Etiquette for Wedding Guests

Weddings abound year around, and especially so in summer, when gardens provide settings that flourish with color and fragrance befitting young love.    These are times when we, as guests, do not want to embarrass ourselves or frustrate the wedding party by our social failures in proper behavior or lack of good manners. Worse yet, would be to spoil, burden, or distract from this meaningful event by our unintentionally rude or inconsiderate actions. Weddings represent special ceremonious occasions worthy of cheerful celebration and good manners. After all, much thought, time, and effort go into these beautiful celebrations.  Read on to learn how to be a good guest.When we remember that good manners demonstrate “love in the trifles”, then we can happily embrace our social responsibility and be good wedding guests. One benefit is a fuller enjoyment of such grand events. And, so, too, for those who invited us.

I compiled the following short guidelines after I received requests from several people. One was a pastor asking me to comment on guests’ duties. His particular church members faced many upcoming weddings. He wisely wanted to have the least ruffled feathers possible. Advance instruction is a good antidote against hurt feelings, especially during times of heightened emotions. He asked for a description of the wedding rules and graces that “will help us to pick our way safely through the relational “minefield” attendant to weddings and such.”

When he sent out the list below , he added this comment:   ”Believe it or not, this is the short list. Even so, some will view it as a tiresome directory of ridiculous and petty rules that will most likely keep them and ther kin from havin’ a good ol’ time at the weddin’. But others, eager to bless and demonstrate their love for the two families being joined in the wedding ceremony,  will understand and embrace the elegant self-sacrifice and codified-charity embodied in these rules of etiquette. I pray that God grants you grace to be the latter sort of saint.

Please read the following carefully, and make sure to help your children understand not only the particular rules of etiquette, but also the laws of love that under gird each one.”

Basic Wedding Etiquette for Guests

  • Invited guests must respond as soon as possible with their acceptance or regrets (RSVP) on the small card that is enclosed with the invitation. Only the names listed on the inside envelope are invited to the wedding. Budget, space, location, and other factors dictate the number of invited guests, which means most weddings are mainly adult affairs. A child may only attend a wedding when he or she is specifically named on the inside envelope with the invitation. The parents include that child’s acceptance or regrets with their response. If an inside envelope states “Mr. Whoever and guest”, then he may bring a special guest, but must indicate the guest’s name on his response card.
  • Honor the wedding couple by dressing properly. For gentlemen, the most appropriate attire for both day or evening weddings anytime of year is a dark (preferably black)suit, light colored dress shirt, and tie with dress shoes and dark hosiery (stockings). In warm summer months, for an informal daytime wedding, dark colors are still appropriate, but a neutral colored lightweight suit is also acceptable. Any other exception to standard men’s attire is indicated on the invitation, such as the most formal weddings requiring a tux or white tie.
  • Women generally wear dressy suits or short to mid length dresses (remember you’ll be sitting and short becomes shorter) in the daytime and fancier attire in the evening. She does not wear white, which is the bride’s color. Evening weddings are usually dressier than daytime ceremonies. Note the tone of the invitation and watch for mention of specific dress requirements. As a general rule, pants are considered informal and not proper clothing for women at weddings. Dresses are always the better choice-and modest is better than too revealing. Drawing attention to oneself by outlandish apparel at a wedding is rude. Special occasions, such as weddings, represent times to dress up using good fashion sense.
  • Arrive ten to fifteen minutes early for seating by ushers.
  • Always sign the guest book. Use your formal name. (Mr., Mrs., Miss). Include your address, when requested. A guest book sits on a table in a convenient location near the entry area. The book may be signed before the ceremony, or later, during the reception.
  • Seating: Looking forward from the back of the chairs or pews, the left side of the aisle is where family and friends of the bride are seated, while the right side is for the groom’s family and guests.Both wedding families occupy the first rows of seats. At ceremonies with a great number of guests who are friends of one family or the other, ushers may ask guests if they mind setting on either side to keep a sense of balance and provide “equal” seating for everyone. The bride’s mother is the last person to be seated before the ceremony begins.
  • The usher extends his inside arm to a lady guest to escort her to her seat. Her male companion and/or child follow behind. If several lady guests arrive at the same time, the usher offers his arm to the eldest lady. If two ladies similar in age arrive at the same time, he offers his arm to one he knows personally. A group of young ladies or gentlemen arriving together may follow as the usher escorts one of their group to seats. Guests need not walk in silence on this happy occasion. A few casual remarks can be exchanged with ushers as they walk guests to their seats. Once the ceremony begins, guests respond with silent attention.
  • Ushers should offer the aisle seat to the lady they escort, while the gentleman who accompanies her enters the pew row first, to avoid climbing past a lady after she is seated. This means the lady and the usher stand aside to allow the gentleman room to enter first.
  • After the ceremony ends, ushers “excuse” each guest row during which time, the other guests remain seated. Guests follow directions and proceed to a reception location.
  • As a guest, always go through the reception line. Receiving lines are the method of meeting & greeting the wedding party & the hosts. Move quickly, keep conversation very brief. When necessary, if you do not know someone in the reception line, be ready to introduce yourself and mention how you know the bride or groom. Keep it short and sweet. Keep the line moving along. If there is no receiving line, be sure to offer best wishes (not congratulations) to the bride and groom at some point, and thank the hosts for your invitation before you leave.
  • Wait for a food table to be “opened” before taking food. Usually drinks are served while the reception line is in progress but do not carry food or drink with you through a reception line. Dispose of it properly before you meet the people in the line.
  • Toasts to the couple, initiated by the best man, generally begin mid meal or shortly before the meal ends. Other toasts may follow so take small sips of your drink for each toast. Always raise a glass towards the honored couple when the toast is proposed. (The toasted couple never drinks to themselves, or stand up). Be willing, especially as a gentleman friend to offer a toast after the wedding party and relatives have proposed their toasts. Speak so all can hear, keep your words short and complimentary. John Bridges wrote a delightful book about toasts called “A Gentleman Raises His Glass.”
  • Wait to enter the dance floor until after the bride and groom have their first dance, which is the signal that general dancing will soon begin. The parents and bridal party often dance next before others join in. A good guest is never hasty or reluctant.
  • Etiquette requires guests to stay at the reception until two things happen: after the cake is cut, and after the bride and groom have departed. Usually this happens within a reasonable time period.
  • Wedding Gifts are obligatory whenever you attend the wedding and/or reception. When you receive an invitation to a wedding reception, send a gift if you accept. You need not send a gift if you cannot attend. While a gift is not required, you certain may send one. The option is yours of whether or not to send a gift (unless of course, you are related to either of the couple or are close friends of either the bride or groom’s family, in which case it would be very rude not to wish them well by sending a wedding present–it could also, in this case, cause hurt feelings).
  • When invitations are not sent because the wedding is far away or is a small private ceremony, gifts are not expected, but cards may be sent with best wishes. If, however, the family(s) are close friends or relatives, here again, a gift (no matter how small) with best wishes, is always good protocol.
  • Gifts are optional, not required, when you receive a wedding announcement.
  • All etiquette experts agree that Wedding Gifts are best sent before the wedding day to the bride’s parents’ address. Sometimes this is not possible, and in that case, it is permissible to take gifts to the wedding reception, but this method means the family of the bride must transport them elsewhere after the wedding. It is helpful to tape your card to the gift box.
  • Group or “joint” gifts may be given by staff or co-workers, an engaged couple, or friends who have a common bond such as a church, club, or school group.

