wedding when you don’t have to?”
Do mingle with others
No, this won’t be on the wedding invitation, but it should go without saying: talk to people at the wedding, even if they’re complete strangers.
“Here’s your real opportunity to be out in the world with some real people — with people you don’t know. It’s your chance to experience something miraculous. People meet their own spouses at other people’s weddings,” said wedding planner Andrea Freeman, who’s planned celebrations for celebrities like Nikki Reed and Ian Somerhalder. And mingle, even if you’re not looking to meet anyone special.
Freeman told me, “You’ll have at least one thing in common with everyone in the room, and that is that you care deeply about these people who have just committed their lives to each other. Here’s your chance to get to know people that are really important to them.”
Do keep your phone on silent
Nothing’s worse than witnessing a ceremony where the couple exchange vows, only to be overshadowed by an obnoxious ringtone. Some experts recommend having an unplugged event, to ensure zero distractions from the ceremony taking place. “I like a no-cell-phone ceremony, if possible,” said Freeman. “I like to encourage guests to at least put it on silent, and put it away, for a couple of reasons. First, you don’t want to be a distraction. You want your focus and attention to be on the ceremony. It’s a really sacred tradition that you’re being invited to, and to ask people to honor that should not be too big of an ask.”
The second reason Freeman suggests your phone should stay in your bag or pocket isn’t about noise. “I can’t stand photos at the end of the ceremony where the bride and groom are walking out and everybody is staring at their screens instead of being present to watch what just happened!” Do the couple a favor by keeping the focus on them as they walk down the aisle — and not through your phone lens.
Do snap photos at the reception
Maybe the ceremony wasn’t the right place to whip out your phone, but feel free to snap a few shots at the reception, as the couple will most likely appreciate seeing those candid photos after their event.
“Couples don’t get their professional photos for at least six weeks, so it’s a great way for them to see moments they may have missed,” said Kritis. Now’s your chance to take photos of the amazing parts of the reception — whether it’s friends toasting or a great shot of the table decor — so that the couple can see their wedding from your perspective.
Another thing that has become more and more popular is the use of social media at weddings, where brides and grooms encourage friends and family to take photos to share with the rest of the world. “Find out in advance if the couple wants you sharing the images on social media and if they have a specific wedding hashtag,” said Hammer, but also urges to be mindful if the couple prefers no social media of any kind. “If they specifically indicated they’d like their wedding photos to stay out of the web, keep them to yourself, but send them to the couple after the big day.”
Do get out on the dance floor
A reception should consist of people dancing and having fun, not sitting at the table all night. “The crowd on the dance floor will more often than not determine how ‘fun’ a wedding is,” said Marquis. “Even if you think you can’t dance, get out there and just have fun! The couple will appreciate it, and there are always some good laughs, so who cares if it’s at your expense? You’ll probably never see half of the people again anyway.”
With the ceremony out of the way, this is your opportunity to really let go and enjoy yourself. “Brides and grooms just want their guests to have a good time after they just did this really intense thing. They want to cut loose, have a good time, and celebrate with the people who are important to them. That doesn’t happen if you’re not on the dance floor,” said Freeman.
So whether you can bust a move to any tune, or can barely pass by doing the Electric Slide, just remember that the reception is a time to let go of your inhibitions and to get a little silly. More often than not, it’s what the couple wants!
Do take the favors
While you might not need another picture frame or trinket box, do the right thing and take the favor home — even if it ends up on the top shelf of your guest closet. “If the couple has taken the time and spent the money to provide favors, no matter what they may be, be sure not to leave them behind,” said Marquis. “Whether you want it or not, at least take it with you so they don’t feel like they wasted their money.”
Fortunately, now more than ever couples are getting crafty with what to give their guests, meaning the gift that the bride and groom might give you is something you can get a lot of use out of, or is something that you can’t help but want — like food.
Kritis says that inventive favors are always a bonus for the guest, “especially if they’re edible or usable favors — like cookies and milk at the end of the night, or a canvas tote bag.” While the couple may not care what you do with it, just the simple act of seeing the favor count dwindle is going to be enough to appease any bride and groom.
Don’t wear white
You’d think this would go without saying, but some people really miss the memo when it comes to choosing what color to wear. Whatever you do, don’t match the bride!
“It’s the number one rule,” said Kritis. “It’s the bride’s day, not yours. She spent a lot of money on that white gown, so be respectful.” Another good rule of thumb? Find out what color the bridesmaids are in, too — then try to steer clear of that color. It’s a small act of consideration, but the bride will be thankful that you didn’t end up looking similar to the women she asked to stand beside her on her big day.
“If you’re on the fence about if it’s ‘too white’, just don’t wear it,” said Marquis. “Never be that person to wear white! Let the bride be the center of attention. There’s no need to compete.” Try putting yourself in the bride’s shoes: if you had a guest that wore a white dress to your wedding, wouldn’t you be a little less-than pleased? Be courteous, and find something in your closet that’s more guest-appropriate, so that you don’t create any more stress than the bride needs on her wedding day.
