A Guide To Modern Wedding Etiquette And Customs
If Four Weddings and a Funeral taught us anything, it is that a day spent celebrating marriage can be filled with love, happiness, romance and… the very real and present danger of offending someone.
From pacifying the great aunt who assumes she will be invited to dinner and dancing, to making a seating plan that includes your divorced parents, your best friend’s latest fling and the groom’s badly behaved nephew, wedding planning is a minefield. Even more so once you throw in modern add-ons such as destination weddings, saucy hashtags and party favours.
When it comes to etiquette, there is no greater source than Debrett’s—an authority on how to behave in polite society since 1769. Founded in London (where else?), it has spent two and a half centuries providing the people of the UK with invaluable advice. So we asked Jo Bryant, a long-term Debrett’s contributor and the editor of its recent wedding’s guide, for advice.
“I find that brides and grooms mostly struggle when they’re pleasing too many people at once,” she says on the phone from London. “And that’s why, in the planning stages, it’s essential to be as clear as possible. Firstly with yourself and your fiancé—work out, alone, what exactly it is that you want. And then bring in your parents and see what their vision is. That’s when the art of compromise comes in.”
Bryant believes that the fatal mistake is being too dogmatic. Whether you’re a bride determined to get married on a distant island, a groom who wants to invite everyone he ever had a beer with or a mother-in-law wanting to recreate every family tradition, the best possible move you can make is to be flexible.
“It’s essential,” she says. “When it comes to wedding planning, we all get caught up in what we want, and while of course you need to be happy, being headstrong and refusing to compromise will lead to a very rocky ride for everyone involved. Be kind to yourself and remember you’re planning an enormous event and spending a huge amount—don’t underestimate the importance of making sure people are getting along and how much happier that will make you on the big day than having the exact colour scheme you want.”
The guest list
The guest list is famously one of the easiest ways to cause offence. Are the rules changing? Once it was “No ring, no bring”—but is that archaic in 2019, when people live together long before marriage? And now that couples are marrying later and paying for more of the wedding themselves, can they overrule parents who want to invite a second cousin when there’s no space for their college friends?
“Well, firstly you need to make sure you prioritise VIPs, the wedding party and close family, then good friends,” says Bryant. “If people haven’t been with partners very long, then you really don’t need to invite them—just tell your friend that they can’t bring their latest squeeze. These days you should have an engaged, married or live together rule—although it is very important to have that conversation with your friend before the invitation falls through the letterbox with just one name on it.”
She advises a similar approach to family members you don’t feel need to be there or friends who you would love to invite but simply can’t squeeze on the list. “Tell your parents why having a good school friend there would mean so much more to you than an aunt you rarely see, and call up your friends and explain that you’ve chosen to have a small wedding for practical reasons, but that they still mean a lot to you. And if your parents are divorced, speak to them separately about how important it is for you to have a happy day, and then seat them as far apart from each other as possible, but both at the top table, and pray for the best.”
See also: 5 Ways To Entertain Guests At Your Wedding
These days, we have so much more to deal with than a complicated guest list: social media rears its head from the day you get engaged. It might be hard to keep the good news to yourself, but Bryant urges people to phone or meet up with family and good friends before the ring photo hits social media. “It should go: parents first, in person if you can, followed by siblings and grandparents,” she says. “From there, you’ll probably want to call your closest friends.” Only after that can the diamond-encrusted selfie be unleashed.
Then, on the day itself, you need to work out if you want to set Instagram alight with the dazzling image of you in a dress, or if you’d rather control the social media posts yourself. “Some people love the social media element and some people don’t,” says Bryant. “It’s completely up to you, but you need to work that out on your own. If so, great: send out a funny hashtag on the invitation. If not, you need to be upfront and ask people not to post until after the day.”
Planning a destination wedding
One way you’re going to guarantee your big day gets splashed across Instagram is by organising a destination wedding. Whether it’s a beach ceremony in Bali, a food fest in Tuscany or a Parisian ball, a wedding away from your hometown makes things gloriously glamorous but also a lot more complicated. We say: get yourself the best wedding planner money can buy if you’re marrying anywhere other than where you live.
“Another factor to consider with a destination wedding is the people who are coming—and accepting the fact that not everyone you love will probably be able to be there,” says Bryant. “If you’re planning the event somewhere a long way from where you live, give them plenty of notice, don’t pressurise them into coming and have a secondary celebration at home for all the people who couldn’t make it.”
Once they’re there, you’ll need to arrange more events than you would have done at home, where it’s fine to have just one big party—events that will allow the guests to mingle with one another and find out more about the destination. “If people have made the effort to fly somewhere, they’ll probably expect drinks or dinner the night before the wedding and a brunch the day after the wedding,” says Bryant. “You’ll also need to research guest houses and hotels they can stay at around the big day—and if they’re flying a long way, try and plan some fun days out in the lead-up to the wedding. Even if you can’t attend yourself, it’s a great way for your guests to get to know each other.”
Ultimately, planning a wedding is hard—so give yourself a pat on the back for even doing it, and make sure you’re clear, calm and level-headed at every stage. That way, not much can go wrong. Unless you’re marrying Hugh Grant, that is…
See also: 3 Luxury Hotels For An Unforgettable Honeymoon
Here are some useful modern wedding etiquette tips for the couples planning their big day, according to Jo Byrant:
1/5 Don't have a cash bar
If you’re tempted to blow your budget on party favours and expensive table settings, and get your guests to pay for drinks… just don’t. “People won’t remember a monogrammed napkin, but they will remember having to pay for a glass of wine,” says Bryant.
2/5 Don’t forget to brief the wedding party
From telling your bridesmaids exactly what kind of hen party you want to talking to the groomsmen about their duties before the big day, briefing the wedding party succinctly will ensure everything runs a lot more smoothly.
3/5 Don’t have a singles’ table
Instead of haphazardly putting all of your single friends at the same table—which can feel like a forced blind date, especially if they don’t have anything in common—seat any single friends just like the rest of your guests: based on whether or not they’ll get along.
4/5 Don’t forget to speak to all your guests
While a formal receiving line feels very old-fashioned, it’s still essential to say hello to everyone who made the effort to come to your wedding. Share a hug and a quick chat during cocktail hour, and if there’s time over dessert, pop over to a few tables to catch up.
5/5 Don’t wait a year to send a thank-you letter
Not only is it impolite to wait a year to send a note, it’s also a lot harder to remember what they gave you and include fun details of the day. Be strict with yourself: keep a running list of who sent you what, and write to them within a week or two. This rule applies to both engagement and wedding gifts.