7 modern wedding guest etiquette questions (+ bonus advice for couples!)

Modern wedding etiquette questions on @offbeatbride
Photo by Mike Allebach

A couple months ago, I was interviewed for an article on Refinery29 about modern wedding guest etiquette. While the article used several of my quotes, I figured I'd share ALL my answers about wedding guest etiquette issues, because who knows! Maybe you're trying to figure out how to decline being a bridesmaid or whether you should dress less weird at someone's wedding.

Plus, I've got two bonus etiquette issues for engaged couples at the end. Advice for all!

What's the protocol for gift giving?

Gift etiquette is very much regional and family specific. Some folks give gifts constantly, others barely give at all. Standard etiquette says to give a gift if you've been invited to an event.

If the idea of purchasing a gift to bring to an event feels gross, then you can totally just decline the invitation. Life will go on.

What's the deal with couples registering for their honeymoon?

What's the deal? The deal is that we live in the future. Couples are marrying later and already have all the housewares they need. Lots of us would much rather give experiential gifts to the people we love, rather than more stuff to clutter up already crowded houses.

There are tons of great honeymoon registry services that make it super easy to crank out a lovely honeymoon registry. Guests can contribute to honeymoon travel without it feeling like a cobbled-together PayPal page asking for money.

How do you politely decline being a part of someone's bridal party?

Different brides have different expectations from their attendants. Some just want you to stand up with them on their wedding day, others want you to organize events, buy dresses, attend mandatory DIY sessions, and be an active helper on the wedding day. Before you decline or accept, make sure you understand what this particular bride's expectations are. It's perfectly acceptable to ask up front!

If you determine that the bride wants more than you can give (or you just don't feel comfortable with being a bridesmaid), you can simply say something like, "Thank you so much for asking me to be a bridesmaid — I'm so honored! Unfortunately, my life isn't in a place where I can support you in the ways I'd like as a bridesmaid, so I'm going to have to decline — but I'm so excited to attend your wedding!"

Better to decline now for loving reasons, than to soldier in and back out at the last minute.

Fun Bride and Bridesmaids Photo
Photo by Mike Allebach

I'm going to my first same-sex wedding ceremony. Do I refer to the couple as husband and husband or wife and wife?

If you know them, ASK THEM. Always let people self-identify with the words they want to use to describe themselves, especially when they're words steeped in traditional gender roles.

When in doubt, just refer to them as "spouses" or "newlyweds."

I have a strong sense of style, but I'm going to a wedding where the family is very traditional. Do I have to tone down my look? Will it be disrespectful if I arrive in what I usually wear?

If you choose not to tone it down, you must commit to being a weirdo ambassador through the entire wedding. If you want to show off your tattoos, you must be willing to not only answer potentially invasive questions about them, but do so with a warm smile. If you want to wear your fetish heels, you don't get to get huffy when Grandpa Weisenberg looks at you funny.

If you want to look weird around more traditional folks, you need to take on the responsibility to bring on the charm, bring on the friendliness, and be open and ready to answer a million questions about your pink hair or stretched lobes.

If you can't commit to being a weirdo ambassador, tone down your look. It's one day. Your identity will survive intact, I promise.

My friend is having a destination wedding—at a destination that I totally cannot afford. How can I decline without hurting her feelings?

Chances are your friend planned the destination wedding not only knowing that a lot of invited guests wouldn't be able to attend but PLANNING on most of them not attending. That's part of why people have destination weddings. Be honest about your financial limitations and generous in offering any local help before the event.

My friend's religion is one that is totally foreign to me. I am worried about how to behave, what to wear, and general etiquette. How do I find out what to do?

First, read any resources your friend has offered up — many contemporary couples do wedding websites and often include information about cultural and religious traditions that some guests may be unfamiliar with. If that fails, do some Googling. If that fails, ask your friend directly for any tips you might need to know to avoid embarrassing yourself at the event. Ask with good nature and an open mind and be ready to learn!

9 modern wedding guest etiquette questions on @offbeatbride
Photo by Wild About You Photography

BONUS WEDDING ETIQUETTE ADVICE FOR COUPLES!

What do you do when you don't want your wedding on social media?

