Flashback Monday: Don’t Be Rude, Part IV, Weddings

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.

48 thoughts on “Flashback Monday: Don’t Be Rude, Part IV, Weddings

  1. Awesome. I am so glad we left our luncheon reception before most of the guests. It was a great “grand retreat” for us (as we then drove to a hotel to crash and then enjoy dinner together)… and a lovely memory to keep.


  2. I totally disagree with the black bridesmaids’ dress “rule.” Some snotty etiquette martinet discouraged me from having black bridesmaids’ dresses at my wedding ten years ago and it’s my one lingering regret. Everyone would have been happier–and looked better–if I hadn’t dressed them all up in slate gray silk shantung. 10 years ago it might have been a bit radical, but now, Ms. Manners types? You have lost the battle!


  3. Sorry – have to disagree on the black bridesmaid dress thing. My friends all lived in different cities, and there was no way I was going to make them do matchy-matchy dresses in some hard-to-match color, or color range. They all wore a comfortable black dress, and my orange and pink flowers popped. Best decision ever. And tons of compliments. And very happy bridesmaids, which was very important!


  4. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a post about weddings I more heartily agreed with. And thank you for “Any attempt at directing generosity looks greedy.” I’ve had a hard time explaining to people why it’s rude to even say “no gifts” or “give to a charity” but that sums it up perfectly.


  5. The black bridesmaid dress “rule” is such a joke. Rude would be forcing my bridesmaids to wear something unflattering and matchy matchy.


  6. Very informative, thankyouverymuch. One question: are gifts in cash accepted in the US? got a beautiful wedding greeting card in Germany with a tiny glued envelope to include a bill, I live in Spain where such gifts are also welcomed but I don’t know about the US. Thanks for your help. The card is inteded for a wedding on Aug 14th…


  7. As a past bridesmaid, I always welcomed the black dresses. The looked prettiest in photos, most flattering on the girls, and the flowers’ color popped. And I wore each one again!


  8. I always saw the bridesmaid’s dress as being like the bride’s: for one wonderful day only (any maybe for a few fun themed bar crawls afterwards).

    I hated my baby blue dress that my SIS obsessed over the design of, but together we framed the couple nicely, which was sort of the point.

    Then I modified it for Burning Man (and probably got more quality use out of it than most of you choosing something from the JCrew collection). But I know I was a lucky one.


  9. Not wear a LBD to a formal, evening, classy reception? Is this “rule” from some stodgy, outdated, Ivory Tower former century? Big miss on this one, sorry. No one–and I mean no one would interpret that a well-dressed woman Of A Certain Age in a classic LBD was “in mourning” for the bride.


  10. I’m all for etiquette lite. Watch the groom burrow under his new wife’s dress for the garter? No, please!

    But I’m more than happy to wear a black bridesmaid dress that I can wear again or to contribute to the couple’s charity of choice, especially, say, when they’re reaching 40 and have had their joint apartment fully kitted out for the 10 years they’ve been living with each other. And to the crazy kids who just want to run off and tour the world, I’m more than happy to contribute to a travel fund.


  11. My goodness, yes, PLEASE keep the groom’s head out from under the bride’s skirt in public! I’m from the south, where most of these rules are still followed, but somehow removing garters with teeth has become accepted. ACK!


  12. Good work. I have seen so many good people turned into raging monsters around wedding season, from brides to groomsmen to grandma!

    I’d love to see some guidelines for gracefully responding to family and others who pose inappropriate questions leading up to weddings, starting with, “When are you two getting married already?”


  13. Mar, giving cash is fine. Asking for it can make people feel like they’re being shaken down.

    As for the black dresses, lots of people do it and many would never dream of doing it. It’s not scandalous to have bridesmaids in black, but some percentage of your guests will find the effect more somber than celebratory.

    Philip, thanks for sending that article. I hadn’t seen it. I feel so sorry for the poor bride. Let’s hope her husband is the magnanimous type.


  14. Hey Maggie, thanks for the pithy and informative article on wedding etiquette! Can you give us any tips (or possibly revisions…) for LGBTQ weddings? I’m thinking that folks who are “family” might be happier to dress in outfits that conform to their gender identity/expression, but everything else seems spot on to me!


  15. I can get behind some of these rules, i.e. receiving line, the gifting, but take issue with two: (1) The LBD – agree with others that it’s fine for evening, especially. (2) More importantly,the objective of the reception: “the objective of your wedding reception is to cater to guests’ needs.” I totally disagree! I DO think the wedding should be about the couple and their special day. I beg every stressed out bride-to-be to stop worrying whether everyone else will have a good time and remind her that we’ll all be there to celebrate the couple – that it’s not about US. Yes, plan a good party, but then try to relax and enjoy – and have faith that you have good people in your life who can play nicely together for one night.


  16. Oh heavens, the black dress controversy. I strongly agree with what my mother and grandmothers always told me – do not wear white to a wedding (competes with bride), black (it’s for funerals) or red (harlot). I know it seems funny and god knows no one I know agrees with me (even women twice my age). The case for the LBD especially at formal evening weddings is strong. But dude, I still think it’s tacky. Thanks for this Maggie!


