Ah, wedding season: a time of laughter, love, tears, drunk uncles, and a whole lot of confusing rules and expectations.
This summer, a lot of people are going to weddings as full-fledged adult guests for the first time. Fun times! But while it’s pretty easy to be a good wedding guest (and only slightly harder to be a great wedding guest), it’s also incredibly easy to be an annoying one. And you often don’t know the difference until you — or one of your siblings or closest friends — have planned a wedding and seen the missteps firsthand. Both of us can attest to doing some of the “wrong” things in our early twenties and seriously cringing about it now. But we just genuinely didn’t know better!
Weddings are weird and emotional events, and so much of what’s considered “OK” to do is cultural and regional, but as Meg Keene of A Practical Wedding has written, “at its most basic form, etiquette is just about providing us enough of a common rule book that we can all be kind to each other.”
With that in mind, we asked friends, family, and fellow BuzzFeed staffers their ~burning questions~ about going to modern American weddings to break down the basic dos, don’ts, and GTFOs once and for all.
1. How do I know if I get a plus-one?
Let’s handle this one — arguably the mother of all wedding woes — early. If you’re wondering (or have ever wondered) if you can bring a plus-one, look at the envelope your invitation came in.* Does it say “[insert your name here] and guest”? Yeah? Then congratulations! You’re free to bring whatever significant other, hookup, friend, roommate, or family member you want. Literally. If you’re not dating anyone, but still want to have a someone to dance with (or judge people from your table with), you can bring anyone you want, unless it’s, like, the Zodiac Killer.
Does the envelope just say your name? Then you don’t get a plus-one, plain and simple. It sucks when this happens at weddings where you won’t know anyone, but it happens.
*If your invitation came in an envelope…that you opened only to immediately discoveranother envelope — which is totally A Thing — the names on the inner envelope are the ones to pay attention to, per the Emily Post Institute.
2. What about my kid and/or other family members? Can I bring them?
If the envelope includes your kids’ names or “and family” or something of that sort, then yes. But if you can’t or don’t want to leave your family behind, then it’s OK to RSVP no. A wedding invitation isn’t a jury summons, and in this case, there’s no need to abandon your love ones to serve.
3. You mean I can actually just…not go?
Correct — you can simply RSVP no. And you don’t have to write in your excuse on the invitation either. If it’s a really close friend, you could send them an email and let them know why you won’t be able to make it, but you don’t have to.
4. But on my RSVP card it’s asking me to write in how many people are attending. That means I can bring a date or three, right?
Not exactly. That’s mostly meant for guests whose spouse and/or kids were invited. It really means “Of the people included in this invitation, how many will be coming?” — not “How many randos are you bringing along with you?”
5. OK, my invite Carl was just addressed to me, but I’m sure the couple would rather have one extra person than have me not come at all. Maybe I’ll just call them and ask them if I can bring little Madison and the new guy I met last weekend…
6. Ugh, fine. So, weddings are just parties. I don’treally have to send back the RSVP card, do I?
UM, YES, YOU DO. Whether or not you get a plus-one, please, oh please, fill out your RSVP card and send it back promptly.* In this era of Facebook events and mass texts, it’s easy to forget that for some occasions, there literally might not be a place for you to sit or food for you to eat if you don’t respond. As stressful as it is to make social plans that far in advance, it’s much more stressful to accommodate someone who rolls up to the reception unexpectedly. So before you lose the card or plain forget about it, send it back. If you miss the RSVP deadline, you may sit at a table of strangers, because the seating chart (aka the devil incarnate of wedding planning) is already set. (That said, a late RSVP is better than no RSVP.)
*Many couples choose to do online RSVPs now, which doesn’t mean it’s optional to reply. It actually makes it even easier for you to reply ASAP!
7. Ugh, I said I could go, but I don’t know if I can anymore. Can I just bail?
If you RSVP, yes, you actually have to go to the thing. That is, of course, unless something really major comes up, which may make you wonder…
8. …should I even tell the couple if I can’t go anymore? It’d just stress them out!
