How to Be the Best Wedding Guest: An Etiquette Guide

Here are 13 tips for gracefully navigating the wedding ceremony and reception.
guests toasting wedding guest etiquette at reception
LIZZIE RANDAZZO PHOTOGRAPHY,
The Knot Real Weddings
Esther Lee - Deputy Editor, The Knot
by
Esther Lee
Esther Lee - Deputy Editor, The Knot
Esther Lee
Deputy Editor
  • Esther is the Deputy Editor of The Knot. She currently leads all content on The Knot Wellness, focusing on financial, relationship, and mental wellbeing.
  • She oversees The Knot's travel vertical (honeymoons, destination weddings, bach parties), as well as overarching features and trends.
  • She proudly serves on the Advisory Council of VOW For Girls, focusing on ending the injustice of child marriage around the world.
Updated Nov 17, 2021

Believe it or not, there's so much more to attending a wedding than dressing up and partying the night away. Traditional wedding guest etiquette involves a scope of responsibilities, like submitting a response card by the deadline, preparing your own card and gift to congratulate the newlyweds, and gracefully navigating your way through the reception.

According to our internal data, one out of every two wedding guests strongly enjoys attending a wedding. (After all, what's not to appreciate in matters of love, libations and confections?) Read our pro suggestions for the very best wedding guest etiquette tips and how to simply be a standout, invited name on the seating chart.

RSVP on Time

Typically, wedding invitations are distributed about six to eight weeks prior to the date of the event. If it's a destination wedding, the timeline includes an additional buffer. Most guests will already have a sense of the date and location after the save-the-dates are distributed, but the invitation is the formal next step. Regardless of whether you can make it, the RSVP date isn't arbitrary. In order to work through the seating chart, headcounts for the caterer, and more, the couple has set the response deadline intentionally, making it one of the first rules for practicing gracious wedding guest etiquette.

Fill Out the RSVP Card Accurately

On this note, it's important to follow instructions when responding to an invitation. Some couples will include a paper RSVP card in their wedding invitation suite, while others will request guests respond digitally. According to The Knot data, the majority of younger guests (67% to be exact) in 2021 prefer to RSVP online.

If the couple has included a physical response card, guests should reply promptly. Often, this will involve filling in the blanks like [name here] "will" or "will not" attend. Occasionally, a formal invitation may exclude a printed response card. In such instances, the guest is to record their response on nice stationery. "[Your name] accepts, with pleasure, the invitation of [couple's names here] on [date here]." If you're unable to make the wedding, take the extra step to send the couple a warm and informal note.

Abide By Plus-One Invitation Etiquette

Reading the invitation is important, especially if there's confusion around whether your partner is invited to the wedding. Before you decide to extend a plus-one to your partner or friend, check the invitation wording to ensure it's the proper thing to do. On the invitation outer envelope, see if the couple has noted your name "and Guest" to reflect their wishes. Though seemingly obvious, some wedding guests believe they're able to add a significant other to the list without informing the couple, which is a faux pas. Only those addressed on the invitation have received a formal invitation, and keep in mind: it is one of the most important wedding guest etiquette rules to date.

Explore Their Wedding Website

The almighty wedding website is here to stay, which is why all guests should refer to this digital destination when sourcing information and planning their travel for a couple's wedding. Most wedding websites will detail the happy couple's love story and key information about the wedding. Details could include the suggested dress code, the wedding weekend timeline, accommodations (including hotel room blocks), directions to the venue and general wedding destination details. It's a resource, especially if you have unanswered questions—chances are, you'll find what you need on the wedding website.

Prepare a Wedding Gift

Another golden rule when considering standard wedding guest etiquette is to send a gift. Though traditional etiquette suggests guests have up to one year from the wedding date to send a gift to the happy couple, loved ones are encouraged to peruse and purchase off a couple's wedding registry before the nuptials. There are several reasons to consider shopping in advance. If the to-be-weds have gone through the trouble of requesting specific products, gift cards or experiences, there's a chance they'll be appreciative of any fulfilled gifts throughout the wedding planning process. Many wedding registries are often fulfilled in the days leading up to a wedding, so getting started sooner will allow you to select an option you especially adore.

The wedding gift should be sent to the address correlated to the couple's registry. You most certainly don't want to lug any stand mixers with you to the reception, plus it creates additional security and event storage concerns. Speaking of which: a monetary gift should always be neatly tucked into a congratulatory wedding card. If items are out of stock or the registry is completely fulfilled, prepare a handwritten and personalized message with the monetary amount.

Follow the Dress Code

In the world of wedding guest attire and fashion faux pas, several rules exist. For female guests, it's best to avoid wearing head-to-toe white unless instructed otherwise. Guests should also avoid wearing anything flashy or provocative, and they must be aware of specific dress codes for multicultural weddings.

