In an effort to gather all my writing in one place, every Monday I post articles that originally appeared elsewhere, or work that has been gathering dust on my hard drive. This piece was originally titled “The Non-Expert: Threesomes” and was published in 2003 over at The Morning News. The Non-Expert series answers questions posed by Morning News readers. Thanks to Rosecrans Baldwin, who edited this piece.
I’m about to outline some of the more common wedding etiquette missteps. Before I do I should tell you that by the time you read this, I will have been to five weddings this season.
Please note that none of my dear friends have committed any of the social blunders I’m about to mention. If they did do anything wrong, I was far too overcome with joy to notice. However, I’m quite sure they didn’t, because they’re perfect.
Now for the rest of you.
I’m not sure how things got turned around, but the correct way to ask for someone’s hand in marriage is to first ask your beloved, and then to ask for a parental blessing. Asking her parents beforehand makes it much more embarrassing if she turns you down, it’s also an uncomfortable way to find out that they never really liked you.
If luck is on your side, the champagne will flow freely during your engagement. When friends raise their glasses you and your affianced should smile brightly and keep your hands folded in your laps. Drinking to oneself is immodest; no matter how much you like champagne.
If you decide he’s not for you, decency demands that you return the engagement ring. If you find out he’s been having an affair with his secretary, self-respect demands that you return the engagement ring, albeit in a more spirited manner. If your wedding is canceled, return any gifts as well.
When choosing attendants, remember that they don’t need to line up symmetrically. If one of you has more friends, so be it. Better to upset the photographer than your old dorm mate.
Most couples decide they want a sumptuous sit-down dinner and then cut their guest list until it bleeds. These people are going about things backward. Your guest list should determine the scale of your event instead of the other way around. Trim the decorating budget and the seven-course menu. An abundance of friends is much more charming than an abundance of flowers.
Once you have a basic list, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, you must invite both halves of a socially recognized couple. Those who are married, engaged, or living together count as social units. You may not have the company of one without the other, even if this particular other is a jerk. Second, you get to decide whether you want to invite children. Guests who express annoyance that their children aren’t included are the same ones who will let them scream through the ceremony.
There’s a lot of room for error with invitations. It’s helpful to think of them as petite social landmines with quaint wax seals. Send them four to six weeks out.
A few things you shouldn’t include in the envelopes:
The tissues that come with engraved invitations. They’re meant to protect the ink from smudging before the invitations are delivered to you. Including them in the envelope is rather like wearing a plastic poncho over your dress so as not to ruin it for a really special occasion.
Registry cards. Gifts should always seem to come as a pleasant surprise. This is what is known as a ‘polite fiction,’ emphasis on polite. You can tell people where you’ve registered, but only if they’ve asked, and only if you can manage to dim that spark in your eye.
RSVP cards. These imply that your guests wouldn’t otherwise take the time to respond. Unfortunately, the same cretins who don’t respond to wedding invitations won’t bother to mail back your RSVP cards. Etiquette permits you to beat these people senseless.
There are a few guidelines for invitees as well. You don’t get to bring a guest unless you’re specifically invited to do so. You also don’t get to complain about not being invited to do so. It’s time you learned to mingle and socialize like a big kid. If your spouse or significant other can’t make it, you may not bring a friend in his or her place (much as you may not exchange the invitations for the price of your dinner and do something more fun with the money).
I know you think black bridesmaid dresses look sharp, and you’re having an evening wedding anyway, and you’re trying to choose a dress they’ll wear again. The answer is still no. In American culture, black is associated with mourning and loss, two emotions you’re not trying to inspire in anyone except his ex-girlfriend.
Though attendants on either side can be any sex, they should still dress to suit their gender. This means if your bridesmaids are wearing blue dresses the groom’s female attendants should wear blue dresses as well. Making the groom’s female attendants dress in novelty tuxedos is awful unless you have a tap routine planned for the recessional.
Either the event is formal, or it’s not. The bridal party’s attire should reflect the same level of formality as that of the guests. It makes no sense to have the guests in suits and the groom in a tuxedo. It makes even less sense to have the groomsmen in black tie and the groom in white tie.