As baby bibs say, spit happens. Sometimes, you RSVP yes and have every intention of going — you even book a hotel room! But people get sick, work decides to be a life-ruiner, a blizzard decides to roll through town, or some other circumstances change dramatically, and you have to bail. It’s OK! But for the love of god, make sure you tell the couple about your change of plans so that they can try to recoup the money they’d be paying for your meal. It’s also nice to also offer to pay for the cost of your/your date’s meal if you have to bail super last minute, but if you can’t afford that, you can’t.
9. You know what, I can’t go, and I’m going to say that on my RSVP card. Do I still have to send a present?
In a word, no. Despite what your mom might tell you, you do not need to send a gift if you’re not going. If you want to, then by all means do. But it’s in no way compulsory, even if the couple thinks it is. Weddings are very expensive for guests, especially if it’s out of town and/or for a friend you haven’t spoken to in years, a co-worker who you think is inviting you just to be polite, or an estranged family member.
10. OK, I’m going. So now I have to buy them a gift from their registry? They registered for a Soda Stream and a Kitchen-Aid mixer and I think that’s bullshit!
Let’s kick this off with a disclaimer: Registries (and weddings in general, for that matter) are not a shameless money grab. A lot of couples feel very uncomfortable about them but still opt in because many guests do like them. That doesn’t mean they expect to get everything on the registry. It doesn’t mean they expect you to buy them all the things on the list. (Remember: They likely have older relatives and friends of their parents coming to the wedding who want to buy them something pricey/fancy.) If you think Soda Streams are an unsightly, expensive way to solve a problem that doesn’t exist, you are welcome to not buy it for them! But there’s no need to get all worked up when a couple decides it’d be kinda useful in their kitchen and they add it to their registry.
11. All right, but what if they’re doing some kind of newfangled honeymoon registry? I think THAT’S bullshit.
Hi. People can register for whatever they want, really, and those things are generally meant to help them establish a home or a life together. That includes, yes, honeymoon registries. Instead of insisting on giving them something you think is “appropriate,” why not give them the thing they actually want to receive? Who is this gift for, anyway?
If nontraditional registries confuse or annoy you, consider the following: A honeymoon registry (much like a regular registry) isn’t a donation box, but rather a request for unique adventures that they’ll be incredibly thankful that you facilitated, and what could be a better present than that?
12. I’d love to get them something amazing, but I’m broke. Is it totally awful to give them the least expensive item on the registry?
Not awful at all! If you’re low on cash, you could gather a few like-minded friends and pool your resources for a pricier item, but you could also just give them that $5 set of ramekins and be done with it. If you’re worried about the inexpensive gift looking cheap, you could add a small/inexpensive non-registry item that feels special/personal — aka get them the coffee mugs on their registry, and then add a bag of your favorite local coffee — but, again, you don’t have to.
13. I don’t mind spending money, but I hate registries so much in principle. Can I get them something that’s not on their registry? I think they’ll like it…
If you want to go off-registry, proceed with caution. If you want to skip the registry to give them something cool and special — think: local or handmade objects, vintage items, art — and you know their tastes well, then go for it. If you’re close with the couple, you could call one of them up and ask, “So what do you really want for your wedding?” They might tell you something on their registry that actually holds meaning, or they might divulge that they’d love a non-registry item, like a framed wedding portrait. If you don’t feel comfortable asking them directly, test the waters with someone in the bridal party or a sibling and ask how they think the couple would feel about the non-registry gift you have in mind.
But! If you want to go off-registry to buy a different version of something they actually registered for, hold up. The items listed aren’t mere suggestions — if the couple registers for a $100 chef’s knife, they want that $100 knife and not some other knife you happen to like.
Oh and PS: If you find a better deal on that exact chef’s knife, you can buy it from a different store. But if you do that, you should mark it as “purchased” in the registry (or call the store where they are registered and ask them to do it) so the couple doesn’t get a duplicate.