  17. I adore this.

    As for registry cards in invitations…I personally think registering is tacky. I hate it. I didn’t like doing it myself but everyone (including my partner) told me I had to. She remembers who gave us every single thing. I remember nothing except what our mothers each got us for the shower. I didn’t want anything, let alone asking for specific things. It’s horrid.


  18. I hate registering, so I never do it and people get angry.

    However, when we didn’t register for my (now 4 month old daughter) people got extremely creative and she got many hand made gifts. Big win all around, I think, since we’ll treasure those gifts forever.


  19. You have spent a great deal of time criticizing other people for the way they chose to celebrate something that is not about you in the first place. I am amazed by how convinced you are of your correctness when our society is so varied, so unique that to come up with ONE set of rules and etiquette for ALL WEDDINGS borders on ridiculous.

    A wedding is a day to celebrate two people choosing to spend their lives together and an opportunity for the people who love them to support and and honor that. I find it incredibly sad to hear others focusing so much attention on what they didn’t like about the day and making harsh judgments on the couple for the way they chose to celebrate. It’s their business how they celebrate their wedding and if you don’t like it, don’t take part.


  20. My wedding is next July and my future husband’s sister is going to be his best man. I am completely supportive of her being part of his wedding party. She is gay and refuses to wear a dress. I am frustrated with this because I don’t want her to look sloppy or out of place. The brides maids are all wearing yellow, and i thought maybe she could wear a conservative black dress if the boys are wearing suits. But still the adament refusal. I’ve pretty much given up at this point because I’m trying my best to avoid family drama. Does anyone have any advice? I’m feeling rather trapped.


  21. Lauren’s comment above is a perfect example of why I feel it’s ridiculous to assume that one set of guidelines is appropriate for all situations. Asking a woman to wear a dress when they would never wear a dress in their regular life would probably make them as uncomfortable as it would to ask a man to wear a dress. Fortunately, Lauren seems to be conscientious and considerate about this matter and I wish them the best in coming up with a solution.

    I am not a hater of etiquette and oftentimes am very thankful for helpful guidelines in difficult situations. I do feel that there is a judgmental and disrespectful tone to many of your comments in this article. I respect that you were trying to round up etiquette guidelines, but I think you may have included a bit personal opinion in here as well. It sounded to me less like “etiquette guidelines” and more of an opportunity to criticize the nameless brides and grooms whose weddings you have attended and did not appreciate. And in doing so, you make other brides feel judged and laughed at who might be currently planning a wedding that includes black dresses, no receiving line, RSVP cards or any of the things mentioned above. None of those choices are rude or inconsiderate to their guests and no one is harmed by them making those choices. A wedding is hopefully one of the happiest days of a person’s life. It would be lovely if we could just leave it at that and be happy for them.


  22. Love this. Am wedding planning myself and am treading softly now as I am planning a very quiet and small JOP ceremony that will exclude some people who will no doubt be perturbed should they realize they were excluded. All are invited later for a informal party hosted at our home. This is not my nor my beloveds first marriage and we are not inclined for it to be a massive spectacle. Any hints on how I can make this happen would be appreciated! 🙂


  23. How much would it cost to have to come to Wisconsin to have you discuss these etiquette guidelines with my dear sister? She is getting married within the next two weeks and needs a good reminder that even though it is her special day and she should enjoy it, the whole damn world doesn’t revolve around her from engagement to marriage. And what the hell is a gift-opening brunch? When did that become part of the whole wedding package?


  24. I def respect my future sister in law and I think her normal fashion is great! But I am also trying to respect my family, who are a touch more traditional. First, although I’m not a stickler for gender rolls, I know that some of my family will be confused as to why there is a girl on the groom’s side. Especially the older generation. They are respectful and would never mention any astonishment, but also having her in a possibly ill-fitting suit might make the confusion even worse. I’m definitely will to work with everyone, but there needs to be some give and take on both sides, I believe. I’m trying to respect her wishes, but I also wish she would be a little more flexible with my wedding.


  25. Lauren, my brother’s groomsmen (groomspeople?) included a very close female friend from high school. She elected to wear the same dress as the bridesmaids but in black (to match the tuxes) and we bridesmaids wore periwinkle. It looked just great.

    However, if your future sister-in-law would never wear a dress in “real life,” what about a truly well-fitted suit? If the guys are renting their tuxes, it may be tough for her to find a male-fitted suit that looks appropriate and/or flattering… But if she is willing to get a nice, tailored suit of her own, she might be able to rent the vest/tie that the guys are wearing?? That may be a nice compromise– if she’s unwilling to compromise on the dress front. You’ll still get the visual continuity, but she’ll likely feel more comfortable in her own skin.

    If your family is respectful, as you describe, I’m sure they’ll be delicate about their true feelings regarding this fashion decision. I’m sure the multitude of other details in your wedding will outshine whatever fashion choices any of your attendants or guests will make. Guests are more likely to remember Aunt Lenore’s stumbles over her chair, the date that spilled red wine down Uncle Irv’s suit or Cousin Lacey’s scandalous dance moves. 🙂

    Good luck and best wishes.


