An Overview of Wedding Etiquette
The happiest moments in our lives are usually accompanied by some kind of celebration. These "big events" are traditions that are surrounded by specific rules of etiquette that dictate how we are supposed to celebrate and how the participants should act in order to show respect for the guests of honor. A brief overview of how to act at some of the more common celebrations will enable you to handle yourself gracefully at all of life's happiest celebrations.


Weddings run the gamut from private, informal ceremonies with just the immediate family in attendance to elaborate affairs with guest lists numbering in the hundreds. Entire books have been written on how to plan and organize weddings. We will talk about how to be a proper guest, from receiving your invitation to leaving the reception.

When you receive an invitation to a wedding, be sure to look at the wording of the invitation carefully. If it is addressed to "Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Friend," it is for you and your spouse only, not your children. When you fill out the RSVP, or response card, you should indicate your name and either one or two people. You cannot add your children and you cannot call the mother of the bride or anyone else and ask if it would be all right if you brought your children. The way the invitation is worded indicates who is invited, and you have no right to expect that the bride and groom should accommodate you by making changes.

If the invitation says, "Mr. and Mrs. John Q Friend and children" or "Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Friend and family," you may assume this means you, your spouse, and the children still living under your roof. It does not mean your unmarried sister who would love to meet someone or your daughter who is 20 and has her own apartment. If she has her own place, she will receive her own invitation, which will either be addressed to "Miss Jayne Friend," or "Miss Jayne Friend and Guest," in which case Jayne may bring one guest, who is assumed to be the person she is dating.

Always respond so that the RSVP card will arrive at its destination by the date indicated. If it asks that you respond by the 30th of the month, mail it no later than the 24th, so that it has six days to arrive, particularly if you live several states away. The response date is not the date you should drop it in the mail.

If you discover that you cannot attend a wedding and you have already responded that you would attend, contact the mother of the bride if possible if it is more than a few weeks before the wedding. With enough notice, the wedding planners can adjust the orders for meals and save the cost of a few dinners, which can quickly add up. However, if you find out only a week prior, it will usually only add stress to an already long list of things the family has to tend to and will be too late to make any difference to the caterer.

On the day of the wedding, arrive at least 10 minutes before the ceremony is scheduled to start so that you can be seated. Ushers at the back of the church will ask you whether you are should be on the groom's side or the bride's side. Indicate which side you received the invitation from, and the usher will offer his arm to the oldest woman in the group. She should take his arm and allow him to lead her to the appropriate seat, with the others in the group following. Once seated, soft conversation is appropriate until the music for the processional begins, at which time all conversation ceases.

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There are few ceremonies that are as beautiful as a wedding ceremony. Many people get misty-eyed and very few are not moved by the exchange of vows, the lovely music, and the giving and receiving of rings. The only thing guests have to do is listen quietly, respond appropriately if asked by the priest or officiating minister, and stand when the bride walks by during both the processional and recessional.

After the ceremony comes the receiving line. It may be at the church or at the reception. In either case, each guest should move through the line quickly. Conversation should be only a brief word of congratulations and a hug or kiss if appropriate. Be careful not to get lipstick on anyone! As you meet each member of the wedding party, be sure to let him or her know how you know the bride and/or groom and introduce yourself.

The reception is when everyone relaxes and has fun. Dinner is served and there is generally music and dancing. Whether it is a sit-down dinner, a buffet, or a barbecue, remember your table manners and keep in mind that this is a celebration that the bride and groom and their families have spent months putting together. Some general rules to keep in mind at any wedding reception include:

  • Do not drink too much alcohol. It is probably the No. 1 mistake made by guests, and too often ends in embarrassment for both guests and hosts. Remember that this day will be a cherished memory for years to come and is probably being recorded. Do you want to be seen years from now as the one who is staggering on the dance floor?
  • Do not take too much food the first time through the buffet line. Overfilling your plate makes you look like a pig and if too many people do it, may leave slim choices for the guests at the end of the line. Instead, eat moderately, and when all guests have eaten their meal, you can go back for seconds if you wish.
  • Guests should not give toasts until invited and until all members of the family and wedding party have done so. Keep in mind when toasting that grandparents and young children are listening; do not tell stories that will shock or humiliate anyone. It is not funny and it will make the happy couple regret inviting you.
  • Keep in mind that this day is about the bride and groom, not you or your family. Be charming, warm, friendly, and unobtrusive.
  • If you see someone who is not dancing, particularly a widow or widower, ask the person to dance. You just might make her or his night.
  • Introduce yourself to others at your table. Seating arrangements at receptions are the result of careful planning. If you do not know some of the people at your table, take the time to get to know them; do not ignore them. By the end of the evening, you probably will discover that you really enjoy their company.
  • If you want to join friends at another table, do not do so until after dessert. You should dine at the table you were assigned to. Things are more relaxed once dancing begins, and people tend to drift from table to table; before then, do not desert the people at your own table.
  • Try not to take the wedding gift to the wedding or reception. If you can, have it delivered before the wedding to the home of the bride or have it delivered to the couple's home after their return from their honeymoon. Keeping track of gifts at the reception is difficult and there is always the danger of theft. You also do not know if the happy couple are leaving immediately for the honeymoon, in which case someone else will be left with responsibility for a stack of gifts.
  • Do not leave the reception without wishing the bride and groom well and congratulating them one more time. Also take the time to thank both sets of parents for a lovely celebration and congratulate them on their new son-in-law or daughter-in-law.
  • Do not be the last guests to leave the reception!