Let guests know that you're having an Unplugged Wedding via your wedding programs and signage around your venue. Ask ushers to lovingly remind people as they're getting seated to put away their devices, and have your officiant make an announcement at the beginning of the ceremony.

That said, ultimately your guests are going to do what they want. You can make your wishes clear, but you can't control other people's actions. They're going to do what they want to do, and you have better things to do than try to police how your Aunt Marge uses Facebook.

Amy Vanderbilt's Complete Book of Etiquette

You're a vegan, but your family might freak out if there's not meat at the reception. What's the solution?

Assuming you're paying for the wedding yourself, you should serve the food you want to serve at your wedding. You don't need to tell guests in advance. It's one meal. As long as you've set expectations about the meal being served (if you're only serving cake and punch as opposed to a full meal, people DO need to know that), then it's up to guests to decide what they want to eat from what you offer.

Modern wedding etiquette questions on @offbeatbride
Photo by ixiphotography

What modern wedding etiquette questions do YOU have?

Get your daily dose of Offbeat AWESOME

  1. I love the piece of advice about the unplugged wedding. That's what we're doing. It's not that we have anything against facebook but we want to be able to choose which photos of our wedding are shared with our larger social circle. We don't want to wake up the next morning at have 1,000+ photos of us tagged. We also want people to be in the moment, especially at the ceremony. A co-worker of mine is so excited to come to an unplugged wedding because one of the last ones she went to she was seated behind people snapping pictures with an IPad! She couldn't see a thing except their screens and the kicker was they weren't even taking pictures of the bride and groom, but of their son who was a groomsman!
    Thus far we included information about unpluggedness in our invitation package, we're making a large sign for the ceremony, it's in our programs, it's in our pre-ceremony announcements, and it will be somewhere at the reception. We created a WedPics account as well for people to upload photos too and have information about that all over the place.
    I think the best bit about your advice though is realizing that you cannot control everyone. You can ask but if people choose to not respect your wishes there's nothing to be done. Just un-tag yourself from the unflattering photos and move on with your (newly married) life!

    • I wish I did this for mine. I had a family member who must have taken a photo every 10 seconds of the ceremony and then immediately posted all of it to Facebook before the reception (maybe a 20 minutes span?) so there was essentially a flipbook of our small ceremony for everyone to see right away. It felt super invasive and probably unnecessarily hurt some people's feelings (we hadn't posted our engagement or any wedding info on social media).

      1 agrees
      • Ugh, I'm so sorry that happened to you. That's EXACTLY what we're trying to avoid by having the ceremony be unplugged. We're totally cool with guests taking photos at the reception but are asking that they post those pictures to our WedPics account. That way we can be the ones who choose what, if anything, we want to share with the wider social media world.

        2 agree
  2. "If the idea of purchasing a gift to bring to an event feels gross, then you can totally just decline the invitation. Life will go on."

    I feel like something was accidentally edited out of this one. Are we talking about the giving of any gift at all (even through online registries), or just about bringing physical gifts to the event? Are there really that many weddings where the only options are Bringing A Physical Gift and Not Going At All?

    I was under the impression that most couples would prefer their guests' attendance above all. I'd hate to think that someone I care about might decline the invitation just because they don't like giving gifts.

    6 agree
    • I'm pretty certain it means a bridal shower gift or some such. Not the actual wedding gift.

      I had a hen party & everything was paid for me by my girls, something I was really not expecting. I was told that actually what we did is on the cheap end of the scale when it came to hen dos but I was in no way expecting any of it.

      I would never expect to bring a present to a hen party in the UK but I understand it's the done thing in America.
      Though I'm still a little weirded out that people want me to tell them what presents to give us for our wedding to be honest.

      1 agrees
      • I've only been to two bachelorette parties (American hen do 's) but neither involved gifts–I don't think it's necessarily a thing. We did pay both brides' way though.

        1 agrees
    • I was wondering about that, too. I would much, much rather my friends and family come to my wedding without a gift than skip it because they feel bad they can't give me a gift. If it's specifically a shower, I understand that a lot of people might feel uncomfortable arriving at a gift-based event without one, but I've always thought that gift giving is never an obligation. I'd be hurt if I thought my wedding gift was more important than my attendance at someone else's wedding.

