Whether you’re the one tying the knot or just attending as a guest, weddings come with a million and one questions, many of which can veer into sticky, awkward, potentially friendship-ruining territory. What should you do if you don’t want to be a bridesmaid? What if you RSVPed yes to a wedding, and now you can’t make it? As a bride, are you required to give everyone a plus-one? Do you have to send handwritten thank-you notes, and how long do you have to do it?
We talked to two pros—international etiquette expert Sharon Schweitzer, author and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide, and Michael Cerbelli, CEO and president of New York City wedding and event planning firm Cerbelli Creative, who worked on Billy Joel and Sir Paul McCartney’s weddings—to get their insight on the most fraught and sensitive wedding-related situations.
Here’s how the experts suggest you handle the 20 most confusing wedding-etiquette scenarios for wedding guests and brides.
If You’re a Guest
What should you do if a bride asks you to be a bridesmaid and you don’t want to?
You can say no. “If you can’t accept an offer, whether it’s cost, issues with the friendship, or whatever, sit her down in person—taking her to lunch wouldn’t hurt—and express your gratitude for the invitation,” says Schweitzer. “Let her know that you understand the magnitude of the request, but gracefully decline and offer to help in other ways—you can run the photo album at the wedding, or create a slideshow for the reception. That will give you less of a work and time commitment overall, but also demonstrate your willingness to be involved.” The perfect compromise.
If you can’t attend a friend’s wedding for personal reasons, how do you tell her without offending her?
“The American Express Savings and Spending Tracker discovered that the average millennial guest spends $893 per wedding they attend,” says Schweitzer. “This includes travel, clothes, gifts and more. Some weddings just aren’t fiscally possible. This does not make you a bad friend or a bad person.” () When breaking this news, Schweitzer suggests expressing honesty and disappointment, and offering an alternative way to celebrate. For example, suggest a spa day together, taking her and her fiancé to a nice dinner, a ski day, or a night out. “It may be a bit of a splurge, but it’s much less than a plane ticket,” she adds.
How should you deal with financial constraints as a bridesmaid?
Be up front with the bride about your budget limitations before accepting your duties as a bridesmaid, if possible. “You know your friend—if she has champagne tastes, and you know that about her, face the facts at the beginning,” says Cerbelli. “If you can’t afford it, say it. All you’re going to do is complain and stress if you don’t. And if you do accept, you’re saying yes to the parameters that come with it.” It’s the bride’s day, says Cerbelli, and if they want that kind of day and want you, you guys have to talk it out. Some brides may offer to pay for some of the higher expenses if she really wants you there; otherwise, at least she has a heads-up that you may not make it to every lavish wedding event.
What if you RSVPed yes and later realize you can’t attend a wedding?
“Life happens, as much as we hate to admit it,” says Schweitzer. “When it interferes with your wedding attendee plans, fully express the regretful reason for your RSVP change to the bride and groom. It’s imperative to communicate how much the wedding means to you and how devastated you are to miss it. Still send a wedding gift even if you cannot attend. Make sure you set aside time to celebrate her and her happiness at a later date.”
Any tips for what to do with plus-ones who don’t know many people (especially if you’re involved in the wedding party)?
Make sure they know that they’ll be flying solo for much of the wedding, so they can mentally prepare, if nothing else. “Explain to them up front,” says Cerbelli. “So many people get there and think it’s a romantic night or weekend together, and then it becomes someone mopping all night. Try to introduce them to people before you disappear, have a friend or relative be their buddy, and let them know that you can’t wait to spend time with them and share a dance and drink together just the two of you later on.”
What if you get an invite and aren’t sure whether or not it includes a plus-one?
“The biggest wedding guest faux pas a person can make is bringing someone who wasn’t invited,” says Schweitzer. “The general wedding etiquette rule of thumb is that if the invite does not extend a plus-one, it was for a good reason—budget, venue size, whatever—and you are invited to attend the nuptials solo.” But if you’re genuinely wondering whether a mistake was made (if, for instance, the bride mentioned your S.O. would be invited beforehand) politely ask for clarification. “Stress that you don’t want to skew the plans, you just weren’t sure from the invitation and wanted to clarify,” says Schweitzer.
What should you do if you need to leave a wedding early?
Try not to leave before the ceremony is over or during the cake-cutting celebration, which is considered rude, according to Schweitzer. “However, if you are ill or a family emergency arises, be sure to remove yourself without drawing attention away from the bride and groom,” she says. “Apologize as soon as you can, and make sure to add a tidbit about the luxurious lily table decorations or decadent dessert macaroons. They will know that you were there the whole time, and you noticed and appreciated the intricate details they likely put in a lot of effort to have.”
Should you always say good-bye to the bride and groom in person?
“When it comes to wedding departures, good-byes and gratitude are proper etiquette for every wedding guest,” says Schweitzer. If the couple is tearing up the dance floor or it’s a huge event and you can’t access them to let them know you’re leaving, leave at an appropriate time (after the cutting of the cake, per Schweitzer). “And send a follow-up email, text, or call to express your appreciation for the wonderful wedding you were grateful to attend and apologize for the lack of an in-person farewell.” No Irish exits!
What should you do if a bride asks you to give a speech, but you’re uncomfortable with public speaking?