Most wedding invitations or wedding websites will include a dress code, leaving it up to the recipient to interpret it with their own flair. The nature of the event is the first point to consider. Brunch weddings, for example, will often feature softer color palettes and floral patterns, while men will turn to lighter suits with crisp shirts and ties. Black-tie weddings or more formal affairs are accompanied by the most stringent guidelines for guests (tuxedos or darker suits for me; gowns or high-end cocktail attire for women).

When attending a wedding, guests should follow the suggested dress code and avoid wearing anything controversial. Seasonality also impacts dress codes (for example, avoid showing up to a winter wedding in a linen suit). Finally, guests should keep in mind the rules of, say, a religious sanctuary where shoulders might need to be covered. If you're ever in doubt about the wedding day dress code, simply ask the couple what they would like to see their guests wearing.

Arrive Early to the Wedding Ceremony

It is a big faux pas to be "fashionably late" for a wedding and most events, for that matter. One standout tip for wedding guest etiquette is to arrive early to the ceremony. That way, you can scope out the beautiful setting the couple has planned for months on end, and take a seat without huffing and puffing. Ideally, guests should schedule time to arrive 30 minutes before the invitation start time of the ceremony (expect to carve in extra time for larger wedding guest lists).

If you've arrived after the ceremony commences, slip into the back row or wait for the coordinator or usher to guide you to the seat. If the processional has started, wait until the bride reaches the altar. Then, you can discreetly make your way to a seat.

Attend Both the Ceremony and Reception

This might be obvious, but some guests feel that it's optional. Unless it's noted otherwise in the invitation, wedding guests should attend both the ceremony and the reception. Never consider ditching one for the other unless you're truly in a bind, and have disclosed this far in advance to the couple. After all, you're an honored guest who was hand-selected to witness the wedding day.

In the event of an emergency, call the wedding hosts immediately and inform them that you must cancel at the last minute; simply not showing up is another faux pas. This is key as the hosts are financially responsible for catering and reception costs per guest. Also—don't forget to send a gift and personalized message to the newlyweds.

Observe Other Guests

If you're attending a wedding that's outside of your standard tradition or customs, observe other guests by following the flow of a ceremony and reception. Typically, family members will lead the charge and react accordingly. (As in, if the front row rises and stands, so too will the rest of the guests). In multicultural weddings and religious ceremonies, the officiant will often explain the order of events or each step's significance will be noted within the program. As a guest, you're in no way required to participate in particular rituals.

Once the ceremony is completed and the couple shares their first kiss, remain in your seat. During the processional, the newlyweds and wedding party, followed by the family members, will typically file out of the wedding first.

Limit Tech Use

Staying connected in the Age of Technology is a gift, but there are key times to stow the phone away. Turn your cell phone to silent (and check that it's off) upon taking a seat at the ceremony. If you plan to take photos during the ceremony, ensure the flash is off as the couple's photographer only has a consolidated period to capture images. While there, guests should also hold off from responding to messages (as blue light from the phone can emit disruptions) and should limit cell phone use, especially if requested by the couple.

If the couple encourages the use of a hashtag on social media, lean into sharing content and show joyful moments from the day. As the newlyweds look back on the occasion, they'll especially appreciate seeing their nuptials through the lens of their beloved guests.

Be Gracious and Socialize Responsibly

Following the ceremony and a possible receiving line, cocktail hour is an opportunity to enjoy custom cocktails, savory hors d'oeuvres and the company of your fellow guests. Introduce yourself to those you don't know, especially as some folks may even be seated at your table. Sign the guest book during this time and share your card (often, hand it to the wedding planner if there isn't a designated dropoff spot). With any open bar situation, it's encouraged to pace yourself and hydrate throughout the evening. The last thing you'd want to worry about is having to make amends the next morning for ruffling feathers.

Respect the Seating Chart

The couple has done their due diligence with the seating arrangement and has taken into consideration, life stages, personalities and dynamics. Never, should a guest move place cards or rearrange the seating chart at their own whim. It is an extreme faux pas. Instead, check the seating chart and take a seat where you've been placed. Once other guests have made their way, introduce yourself with a brief overview of how you know the newlyweds. Be attentive to anyone who may feel out of place too. If, for any reason, you feel severe discomfort at your seat, turn to a planner or coordinator to discuss what they can do for you.

Be Present

One of the biggest wedding guest etiquette rules to follow is to be actively engaged while you're attending the event. Distractions may occur, but the happy couple has requested your presence; and quite literally, when translated, that means being present throughout the wedding ceremony and reception. Being an active participant at a wedding includes hitting the dance floor, admiring the first dance and cake cutting, greeting the couple and immediate family members, and, altogether, enjoying yourself as any wedding guest should.

At the end of the day, wedding guest etiquette involves respectfulness and gracious manners. The newlyweds have spent months (for some, years) preparing for their wedding day and you're simply there to celebrate their love and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

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