Don’t spend the entire night at the bar
Weddings are undoubtedly a cause for celebration, so having a glass of champagne or toasting with the couple’s signature cocktail is always a good idea — just make sure that you don’t overdo it. “Don’t be a hot mess at the end of the night. Know how to control your drinking! The last thing a bride or a groom needs to be doing is taking care of their guests,” said Van Nostrand. So, while a few glasses throughout the night is totally fine, parking your seat at the bar until the clock strikes midnight is a surefire way to end up with an angry bride or groom — and possibly a hangover.
Plus, hanging at the bar “never ends well for anyone involved, except maybe the bartender,” joked Marquis. She recommends to simply know your limits. “Try your best to be aware of when enough is enough. And if you’re not a good judge at that, put someone else in charge who can let you know when it’s time to switch to some water.”
Don’t complain if something isn’t to your liking
Maybe you’re seated too close to the speaker or you find the reception decor to be lacking. It’s okay to feel these things, but not to express them. “We all have our own taste, so you might attend a wedding where the centerpieces aren’t your style, or the band plays music you don’t like, or the food isn’t for your palate. Hold your tongue and comments — it’s not your wedding,” said Hammer.
Instead, a guest should respect the bride and groom’s vision, not knock it down. “Guests should appreciate the unique taste and style of the bride and groom,” Hammer continued. “Just because it’s not how you would have done things doesn’t mean it’s up for discussion.”
Freeman believes that complaining at a wedding is comparable to complaining about being invited into someone’s home, but on a grander scale. “You’ve been invited to something really intimate and really special and important to the couple, so at the end of the day, does it really matter if the chicken was out of this world?” she said. “Take the focus off yourself as a guest and shine that focus on these two people who are really special, and are doing something monumental. It’s important to try and shift your perspective.”
Don’t steal the bride or groom away for one-on-one time
A wedding day is many things for a bride and groom, but calm is not one of them. Between getting ready, reciting vows, and taking portraits for hours, many couples barely have time to eat their meals! So while a couple will try their hardest to make their rounds to each table, try not to corner them and chat for too long, because their time is valuable that day.
“A wedding is a time to celebrate the couple joining as one, so don’t take it upon yourself to steal one of them away from their new spouse,” said Marquis. “We understand that you may not get to see them often and want to congratulate them, but do so in a respectful manner. Don’t put them in the position where they feel stuck.” If you’re out on the dance floor, by all means give them a hug — just don’t grab their arm and pull them away from the fun!
Kritis recommends having an after-wedding game plan if you want to spend some quality time with the couple. “This is their day with everyone, so if you really need one-on-one time, have brunch or dinner a few weeks after the wedding.”
Don’t bring your professional camera
Maybe you’re an aspiring photographer or are just pursuing it as a fun pastime, but regardless of whether or not you want to bring your camera, please don’t!
“The couple spent a lot of money on a professional photographer — let them do their job. That will also allow you to enjoy yourself,” said Kritis. “I’ve seen so many special moments become the most heartbreaking, like when the groom was not able to see the bride come down the aisle because a person took their professional camera out in the middle of the aisle to take a photo!”
Professional photographers can see why guests want to take photos — capturing a memory is important — but it’s best to leave it to the person the couple hired for their day. “It’s understandable, but if you are someone who is oblivious of where the photographer is or when they need a clean shot of something, I would leave the camera at home,” said Van Nostrand. So unless the couple specifically wants you to capture some candid moments of their wedding day with your camera, the best rule of thumb is to not bring it with you.
Don’t bring a surprise date or plus-one
Bringing someone who was not invited to the wedding is wrong on many levels. For starters, the couple will have to pay for the guest’s plate and beverages, and if that guest wasn’t planned, that could mean being held up by the caterers to discuss additional costs at the end of the night instead of hopping into their getaway car to start their happily ever after.
“The floor plan, guest list, and final order for the venue has already been set and planned for months. To squeeze someone unplanned into all of that throws everyone off — not to mention it’s incredibly rude,” said Kritis.
If you don’t know if you’re allowed to bring a guest, look back at your invitation before calling up a date. “If your invitation is addressed solely to you, do not take it upon yourself to respond with a plus one — or, even worse, show up unexpectedly to the reception with someone,” said Marquis, adding, “You will put the bride and groom in an awkward situation. The day is supposed to be about the couple, not about you.” So while you may want to bring a friend or have recently begun seeing someone casually, if you’re asked to come to the wedding by yourself, be respectful and arrive solo.
Don’t forget the gift!
You’ve been fed, you’ve spent the whole night dancing, and you got to enjoy a care-free night out. The last thing you want to do is come to a wedding and take, take, take — without giving anything back. Remembering to bring a gift is crucial! If you don’t, you will look out of place when you walk past the table where guests bring their cards and gifts for the couple, but that’s not the only reason.
“It’s not the most important part of the whole day, but as a wedding guest, you have to bring some sort of gift,” said Freeman. “If you don’t feel like bringing cash, their registry will steer you in the right direction. Not showing up empty-handed is really important.”
So what happens if you get to the venue, only to realize your gift is at home sitting on the coffee table? Don’t freak out just yet. “It’s not the end of the world,” said Kritis. But you do have a very small window to get that gift to the couple. After all, they may be going on their honeymoon or moving in together, and waiting weeks to get a gift from a guest will likely leave a bad taste in their mouth. “Make sure you mail it out the very next day, and maybe send a quick text letting the couple know that it’s on its way.”