  26. Thank you SO much for that. I will bring this up as it gets closer to the event and see if we can work out something that looks nice and keeps everyone comfortable. I definitely want this to be more of a party and less of a show.



  27. I adore your blog, but this series has an overly prescriptive, didactic tone. One might even say they’re rude.

    Ironic, no?


  28. You said “Registries are the limit of how much a couple may direct gift giving” I don’t understand how a registry can be acceptable if, as you also say, “Any attempt to direct generosity looks greedy.”What is a registry if not an attempt to direct generosity? Particularly given that today’s registries link to websites with CASH VALUES readily available for the items requested, I don’t understand why asking for help with the mortgage is tacky but help with the Kitchenaid Mixer is not.


  29. Loved this column! And this part was especially timely for me today: “Any attempt to direct generosity looks greedy. Coincidentally, it also makes guests feel less generous.” I attended a wedding 2 weeks ago of a couple whose wedding website said they had everything they needed and directed guests to donate to one of about 10 listed charities instead (or a charity of the guests’ choice). There were links to the various charities on the website, and apparently by clicking on those links to donate, the couple received a notification of the donation. Well, I haven’t donated yet, because I’m well within the 1-year post-wedding grace period, but TODAY I received an email (sent to about a dozen people whose names were all visible) which basically said, “Hi! I’m writing thank you notes and realized that I didn’t received a notification that you donated yet! If you donated anonymously or I just lost track, please let me know so I can send you a card!” Are you kidding me?? I don’t appreciate being chided about not donating yet, let alone forced to donate in the first place–it doesn’t make me feel generous at all. Plus it’s awkward that they can see the exact dollar amount I’ve decided to contribute for this purpose. This feels much different than me donating in their name on my own terms, and also denies me the option of making them something beautiful by hand in the pottery studio, which was my original plan. It’s all just so awwwwwkwaaaaard! Aaaah!


  30. maggie, can one propose without a ring? is it acceptable to just ask and get the ring at a later date, ie shop for it together?


  31. I just want to point out to those who are feeling this post is critical or bossy that this is a re-post of an article written as part of a series called “The NonExpert” for the Morning News website. The tone and approach match the character of the column.

    Which I find funny and, more often than not, dead-on by the way.


  32. Fiona, I totally agree with you. That is beyond ridiculous. I very much dislike being given a charity or list of charities and being made to feel as though anything else is unwelcome and unappreciated. I generally opt to send a nice card with a note inside congratulating the couple and expressing my wish to take them to dinner to celebrate or have them over to celebrate at some time in the near future.


  33. I broke three of these rules, and wouldn’t change a thing.

    1. Black dress on my maid of honor. No one remembers what she wore, and she liked it. I’d do it over again.

    2. RSVP card in the invites. We prepared all the food (for 200 guests) ourselves, and it eased my mom’s mind a great deal to know how many to expect. The number we got via the cards and the number that showed up was nearly the same, even with some who said yes not showing and some who said no coming at the last minute.

    3. No receiving line. We acted as ushers ourselves, and thus had the opportunity to embrace each of our friends without having someone look uncomfortable because they have a social phobia and must decide whether to walk right by the wedding party member they don’t know or say an awkward hello.

    Three years later, we still have people tell us that our wedding was the most fun wedding they’ve ever been to. Our goal was for our guests to have an amazing time, so…SUCCESS!!


  34. Love this! I am getting married this October and thanks to my mom, an Emily Post book and now THIS post I feel like I’m on the right track even though I’ve been told I’m super old school (although we did include RSVP cards for guests’ convenience). You know what? I like being old school. I’ve also been accused of hating babies/children because we are not inviting children, nor are we willing to turn the reception into a daycare by setting up a “children’s area” on the premises.

    Question for Maggie (or anyone else who cares to weigh in): we did not indicate that singles were allowed to bring a guest (unless they are part of an established couple at the time we issued the invites), but I have had a couple of friends mention that they went on a first date this week and “might bring so-and-so” and are waiting until the deadline to respond. What do I say? “Actually, the random guy you met at Trader Joe’s and had drinks with is not invited?” “Oh, sure, please bring strangers to my wedding!” Or do I just let it go and let my guests do what they please? I remember what it was like to go to weddings solo, but also remember that that was often more fun than bringing a date… and I never asked to bring a date unless I was specifically invited to do so. One guest has already turned in his card indicating that he’s bringing his on-and-off girlfriend… How do we keep the numbers under control?


  35. I agree with the black dress rule, it’s just kinda of macabre. I think navy would be a lovely alternative. Also, there are several vendors now (like the fabulous Dessy group)who sell TONS of great dresses that are color coordinated, but flattering for all.


  36. I’m always amazed at the topics people tend to become…passionate about. Who knew that a lovely post about wedding ettiquette would cause such a ruccus?!

    Having said that, I think perhaps some folks should consider that it’s possible to follow the spirit of these guidelines, as opposed to the letter. If you don’t happen to agree with one or more of these rules then simply keep in mind that good taste and common sense should prevail in these types of special celebrations.

    I love your Don’t Be Rude posts – they remind me that the world isn’t completely devoid of good manners and tradition.


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