14. Can’t I just write a check and be done with it?
Totally! If you don’t know the couple well, don’t like anything on their registry, or just don’t want to take the time to shop for a gift, write them a check and stick it in a card*. How much you want to send is really up to you — think about how well you know the couple, how much you can afford, and so on. If you’re attending with one or more guests, you may want to bump up the amount a bit. But again, do what you’re comfortable with.
*Note from Rachel: At our wedding, my husband and I received a check in a Duck Dynasty card that said, “Every once in a while, a bad idea will pay off!” on the outside and “Good luck with the deflowering!” (handwritten) on the inside, and had a bunch of cash in a plain white business envelope with our names written on it in Sharpie. We found both of these delightful. The bottom line: Know your audience.
15. They don’t have a registry at all; what do I do?
Write a check .
16. I’m going to just send the gift in the mail. When should I do that?
Sending the gift is a great idea. Yes, a lot of weddings have gift tables, and you certainly can bring your present, but sending is easier because 1) you don’t have to schlep it to the venue, 2) the couple doesn’t then have to schlep it home, and 3) online registries make it ridiculously easy to have it mailed to the couple’s home.
As for when to send it, just try to do it sometime — anytime — before their wedding. Traditional etiquette says you have until the couple’s first anniversary to send the gift, and while that’s true, in our experience, people tend to feel weird about doing that and then panic and then don’t send anything at all. So might as well get on it!
17. Times are tough. Do I *have* to give a gift?
Hey, you know, sometimes it just…can’t happen. No, you don’t have to give a gift. But you should definitely bring a card. If you really care about the person getting married (like if you’re in the wedding party), take the time to write them a heartfelt letter. No ifs, ands, or buts.
18. But sometimes I read those viral stories about couples who flip out on people who don’t give a gift…
OK, but why are you friends with the kind of person who would do that?
19. What about all those pre-wedding parties? Do I have to attend them? And give gifts for those, too?
Between the engagement party, bridal shower, bachelorette/bachelor party, and rehearsal dinner, there are a lot of potential chances to celebrate with the happy couple. You are, as a guest, not obligated to attend all, or even any, of these. (Though if you’re in the wedding, you’re obligated to go to the rehearsal unless you make other arrangements with the couple way in advance.) Remember, though, that only a select group of close friends and family are usually invited to these things, so you should feel honored to be included. But you can still opt out if necessary. And like the wedding itself, you should always RSVP in a timely manner when an RSVP is requested!
OK, let’s talk about gifts:
Engagement party: If you choose to go the engagement party, you do not need to give a gift. It’s not customary or expected, though if you want to, no one will complain.
Wedding shower: If you go to a shower, then yeah, definitely consider getting a gift. Picking one from the registry is always a great idea. At most showers, a big part of the event is watching the bride (or groom) unwrap presents, and while it probably won’t be obvious that you didn’t bring one, we thought you might want the heads-up. Again, going in on something with a friend or giving a small but thoughtful gift is always a great option. And if you can’t, you can’t.
Bachelor/bachelorette party: Some of these are shower hybrids, where attendees are asked to bring lingerie or alcohol, for example, to go with the theme and activity. If you aren’t given this kind of instruction, then there’s no need to bring a gift.
Rehearsal dinner: Another event where your presence is your present!
20. Yeah, I don’t know if I can even go to the bridal shower.
Not a problem! Just, you know, RSVP the way you would to a wedding. You don’t need to send a present if you don’t go, but it’s totally cool to send one if you want to.
21. Wait, shit — there’s a dress code on this invitation and I have no idea what it means. Halp!
Oh, we feel you. Dress codes are confusing AF, and no one wants to look like the jerk who didn’t pay attention to the invitation. A quick rundown on all types of dress codes:
Black tie: Tuxedoes, long gowns, and formal cocktail dresses.
Black tie optional or formal: The same as above, but you can swap a tuxedo for a nice, dark suit, and a long dress for a simpler dress with ~fancy~ accessories.