When you give a shower gift but do not attend the wedding or reception, a wedding gift is not required nor is one generally expected. Whenever possible, however,  if your value the friendship and wish to send a gift, do so.  Higher protocol, based on brotherly love, always shares in the joy of such a happy occasion.

I hope this information helps you grow in knowledge and grace as well as greatly enjoy upcoming weddings.  Weddings are some of life’s most wonderful events!

3 Responses to Etiquette for Wedding Guests

  • Libby says:

    Great information

    Thank you for the excellent information … very in depth. Proper etiquette goes a long ways.

  • Jim O'Brien says:

    Gift protocol
    Hi: Don’t know if you take questions but – my friend was invited to a family member’s wedding. The invitation was for her and a guest, I am that guest.

    Am I expected to give a separate gift? Should I offer to share the expense of my friend’s gift?

    Any info would be helpful even the website of someone who might know.

    Thanks,
    Jim O’Brien

    • sandra says:

      Shared Gifts – one present from two people

      Yes, I’m happy to offer an answer to your very valid question.
      First, let me ask, “Do you know the wedding couple?” If so, a small gift from you individually is a nice gesture of friendship but remember to tell your lady friend that you are doing this so there are no communication glitches. Generally, unless you are an engaged couple “mutual gifts” are not given.

      If you do not know the wedding couple, and because you are the guest’s guest, you need not send a gift ahead of time nor bring one to the wedding.

      The lady friend whom you escort to the wedding should pay for and send her gift (paradoxically from both of you) to the bride’s home at least a week before the wedding. Because you are her guest, her card should indicate that the gift is from both of you, but you are not obligated to pay anything towards the gift unless you want to do so.

      If this is the case, be kind to your budget and tell your friend early on the exact amount you can contribute towards the gift she selects and sends. She may refuse you considerate offer since a guest’s guest is under no obligation to buy presents for people he or she does not know. Thanks for your question—Isn’t it nice to know that etiquette has mapped out these areas for us, eliminated the guess work, and keeps us on the same page thereby reducing many bumps and misunderstandings in life. Thus protocol matters.

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