Female guests shouldn’t wear white, lest they look as though they’re competing with the bride. Neither should they wear black, unless they’re mourning for her.
As mentioned earlier, it is untrue that all of the bridal attendants must be women and that everyone on the groom’s side must be a man. If the groom has a sister, she should stand on his side. If the bride has known Tommy since she was three, why would he stand next to the groom?
The custom of giving away the bride should be altered to suit your particular situation. If your mother raised you, she should do the honors. If a grandparent raised you, it would be sweet to ask him or her to accompany you.
Have a receiving line after the ceremony. It’s the only way to guarantee that every guest is introduced to all of your family and attendants, and the only way to ensure that you’ll have a chance to speak with sweet Aunt Thelma who traveled all the way from Florida. It’s also the best way to catch sneaky guests who skip the ceremony and show up for the food.
Your guests’ comfort takes precedence over your scrapbook. Don’t delay your arrival at the reception by scheduling a photo session just after the ceremony. If you must have a few post-ceremony photos, keep the shoot duration to less than 20 minutes.
Look at how embarrassed the bride is! How hilarious to see the groom’s head up her skirt, removing the garter with his teeth. Isn’t it sweet how she blushes at this reenactment of marital consummation? No, it’s vulgar. Cut it out. If you’re going to toss a garter, at least remove it in private.
Technically—technically—you’re supposed to leave your wedding before your guests do. The bride should change into a smart little traveling suit so everyone can pelt the happy couple with rice and then go home to get some sleep. This never happens. Instead, older guests hang on as long as they can, halfheartedly toss a palm full of rice at the couple, who are busy shimmying on the dance floor, and retreat to the quiet of their hotel rooms.
If you can’t afford alcohol, don’t make your guests pay for it. Provide what refreshment you can afford, and forget the cash bar. And, you, guests: The hosts are in charge of the leftovers. If you decide that it’s a shame to let so much food go to waste, you may be informed coldly (as you’re filling makeshift doggie bags) that the bride and groom have arranged for the extra food to be donated to a homeless shelter.
Guests who receive invitations to weddings that they won’t be able to attend are not obligated to send a gift, but they should send a congratulatory note. The same is true of wedding announcements.
Gifts are properly sent to the couple’s home before the wedding or up to one year afterward. This way, the newlyweds needn’t worry about renting a truck to cart the gifts home, and you have a year to make sure that the marriage will take. This is a handy thing to know.
The horrible idea that the price of one’s wedding gift should roughly equate to what the bride and groom spent on your dinner is untrue, but it continues to be propagated by people who spend too much on their weddings. On the other hand, a guest’s transportation to the wedding doesn’t count as a gift to the couple. So cough up that toaster, buddy.
Also false is the notion that guests must choose a gift from the couple’s registry. While registries are helpful for those who don’t know the couple’s tastes, it is a compliment if a guest takes the time to pick something more personal—even if that something is yet another crystal flower vase.
Registries are the limit of how much a couple may direct gift giving. You may not indicate that you would prefer cash, request donations to your mortgage fund, take up a honeymoon collection, or even mention that you’d rather the money go to charity. Any attempt to direct generosity looks greedy. Coincidentally, it also makes guests feel less generous.
After the bride and groom have opened a gift, they have about three minutes to write a thank-you note. That includes the time it takes to cackle over the crocheted toilet-paper cozy with Barbie Doll topper. There’s no etiquette rule specifying that the bride must write all of the thank-you notes. Gentlemen, take up your pens.
While we’re on the subject, a few things that don’t count as proper gratitude: verbal thanks, postcards from the honeymoon, and those terrible preprinted cards that quack, ‘Your generosity is appreciated.’
Happily Ever After
It doesn’t matter who is paying the bills—weddings are family affairs. So if you want a nudist ceremony, you might want to run that by your parents first so they can opt out. And if Uncle Murf dies on the day of the wedding, you can go ahead with your solemn ceremony, but you should cancel the reception out of respect.
Like any good party or celebration, the objective of your wedding reception is to cater to guests’ needs and make sure that everyone is having a good time. Couples who run around screeching, ‘It’s our special day!’ ultimately deserve one another.