      3 agree
    • Something to remember is that most of us are "Offbeat". Honestly, the etiquette thing is COMPLETELY personal depending on region, family and friends. I was very traditional regarding my registry notification (frankly I didn't even want people to know I registered unless they asked me or one of my family personally). Why? Because my hubby and I didn't CARE about the gifts. The result: Very few people brought them, and half weren't from our registry. Do I regret it? NO! I would have hated for my friends to think they couldn't join my shower, my bachelorette or my wedding without a gift in hand. If you're shaking your head "no" at this, please see the 2nd sentence of this post. When in doubt, ASK! the MOH, MOB and MOG are the key folks here, so go to them if you feel uncomfortable asking the bride. Seriously. If the couple is super keen on getting everything on their registries, that's what you should do. If they don't care, feel free to show up with a small token, or even empty-handed. Just be sure you know how that particular couple really feels about gifts.

      2 agree
  3. If the idea of purchasing a gift to bring to an event feels gross, then you can totally just decline the invitation. Life will go on.

    I really disagree with this one! We had quite a few guests who did not get us gifts — our wedding was not a "destination" wedding per se, but many people did have to travel and get a night in a hotel to attend. Our feeling was that their attendance was everything we wanted and needed. Some people brought or sent gifts, and others did not. We were 100% fine with that, and I am so glad people didn't skip the wedding simply because they couldn't afford both the travel costs and the cost of a gift!

    14 agree
    • I'm from a region where you bring a wedding gift that approximately equals the cost of your "seat" at the reception. (Food + drink.)

      I'm still offended by the guests who came for free (someone else paid for their hotel, transport and sitter) and they didn't even give us a card.

      6 agree
      • I've heard of that standard for a wedding present, but I've always made the presents for weddings I've attended as an adult, and I honestly don't know how I'd calculate the cost of the food & drink for myself.

        2 agree
      • I would feel this way too. I know people interpret it as petty but there's a certain number of things that go into planning a wedding that are done out of a feeling of obligation. If it were possible to have a party of 130 that is essentially about just the couple where it didn't mean they had to foot thousands and thousands of dollars and was instead a joint effort by all attending then gifts/cards might not feel so important.
        But it's not, it's the most important day in a relationship but American wedding culture is so guest-focused. It's not about the guests (in my opinion), it's about the couple. They're already trying to meet all these ridiculous demands so the guests don't complain or sneer, the least they could do is show up with a gift.

    • Oooh I interpreted that sentence completely differently, firstly it didn't seem to be talking about not being able to afford a gift (and certainly not trying to set a rule for such situations) but about not being happy about the gift giving expectations/instructions of a particular wedding. It seemed to be saying look, ettiquette may say bring a gift but really it's down to your desire/ability to do so and don't forget if you really disagree with what the couple are asking/seem to be expecting you are not in fact obliged to go at all.

      My wife and I specifically asked for no gifts in our invitations and wedsite as people were travelling and we weren't paying for that but people insisted and kept asking what we'd like. We ended up sending round an email again reiterating that it wasn't obligatory but as we'd been asked for suggestions then there was a kitchenware shop we'd like vouchers for and also money for the honeymoon would be great, this was given as cash in envelopes on the day which is what they tend to do in my wife's country.

      4 agree
      • "It seemed to be saying look, ettiquette may say bring a gift but really it's down to your desire/ability to do so and don't forget if you really disagree with what the couple are asking/seem to be expecting you are not in fact obliged to go at all."

        That's what I was trying to say — thanks for getting it, even if I was being unclear.

        3 agree
  4. I agree, I don't see how it's either attending and giving a gift or not attending at all. We got married about 2 months ago, and honestly, we just wanted our family and friends there. The gifts, if any, were just a bonus, and not expected from our side. I'd much rather have my loved ones present than get gifts. It worked out beautifully, as every single guest who was invited were at the wedding, no empty seats at all. Where guests gave presents, it was kept small (only books, we wanted to keep it cheap for those who insist on bringing something). People shouldn't feel pressured in bringing a gift. It's a nice-to-have, not a prerequisite for attendance.