Wedding and Baby Showers

There seems to be some confusion surrounding the etiquette of showers these days, whether they are baby showers or wedding showers. These used to be intimate little parties thrown by the closest, dearest friends of a young woman to celebrate either the impending birth of her first child or her impending marriage. They were small, rather informal, and a great deal of fun. Today many women have baby showers with a guest list that rivals their wedding guest list, which is against all the rules of etiquette.

A proper shower should be thrown by a close friend, never by the woman's mother or any other relative, and it should be for only the closest of friends. There should also be only two showers at the most. For instance, if a woman is expecting a child and her close friends at work throw a small shower for her after work and her closest childhood friends have another one planned for her, that is it. Any more than that is simply gift-grubbing and is not appropriate or needed. Her relatives and family may certainly choose to attend one shower or the other if they are invited but not both. They can give her gifts, but they do not throw another shower and they do not invite half the town.

If you are invited to a baby shower or a bridal shower, the rules are much the same as they are for a wedding or any other celebration. Respond with plans to attend in the appropriate amount of time and give a gift that is within your budget. If you happen to be invited to two showers for the same woman, do not feel obligated to purchase two gifts or to attend both showers. Simply choose the one you feel is more appropriate or that you will enjoy more and attend that one.

Dressing Appropriately for a Wedding

What to wear to a wedding depends on the type of wedding, the time of year, and the time of day. Weather will obviously influence your choice of clothing; you do not want to wear velvet in the summer or a cotton dress in the winter. You also will want to take into consideration how formal the wedding is and the time of day. Most of us will never receive an invitation to a black tie or white tie wedding, although we may receive an invitation to a semi-formal wedding celebration. The wedding invitation's formality and where the wedding ceremony will take place will give you an idea of appropriate dress as well. At a beach wedding, a sundress would be lovely, while an evening wedding would require something dressier. Some general guidelines for men and women follow.

Male wedding guests:

  • Daytime weddings are simple for men. In the winter, a dark suit, shirt, and tie is appropriate. In the summer, a lighter-colored suit can be worn. If the setting is more casual or for a smaller wedding, for example, in a country club or chapel instead of a large church, a blazer over contrasting trousers is also appropriate.
  • An evening wedding requires a dark suit and tie. If it is after 6 p.m., the wedding may be black tie. If so, it will be clearly indicated on the wedding invitation and all guests will be required to wear a black dinner suit and bow tie, with the option of a white jacket and black tie with black slacks in the summer.

Female wedding guests:

There is so much more variety available for women when choosing their attire that there is also much more room for error. Keep in mind that it is the bride's moment to shine and no one should dress to take the spotlight away from her.

  • Daytime weddings call for a woman to wear either a dress that is just above the knees to mid-calf length, depending on the style that suits her, or a soft, flattering dress suit. A skirt and blouse or a sweater set is too informal for a wedding. A mini-skirt is improper for two reasons: It is too distracting and may be offensive in some churches or synagogues. Remember, you are attending a religious ceremony, not going to a bar.
  • Any solid color or print is acceptable for a woman's dress with the exception of solid white, which is the color reserved for the bride. Before 5 p.m., you should also avoid solid black, which is too stark for a daytime celebration.
  • After 5 p.m., however, the "little black dress" or cocktail dress is perfectly acceptable for a wedding.
  • Unless it is an evening wedding, do not wear anything with sequins.
  • For a black tie wedding in the evening, a woman should wear a dress in a formal fabric such as brocade, silk, crepe, or satin in a length from three-quarter to ballroom length.
  • If your dress is sleeveless, be sure to take some form of wrap, such as a dressy sweater, shrug, or pashmina, to cover your shoulders at the church. This is a gesture of respect. You should keep your bare shoulders covered throughout the ceremony unless someone has assured you it is acceptable to remove your covering. Upon leaving the church and at the reception you can show off your dress and bare arms.