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A common sense guide to being the perfect wedding guest
Help make their big day perfect in every way
 
The best guest happily partakes in the evenings events and traditions.
The best guest happily partakes in the evenings events and traditions. (iStock)

Remember the opening montage from 2005's Wedding Crashers? In which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan joyfully crash a dizzyingly diverse array of weddings and receptions? Take away the fact that Wilson and Vaughan's characters are uninvited — and that their somewhat skeezy objective is to bed an equally diverse array of bridesmaids — and you actually get a glimpse of something noteworthy.

Long before the camera cuts to the actors tumbling into the sheets with the women they have wooed, we see Wilson and Vaughan respectfully attending ceremonies, chatting up elderly grandmothers, entertaining the kids, and generally being attentive and appropriately exuberant. This is why they get away with being crashers; these bad boys make the event more enjoyable for everyone. Now that wedding season is fully upon us, it might not be a bad idea for those of us who plan to be legitimate wedding guests to brush up on the basics of wedding etiquette and behavior.

Step 1: Répondez vous s'il vous plait.

For those of us who don't speak French, this phrase — commonly abbreviated to "R.S.V.P," translates to "Respond, if you please." The French are too polite in this regard, in my humble opinion. I'd rather see American wedding invitations state something less ambiguous, in English, like "Get back to us as soon as humanly possible to let us know if you're going to attend, because planning a wedding is enough of a logistical and expensive nightmare without having to track you down at the last minute."

But since abbreviating this probably wouldn't fit on most invitations, it is up to you, gentle guest, to do the right thing. Whether you return the enclosure card, log on to the wedding website, or just pick up the phone and call — respond. In a timely manner. And only for those indicated on the envelope of the invitation. A shocking number of recent brides and grooms interviewed for this article reported that invitees completely ignored their wishes and brought additional friends and family members — including, in one case, some very out-of-place children — to the event. Don't be those people. They live on in family lore as selfish and inconsiderate.

Step 2: Give with a generous heart.

If you are not attending a wedding to which you've been invited, you have the choice to either give a gift or simply send a note of well-wishes. If you do plan to attend, you absolutely must honor the couple with a gift. This may or may not come from their registry (although why not get your friends something they actually want and need?), but you should definitely have the gift you choose sent to either the bride, groom, or couple in advance of the big day. Bringing gifts to the wedding itself is passé, and extra objects create a big headache for your friends on the one day they don't need additional stress.

Give according to your budget. Be as generous as you can — after all, the idea is to honor what should be a once-in-a-lifetime rite of passage — but if you cannot afford much, be creative. Offer the couple a certificate for the use of your time and talents in some way that might be helpful to them as they start their new lives together. Whether this is the creation of a garden or the making of a fine meal, your willingness to share what do have tells your friends you appreciate the honor of being invited to their wedding.

Step 3: Dress appropriately — for the season and the occasion

Take your wardrobe cues from the season and time of day of the wedding in question. A summer morning ceremony followed by a luncheon reception might call for a modest sundress or seersucker suit; a fall evening event might have you breaking out a cocktail dress and a wrap or your black tie. Weddings these days are dramatically different from the one-size-fits all formal events of yesteryear; the invitation should make it clear if you're going to be barefoot on the beach or donning full morning dress.

If you still find yourself sartorially challenged, ask the advice of someone associated with the event, such as the matron of honor, best man, or an especially involved parent.

A few "don'ts:"

Avoid white. Many brides feel that they should be the only ones wearing that particular color on such a special occasion, so why risk offense?

If your attire could even possibly be described as "sexy," put it back in the closet. A wedding is not the appropriate place to share the results of your recent breast augmentation or your new tribal tattoo with everyone you know, plus a bunch of strangers. That's what nightclubs are for.

Step 4: Be on time. Be respectful.

Plan to arrive at the ceremony site at least 30 minutes in advance of the time indicated on the invitation. Make provisions for traffic and parking. If something completely unexpected comes up and you are late, wait someplace outside the ceremony and slip in quietly once the speaking begins.

If the ceremony is a religious one, you need not participate in the rituals, but do be respectful and observant of the times when others stand, sit, or kneel. Faith is optional; good manners are not.

Mobile devices must remain on silent and in pockets and handbags throughout the ceremony. Phones are distracting, even when not ringing, buzzing, and flashing like so many mini-slot machines. If you cannot be detached from yours even for a short while, do everyone else a favor and just stay home. But what about pictures? You ask. Forget about them. That is why people hire professional photographers. Guests snapping pictures, whether with phones or cameras, can mar even the most beautiful of ceremonies, so please refrain.

Step 5: The reception is not just a party.

Ceremony's over! Your friends are married, so let the fun begin!

…not so fast.

The most common complaint from brides and grooms related to their wedding guests was behavior at the reception. Guests who bypassed the receiving line and headed straight for the bar. Guests who refused to mingle, choosing instead to sit on the sidelines, looking miserable. Even guests who (and I cringe as I type this) changed the place cards around on the formally arranged tables.

A wedding reception is not just another party, and it's not all about you. In fact, it is not even a little bit about you. A wedding reception is the culminating event on a day that the wedding couple have been planning for a long, long time, so be exceptionally thoughtful of them as you maneuver your way around the reception.

Take the time to go through the receiving line — it might be the only time you actually get to speak to the bride(s) and/or groom(s). Receiving line etiquette calls for a couple of words of greeting, thanks, and/or congratulations with each person with whom you come face-to-face; if appropriate, offer a hug or a quick kiss on the cheek. Otherwise, a handshake will do. Help keep things moving by not holding up the line with too much reminiscing.

Make the effort to mingle with other guests. Try to meet at least a handful of new people. Tempting as it is to cluster with those you already know, remember that weddings usually bring in far-flung relatives and others who may not have a wide circle of acquaintance at the reception. The wedding couple will notice and be grateful for helping them make all their guests feel included and welcome.

If seating is formal, sit where you are assigned. Don't kvetch at your placement; seating guests is a challenging task, and your friends will have made an effort to place you with people you will enjoy. Even if they missed the mark, you will gain nothing by whining. Decide to be gracious, enjoy the toasts (don't make one unless you've been invited), and look ahead to the less formal part of the evening…

…which usually entails dancing and drinking. By all means, if you enjoy these things, partake! Just don't overindulge. Unfortunately, free-flowing champagne and an awesome 80's cover band can cause some people to forget themselves — and that can ruin the reception for everyone else, including the wedding couple. Friendships have soured over drunken displays at wedding receptions, and I can speak from personal experience that the sight of Aunt Cougar freaking on a reluctant and mortified groomsmen will have tongues wagging for months, if not years, afterward.

We live in a casual and relatively disconnected world. Weddings are one of the few liminal rituals that almost all modern cultures still celebrate. They help us step out of time and, through ceremony and celebration, honor those things like love and family that connect us as human beings. Enjoy your experience as a wedding guest in this spirit, and your memories will be good and sustaining ones.

 
Leslie Turnbull
Leslie Turnbull is a Harvard-educated anthropologist with over 20 years' experience as a development officer and consultant. She cares for three children, two dogs, and one husband. When not sticking her nose into other peoples' business, she enjoys surfing, cooking, and writing (often bad) poetry.

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