    3 agree
  5. It sounds like the "need" to give gifts depends on a lot of factors. Where I live (Northeast USA), a gift is absolutely expected at a wedding (registry, physical, cash, doesn't matter), and the rule of thumb of how much your seat costs sounds about standard. I've heard people go as far as to suggest to not invite people that you think will cheap out on a gift, though I think that's in poor taste. There are definitely other factors though. I wouldn't expect as big of a gift (or any gift) from someone who had significant travel expenses, or who helped out with the wedding process, or who I know has financial struggles. So in the case of say, a pot luck wedding, I wouldn't expect as many or as expensive of gifts, because the gift is the food you brought. Most couples (at least around here) expect gifts, and it's considered extremely rude to not give at least a little something. If you're flat broke, you could say to the couple, "Hey, I'm flat broke and I want to attend your wedding but I can't afford to get you a gift. Is there any way I can offer my help [insert thing you could do here – bake a dessert, help set up/clean up, do makeup, help with DIY projects whatever else you're good at]?" At least that way the couple knows you mean well and aren't just being rude. It's kind of an unspoken "If you expect us to throw this big fancy (often super expensive) party for you to attend after our wedding ceremony, then we expect a little something nice in return."

    As for the Facebook photo tagging thing – you can set it so that you have to approve (or deny) tags before they appear on your news feed. Go to https://www.facebook.com/settings and click on "Timeline and Tagging" on the left. In the section labeled "Who can add things to my timeline?" set "Review posts friends tag you in before they appear on your timeline" to On.

    4 agree
    • Yeah but I'm in the Northeast US too, and I've heard that you have a YEAR from the wedding to give a gift. So one could spend months being miffed about not getting a gift, and then get one. (I think a year is a lot in this day and age, but that's what someone told us.)

      1 agrees
      • I'm in the northeast as well and I've never heard of it being cool to send a gift a year after the fact if you attended the event. That's so interesting! I think most people I know would assume someone chose not to bring a gift and be really surprised if something showed up without warning a year later. Our gift for a recent wedding was too big to bring on the shuttle (think a 25 lb. pastry board) so we just let the bride & groom know that we were going to meet up with them post-honeymoon to give them their gift so they knew we didn't short change them when they were sorting everything out.

        • To be fair I only learned this because we once simply forgot to get our friends a wedding gift. We all had dinner a few months later, and we brought them a belated gift. When we were apologizing they told us the one year thing. But Google backs it up.

          1 agrees
        • I've also heard the year rule (and I'm from the NE, too), but I always send my gift to save work for carrying out gifts, and I always feel a little weird walking in without one, even though I know I've sent it.

          1 agrees
      • I agree that a year is a long time nowadays, but I've always heard that you have a year to give a gift and the couple has a year to send out thank you notes. That gives you (the gift giver) a chance to avoid purchasing a duplicate gift. I'm guessing this "rule" comes from the days before registries?

        1 agrees
  6. Even though it wasn't specifically mentioned in the article, I just love that picture of the cupcakes with a card listing the different commonly avoided ingredients and the dietary restrictions the food has. It's a great idea for guests who can't/don't eat everything. I might talk to my caterer about doing something similar.
    Also, may I say that it's so refreshing to see a wedding website that acknowledges that etiquette can change with time and region. I want my guests to feel comfortable and well fed, but sometimes etiquette becomes set in stone and people don't stop to think if it still makes sense in their specific context.

    9 agree
  7. I just really wish couples would stick to actual old etiquette and call people by their correct names. Slapping Mr and Mrs Richard Dick on an envelope and calling it etiquette is NOT correct. Please, Find out the names of everyone on your guest list. And then ….. Upgrade to modern etiquette and find out if any women actually like being addressed by their husband's full name… Uh we had exactly zero takers on that one.

    13 agree
    • I tried SO HARD on this one – my address list was formatted SpouseName + SpouseName LastName throughout, as I believe in calling people by the names their mommas gave them, but overheard a frantic phone call from the future MIL (who is wonderful and whom I adore) about how upset everyone would be if they weren't Mrs. HusbandFull Name, the VII or whatever. I caved on their older family members…but staunchly refused to send four separately addressed invitations to the same freaking house. People should, of course, be made comfortable and addressed how they wish, but some things are just a matter of practicality.

