Chances are, at some point in your life, you’ll be invited to a wedding. My first personal invitation came when I was a junior in college (the bride was 21) and since then, the invitations haven’t stopped coming. This year alone, I’ll be attending six weddings. That I have so many weddings to go to this year actually makes sense: According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age at which American men get married for the first time is 29; for women it’s 27. My friends are all right at that median age. You may have a few years to go before you hit peak wedding timing, but trust me, those invitations will sneak up on you.
Weddings are exciting; it’s fun to be invited and it’s fun to party with all of your friends and their friends and families. There are a few things you should keep in mind if you hope to be a good wedding guest, though. Use these wedding etiquette tips to stay on the bride’s and groom’s good sides.
Respond as soon as you get the invitation. It’s not that hard to look at your calendar to see if you’ve already got plans three months down the road. If you do, send your response back with regrets. If you don’t have plans and want to go, check the “Accepts with Pleasure” box. No matter what your response, make sure you write your name on the response card. When they’re left anonymous, it creates quite a mess for the bride and groom. Furthermore, don’t wait to RSVP. There’s a date on the response card for a reason; the couple needs to know the final count for the venue and caterers before the day of the wedding. Mailing in your RSVP early ensures there’s enough food (and cake!) for all.
Don’t assume you get a plus one. If you’re married or engaged, chances are both you and your partner are invited as a package deal. If you’re single or dating, though, check the wording on your invitation. Is it addressed to “Jane Doe and Guest” or just to “Jane Doe?” If you’re not explicitly given a guest, don’t assume that you can bring one.
If you have a food allergy, say so when you respond. Often, you’ll be given a choice between two or three meal options when you mail in your response card. You may also be given the opportunity to list any food allergies or food sensitivities. If you’re not, it’s still important for the bride and groom to know if you have allergies or dietary restrictions. If there’s room on the response card, add in a note that says you’re allergic to nuts, vegan, or anything else you want the couple to know. If there’s no room, add in a notecard explaining your situation. The last thing anyone wants is for a guest to get sick during the reception.
Know that you’re going to spend money. Weddings are expensive, especially when there’s travel involved. If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a wedding in your hometown, you still need to pay for a gift and possibly an Uber to and from the ceremony. If you have to travel, get ready to pay for airfare, hotel rooms, transportation, food (when you’re not at the wedding), and a gift. Take into account your budget and the wedding’s location before you decide how to RSVP.
No matter your response, buy the couple a gift. Think of weddings as events like birthdays or holidays. You wouldn’t show up empty-handed to your best friend’s birthday party, so don’t do the same for his or her wedding. You don’t have to shell out for the most expensive item on the registry, especially as a college student or recent graduate with little expendable income, but buying something—anything—shows goodwill and is the kind thing to do. The bride and groom have already told you what they want, so just take five minutes, go to Amazon (or wherever they’re registered), and click “Add to cart” on one of the registry items. You can ship it directly to the bride and groom and never actually have to deal with anything. It’s too easy not to do. And trust me, the couple will remember if you neglect to send a present.
Dress modestly and according to the dress code written on the invitation. If the invitation doesn’t specify the dress code, it’s pretty safe to assume cocktail dress. You can also look to the venue for cues on what to wear. If the invitation specifies, follow the rules for that dress code:
- White Tie: Dress as formally as possible. Men should wear a tuxedo with a tailcoat, a white shirt, and a white bow tie. Women should be in full-length ball gowns.
- Black Tie: This is still formal; think the Oscars or another red-carpet event. Men should wear a tuxedo, while women should be in floor-length dresses or very classy cocktail dresses.
- Black Tie Optional or Formal: Men can opt to wear either a tuxedo or a dark suit and a regular tie instead of a bow tie. Women, too, have more freedom; long dresses, dress suits, and cocktail dresses are all appropriate.
- Cocktail: Men can skip the tuxedo all together and should instead wear a suit and tie. Women can wear cocktail dresses or jumpsuits.
- Semiformal or Dressy Casual: Men should still wear a suit and tie, but can probably ditch the suit jacket after the ceremony. Women have plenty of options and can consider cocktail dresses, jumpsuits, or skirts paired with dressy tops.
- Casual: Men can wear dress pants and a button-down shirt or polo (but no jeans). A jacket isn’t required. Women could go so far as to wear sundresses, but dress pants or skirts paired with a top would also be acceptable.
And ladies, you are not the belle of the ball here, so don’t try to be! Maintain a modest hemline and neckline, and no matter what, don’t wear white, ivory, or off-white—that’s the bride’s job!
Be early. You never know what’s going to happen on the way to a wedding. Your Uber driver could get lost, there could be a traffic accident, or maybe it’s just farther away than you expected. Plan for the worst, and aim to arrive 30 minutes before the ceremony is set to begin. You may end up waiting, but that’s much better than arriving right when the bride is beginning to walk down the aisle.
If you’re invited to both reception and ceremony, attend both. It’s tempting to skip the ceremony and just show up for the reception. After all, the reception has the food, the dancing, and the party. Don’t do it. If you’re going to celebrate a couple’s wedding, celebrate it fully. You were invited because it’s important to the couple that you be there, so do your part. You don’t have to be religious to get something out of a religious ceremony or nonreligious to get something out of a seaside wedding.
Keep your hands off your phone. It’s normal to want to take a photo of the bride and groom when they’re officially hitched, but that’s what the professional photographers were hired to do. Their photographs are going to be immeasurably better than the ones you could take with your iPhone. Keep your phone away (and off or on silent) until the reception, then take all the selfies and group photos that you want!
Watch your alcohol intake. An open bar is commonplace at many weddings nowadays, or at least free, unlimited beer and wine. If you’re going to drink, do so responsibly. You don’t need to engage in chugging contests with other guests or drink an entire bottle of wine by yourself. Have fun, but pace yourself. An easy way to take control of the situation is to wait to start drinking until dinner is served so that you’re not drinking on an empty stomach. You don’t want to be remembered for throwing up and having a meltdown all over the dance floor.
Weddings are fun. They give you the perfect excuse for an Instagram post or a new profile picture. Enjoy spending time with your friends and your friends’ friends, follow these wedding etiquette guidelines, and don’t make a fool of yourself!