Cocktail attire (sometimes called semi-formal): Dark suits and party dresses for all! (Or, if you’re a woman who hates wearing skirts/dresses, you can wear dress pants and a nice top.) Note: If no dress code is specified, consider this the default.
Festive attire: This is generally used for holiday-season weddings, and it indicates that you should wear something sparkly, red, velvet, or all of the above. Or just wear something two steps up from what you’d wear ordinarily.
Dressy casual: This is an invitation to have fun with color! Wear a cool tie, pick some fun, bright accessories; either way, definitely dress like you’re ready to party.
Casual: Basically just don’t wear Adidas slides, k?
22. Real talk: Is it really uncool to wear white?
Just don’t do it. Most wedding “traditions” are relics of the past these days, but this one appears to be hanging on tight. Even though it’s unlikely that anyone will mistake you for the bride, your wearing white could be distracting — because other guests are going to be doing a double-take and wondering why you didn’t get the memo and choose from one of the many other lovely colors available to you. Also: If your dress is light gray, cream, or some other kind of iridescent metallic, double- and triple-check that it doesn’t look white to a passing eye.
Also, also, also: Don’t wear a white dress to the engagement party, bridal shower, or rehearsal dinner. In this case, you could literally end up wearing the same outfit as the bride and that’s just weird.
23. Fair enough. May I pretty please wear black?
Yep! It’s totally fine to wear black, and not just to a black-tie wedding. “People” used to say that wearing black looked more funereal than celebratory, but let’s be real, black constitutes many people’s entire wardrobes, and that’s fine. Tons of festive, classy outfits come in black, and so long as it doesn’t look too stuffy or off-tone for the event, then go for it.
24. I feel like weddings never start on time. Is it OK to show up a few minutes late?
No. Please, no. In fact, give yourself 10 more minutes to get to the ceremony than you think you need. (Kind of a good life rule to live by, too.)
25. What’s the deal with all this “no phones” stuff, anyway?
We’ve become trained to instinctively Snapchat, Instagram, tweet, or post to Facebook everything from what we had for breakfast to our last good burp, so it’s only natural to want to record every second of a wedding and basically watch it all through your phone, not your eyes. And yeah, lots of couples encourage posting candid pics with hashtags and custom Snapchat filters, but! If they have any kind of signage asking you to put down (or in some cases, turn in) your phone during the ceremony, yes, you must respect that. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to just slide it into your pocket or bag during the ceremony even if they don’t seem to mind, because it definitely might be a nuisance to the photographer.
Also, if you’re a bridesmaid or some kind of honored guest who gets to see the bride before the ceremony, DEFINITELY don’t post any photos of her in her dress before her spouse gets to see it. Be cool, guys.
26. Crap, do I need to write a speech?
Good news! Unless you’re the maid of honor, best man, father of the bride, or were specifically asked to give a speech, you’re not expected to (and shouldn’t, TBH) give a toast. Some couples invite all guests to stand up and say some words if they want to, but that’s an exception to the rule.
27. After all of this, I need a drink. How drunk can I get at a wedding, really?
The good thing is, many weddings have an open bar, so you’re free to get pretty drunk. It’s a celebration! If you’re worried you may start teetering too close to the edge of serenading the couple or crying anything other than happy tears, though, please…don’t.
Oh, and tip your bartender. Some are instructed by the venue/catering company not to accept tips*, but it’s a good idea to try to thank them for their service!
*Reason #238273 all dresses should have pockets.
28. OMG CAN I FUCKING LIVE?
IDK, TBH. Some of you surely gasped “I WOULD NEVER!” while reading this. Yes, *you’d* never attend a wedding without giving a gift that would cover the cost of your plate. We can’t all come from money! But we’re all — people planning weddings included — trying our best to walk the line between making ourselves and everyone else happy. When in doubt, just remember to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. After all, most guests will themselves get married some day, so it’s a good idea to start the karma feedback loop early.
So know your crowd, do your best to give others (couples, guests, etc.) the benefit of the doubt, and we just might make it through wedding season unscathed.