      4 agree
  8. Great article, it should so be read alongside the tacky article from a while ago. If tacky is what we call things we don’t like/don’t know and want to try and claim a rule about, then etiquette is tacky’s evil but wearing a deceptive pretty bonnet twin. Saying something is ok because it meets etiquette or good etiquette is basically just a way of making a rule about things we like/know/do in our community, it has no universal application whatsoever.

    When invited to a wedding, I try and comply with what the couple wants, go with their etiquette so to speak because it’s their day but I do believe that it is possible to break etiquette in a polite and respectful manner especially when done for genuine authentic reasons. I have gone to weddings without a gift when I was broke, a major breach of someone’s etiquette I’m sure, but I really can’t see how that would be disrespectful to the couple getting married, not if you are there with love in your heart, celebrating with them and making their day special. I honestly don’t have much time for anyone (like family of the couple) who would try and claim otherwise but I’ll be polite as hell about it for the sake of the couple.

    I once got a look from a fellow guest at my cousins wedding who clearly felt that me slipping my arm round my same sex partner and giving her a quick little kiss on the lips when the (straight) couple also did just after their vows was a total breach of etiquette. She also later accosted me and my wife and demanded to know what our relationship was, I was unflatteringly cast as mother and my wife as daughter (my wife is 6 years younger than me!). Despite the fact that this staggeringly rude woman (she didn’t even begin with hello, just jabbed me in the shoulder to get my attention) had clearly breached my personal etiquette of how to deal with another human with grace and respect I managed not to claw her eyes out but just answered with a minimum of derision “she is my partner (silent brackets, you fucking moron)". I may have later breached etiquette on the dancefloor with the wife in retaliation though….

    3 agree
  9. This has been my personal rant lately but I disagree with the religion comment! Just because someone might happen to have a different religious background, the modern guest would go out of there way to NOT assume anything about their wedding. I don't make assumptions about the weddings of my friends who come from Christian families! Don't start googling "Hindu wedding" just because your friend is a Hindu. If you're that concerned, ask what sort of wedding she's going to have! Even IF she was going to have a Hindu wedding there is soooo much variety between the north and south, the caste of the individual, and the specific region. But beyond that she (like me) might be opting to not do any traditional things. You will be going against etiquette if you show up wearing a sari and ready to dance bollywood just because her parents happen to be Hindu and that's what the Internet told you to do!

    3 agree
    • I totally support people planning to dance Bollywood at a wedding. Any wedding. All weddings. More Bollywood dancing everywhere!

      3 agree
    • I think the "knowing the religion/ ceremony format" thing is more intended for cases where you can tell you are attending a religious event (like if you can see explicitly that the ceremony is held at a church or a synagogue) but may not know what to expect. It helps you be prepared for an event that is non-standardized, and sometimes has a lot of rules you may not be familiar with. For example, my friend had a Greek Orthodox ceremony. It was important to know that in her church shoulders have to be covered and it would have been nice to know that Greek Orthodox ceremonies are mostly standing and an hour long (I wouldn't have worn heels, that's for sure!). This has nothing to do with assuming things about a culture, but has more to do with what to expect at an event whose format you aren't used to, and where you want to be respectful. I found it equally helpful to know that one friend was having a full Anglican mass, so I could expect a long and more formal ceremony, or that another friend's outdoor wedding was short, so I could plan what SPF sunscreen to wear. Optimally, your friends like you and won't want to offend you, and so if there are things about your ceremony they won't necessarily expect (like covering their shoulders) (especially if your wedding is being held in a religious venue with strict rules), I think it is courteous to give a heads up so that no one feels awkward. And if you as a guest are worried, I think it is better to just ask outright, especially since these days (at least among my friends) people may not discuss their religion that often and you may not know. I'd far rather have an awkward conversation with my friend than offend their entire family!