“The easiest strategy is to turn your back to the room and face only the bride and groom,” says Cerbelli. “Talk just to them, since the speech is for them. You don’t need to be Jerry Seinfeld; just say something from the heart.” And if you still really can’t do it, tell them ASAP, says Cerbelli. “Say you’re honored, but you’re not a public speaker. Write a note and ask a friend to read it—it’s adorable!”
What should you do if your ex is in the same wedding party as you?
Even if you didn’t leave things on good terms, don’t bring your beef into the wedding. “Your friend’s wedding day is not about you and your ex,” says Schweitzer. “The best way to get through it is to communicate with your ex beforehand and come up with a strategy for the wedding, whether it’s communicating as minimally as possible or not at all. Put your friends first.” If being in the wedding party together will cause too much of an issue for you (and for the couple), both of you should decline from being in the wedding party. Your history should not ruin the big day for anyone.
If You’re a Bride
What should you do if your fiancé wants to invite his ex?
It’s worth fighting for if you’re uncomfortable with anyone that your S.O. wants to invite. “This day is about the both of you and your love. If an ex, or any other guest, is going to detract from that focus, they should not be there,” says Schweitzer. “Discuss each guest during the planning process, and make a decision that’s best for you both as a couple. Don’t ‘ex-tend’ an invitation where you needn’t.” See what she did there?
How can you diplomatically mediate among family members involved in planning?
Everyone wants to help you plan your special day, and it’s common for boundaries to become an issue, says Schweitzer. “Using a third party such as your wedding planner or maid of honor can help. This makes the delegation of tasks less personal, as the point of contact will not be as directly involved with the family.” Another option: Create a spreadsheet or website for planning and tasks, along with deadlines and follow-up from family members. This can keep your planning process smooth and clear, as everyone knows their specific role (not to mention hopefully cut down on constant group text chains). “Just be sure to thank family members for their participation, so they feel included, needed, and helpful,” she says.
How should you handle it if someone gets over-involved or controlling about decisions?
When dealing with overbearing people in the wedding planning process, remember the three Hs, says Schweitzer. “That’s Honor, Honesty, and Humor. Honor the person’s feelings and their genuine intention to help, but be honest with them about boundaries you would like to set and parts of your wedding you cannot compromise on. Implement humor when all else fails. It’s much easier to laugh through these sticky situations than let them get you down.”
Any tips for how to figure out who is paying for what?
Decisions start with you and your fiancé, says Schweitzer. “Figure this out before the wedding planning begins. Decide what is possible between you both, and where you might need or want to ask for assistance,” she suggests. “Once the two of you are on the same page, sit down with both sides of your family—together or apart, depending on the dynamic between you all—and explain what you can cover and what you may need help with. Ask them what they would like to contribute and make a plan that everyone agrees to before delving into planning.”
How do you thank someone who has paid for part of your wedding?
“For many brides, without parents or in-laws, the wedding of your dreams may have remained a fantasy,” says Schweitzer. “Although you may never be able to repay them with money, expressing your gratitude and making a personalized gift for them using photos from the wedding will help them understand just how much their contribution meant to you.”
What is the latest that it’s socially acceptable to send thank-you notes?
It’s understandable that the postceremony craziness of a honeymoon, moving into a new place, and adjusting to married life takes time. “Wedding protocol states that the acceptable window for thank-you notes is three months,” says Schweitzer. “Your guests know you’re busy, but want to know how much you are loving your new life and the wedding presents they took the time to pick out. Find time to express your gratitude for the generosity you’ve received during the wedding process.”
Is it OK to send digital or typed thank you notes?
It’s not ideal, per Schweitzer. “Nothing expresses gratitude like a handwritten card. The ink on the paper shows that you put everything aside to focus on writing this one letter for this one special person,” she says. “When it comes to thank-you notes, handwritten is the only classy way to go.”
What should you do if you feel that a friend is falling down on the job of bridesmaid or maid of honor?
“Check in with someone who’s not the friend, but who knows you well—like your fiancé or another close friend—about whether you appear to be unreasonable or overly sensitive at this time,” says Schweitzer. Those feelings are not at all uncommon during this time! If you still feel your bridal attendant is lacking in the friend department, talk to her. “Set aside some time to let your friend know how you’re feeling, and find out where she is coming from. Maybe there is a reason she’s not behaving as interested or excited as you thought she would—be understanding of what’s going on in her life as well.”
How important is it to talk to everyone who attends your wedding?
If it’s a large event, there’s less pressure to do this—but you should still try. “It can be difficult if there are a few hundred guests,” says Cerbelli. “But it is always nice to greet as many people as you can, or at least make a small announcement thanking everyone for coming to your wedding.”
What’s the etiquette on inviting plus-ones? Is it at the bride’s discretion, or should everyone who is married or in an LTR get a plus-one?
“The budget generally dictates plus-one etiquette,” says Schweitzer. “In some cases, the budget will not accommodate extra guests and simply nothing can be done about it. As there are so many protocol perspectives when it comes to plus-ones, pick the model that works for you. If you can accommodate each guest to bring a significant other, congratulations! If not, don’t feel like you are violating the world of wedding etiquette. Be clear in your invitations and invite the people you want to share your special day with. It’s your wedding; remember that.”
Originally published June 2016. Updated September 2017.