      4 agree
  10. I think I've mentioned this before, but I've always gotten information from the couple before the wedding about expectations — my friends know I have anxiety issues and I really can't handle "going with the flow" without an idea of at least where the flow IS. As a kid, I understood weddings, because it's either a regular Mass with the vows in the middle or a long nuptial Mass (and I was usually either a lector or an alter server), followed by a reception in the parish hall with food from buffets and many 8-12 seat tables. As an adult, every wedding I've attended has been different, and I've been lucky to get information ahead of time. Ask!

  11. I would disagree on the food thing and suggest you let people know if your wedding meal will be exclusively catering to a specific diet, even if it's just vegetarian or vegan. Not because it's such a *huge burden* for people to not be able to eat their preferred foods for a single meal, but because you can't know everyone's dietary needs and, yes, even veganism can be counter to someone else's health.

    Like my nan. Who used to be veering towards vegetarian out of basic personal preference, until she developed a health condition that means she is now forbidden from consuming plant fibre. She can still eat some vegetables, but they need to be peeled, mashed and then pressed through a sieve first. The last time she tried to sneak in a couple of roasted peppers she ended up on nil-by-mouth for almost a week. So a surprise vegan wedding dinner would, for her, mean either doing the best she could with plain bread, plain pasta and plain rice (and hoping one of the pasta sauces doesn't contain any pieces of onion or chopped vegetable) or just going hungry, if it turned out – for example – that all the carbs available were brown or wholegrain. But a warning in advance would allow her to bring a small tupperware of something safe she could have.

    That said, it doesn't have to be a *big thing*. Just something like "2pm-3pm, ceremony. 3:30-5pm, cocktails, 5pm, vegan buffet".

    I'll probably be providing a fairly cohesive menu of what my buffet will include, but then that's my personal choice to do so, and it's largely because we're omnivores, and since our guests will include vegetarians, gluten-free, some Jewish relatives, allergies and my nan, we want everyone to have the opportunity to let us know in advance if our menu is lacking safe foods for them to eat.

    1 agrees
    • There's nothing wrong with not telling people in advance that the food will be vegan, just as there's nothing wrong with not saying it will be nut-free or won't include garlic. Whatever the meal, there will be a lot of things it won't include and you wouldn't be expected to list every single food you're not having!

      Your nan's dietary needs are the sort of thing that would need to be catered for regardless of the food being served – even a meat-heavy meal is likely to contain things like pieces of chopped onion; vegetables will feature somewhere and won't be peeled, mashed and strained through a sieve. So not telling people in advance that the buffet will be vegan wouldn't really affect someone with such non-optional needs as your nan, as she'd be the one notifying in advance her food-related medical needs. The same goes for someone who was vegan, diabetic, allergic to peanuts, coeliac etc – with specific requirements like that you don't just turn up and assume you can eat, you tell the people in advance and give them a chance to cater for you.

      That said, whatever the food is it's nice to let the guests know what it is in advance. If nothing else, they'll know if it's a heavy or a light meal and whether they should eat a big breakfast first or not!

      1 agrees
      • Spot on. It is indeed useful and considerate to breach the food topic before the reception to make sure there's something for everyone to eat, but this can be done by asking guests about any dietary restrictions they might have, rather than sending them your full menu and ingredient list in advance.

        We are vegans and are going to have a vegan wedding, but won't be specifying that on the invitations or anything. If we did, I know I'd be having to hear mocking comments about my rabbit food hippie wedding for weeks in advance from family members. And as important as being vegan is to me, I don't want VEGAN to be the theme of our wedding, the one thing people remember about it. Anyone who knows us knows that we've been vegans for a long time and shouldn't be too surprised when they show up and have to eat one meal without animal products. In my experience, non-vegans enjoy vegan food a lot more when it's not labeled as such.

  12. My husband and I recently got married, now one month later we are attending a wedding in which the groom had attended our wedding but the bride was away on her bachelorette weekend. The groom did not provide a card or gift…do we still get them a gift?

Join the conversation

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

No-drama comment policy

Part of what makes the Offbeat Empire different is our commitment to civil, constructive commenting. Make sure you're familiar with our no-drama comment policy.

Biz owners & wedding bloggers

Please just use your real name in your comment, not your business name or blog title. Our comments are not the place to pimp your website. If you want to promote your stuff on Offbeat Bride, join us as an advertiser instead.