No, Really, That’s Not Etiquette

Over and over again on bridal fora, wedding reality shows, and in private conversation with soon-to-be-brides I’ve heard women talk about how they won’t be ‘doing all that etiquette stuff’ or they won’t allow etiquette to force them into doing things that make them uncomfortable. What boggles my mind most of the time is that the things they’re talking about aren’t in any way required by etiquette. In fact, they are often the antithesis of proper etiquette.

In a recent article at discussing weddings, Judith Martin (aka: Miss Manners) had this to say about the subject:

I did a wedding book some years ago and I am revising it because there have been all kinds of horrible new ideas that have sprung up since I first wrote it. And people have come to believe a lot of misinformation that they are getting from those who have a financial interest in the situation, to the point where they’re pressured to do things that are, again, vulgar and greedy.

Miss Manners, I look forward to seeing your new volume on the subject. In the meantime, here are a few pernicious wedding ‘etiquette’ myths along with the real skinny.

1: Guests must ‘cover their plate’ with the price of their wedding gift. I have no idea where this one started, but I want it to stop right now. People who claim this as etiquette are – at best – sorely misinformed. It’s incorrect on at least three different fronts. For one, the guest is unlikely to know how much the wedding cost to throw, and it would be the height of rudeness to attempt to find out. How, then, is the guest to know how much to give? For another, it is an offence against the most basic principals of hospitality to make a guest feel uncomfortable for lacking the financial means to give you what you spent on them. Thirdly, and possibly the most important, a wedding is not a fundraiser.

In point of fact, a wedding gift is not actually required by etiquette at all. A guest who choses to do so is well within his/her rights to send nothing more than a congratulatory note filled with good wishes.

2: It’s rude to wear red to a wedding. When did this one even come into being? I’ve read etiquette manuals cover to cover dating from the Georgian era to ones published just a few years ago and the first time I heard this one was about two years ago on a wedding forum where everyone agreed that this has always been the rule. It hasn’t. It still isn’t. From ‘A Lady of Distinction’ writing in 1811 to modern editions of Miss Manners et al, I have never once seen this ‘rule’ in a proper etiquette guide. It’s fine to wear red…or purple…or bright pink, or whatever color you look good and feel festive in. The only absolute no-no today is unrelieved white, particularly if it’s lacy. I’m still a holdout against wearing black, but I’ve clearly lost that war.

Oh, and if someone does dare to wear a color the bride finds offensive for whatever reason, it is not okay for her to throw a hissey fit over it. The correct response is to blithely fail to notice the faux pas, assuming that the person in question was unaware of how it would be taken.

3: It’s rude of vegetarian couples not to serve meat, or teatotal couples not to serve alcohol. Actually, it’s very generous if vegetarians decide to accomodate their meat-eating guests or teatotallers offer an alcoholic option. It’s not rude of the bridal couple to base their choices primarily on their own tastes and/or moral choices. Etiquette does require offering party guests – including your reception guests – refreshments. In doing so, it’s always graceful to take into consideration the needs and tastes of said guests, but a wedding reception is not a restaurant. Guests cannot order off a menu designed to make everyone happy. And Uncle Frank won’t actually expire if he cannot have a steak and a shot of whiskey until the reception is over.

4: The garter toss requires stripper music and removal of the garter with the groom’s teeth from well up the bride’s thigh. Not even close. If anything, etiquette considers the garter toss somewhat distasteful. It is a tradition, but tradition does not etiquette make. The money dance is traditional in some cultures, as are mock kidnappings of the bride. Etiquette doesn’t like those traditions, either. But rest assured that Dame Etiquette has never, ever put any stamp of approval on stripper music and removal of the bride’s undergarments (however vestigally useful) with the groom’s teeth in front of the bride’s elderly relatives and quite possibly her employer. If you decide to do the toss, the way to make it (marginally) acceptable to etiquette is to keep the garter low on the bride’s leg, have the groom remove it with his hands – entirely sans stripper music – or simply have one to throw that was never on the bride’s leg at all…though that does rather ruin the intended symbolism of the gesture.

5: Etiquette requires lots of expensive extras like tablecloth overlays, floral centerpieces, unity candles, guest favors, and five days’ worth of scheduled parties surrounding the wedding. Actually, etiquette doesn’t require any of these things. Etiquette is not in the business of making people bankrupt. It is possible to be absolutely polite without spending huge amounts of money, and etiquette is simply the art of being polite. If you cannot afford favors or you dislike chair covers, there’s nothing at all rude about simply excising them from your celebration. There’s also nothing rude about wearing a gown you got at a consignment store, holding your wedding in your backyard, using grocery store flowers, choosing not to wear a white gown and veil, or failing to have a next day brunch for all the out of town guests.

If you are nervous about what etiquette actually requires of you, don’t listen to rumor. Head to your local bookstore or library and do your research by reading the actual experts. After all, you want to be polite, don’t you?

19 Responses to “No, Really, That’s Not Etiquette”

  1. KES says:

    I am continually frustrated by frantic messages I see on internet wedding boards, where troubled brides ask if they will be flogged if they fail to include XYZ at their reception. You know, those absolute essentials like a customized signature drink with an adorable name, a slideshow of pictures of the bride and groom, or other such ridiculousness. I don’t think any of those things are bad to have, necessarily, I just think it’s a shame that there are so many uninformed people out there who assume that these things are somehow socially mandated.

  2. Twistie says:

    It was really bizarre last night when I was writing this. Just as I got to the bit about red clothes not being impolite, an episode of Whose Wedding Is It, Anyway came on where there was a huge amount of drama over the fact that the groom’s mother had chosen a red dress to wear. Never mind the fact that she looked fabulous in it and it was of a level of formality entirely in keeping with the wedding, the bride was having freakout attacks and the wedding planner was even worse. She carefully staged a shaming session where all the women in the family tried on their dresses together in order to ‘subtly’ show the MOG that she needed to tone down her dress. That backfired in significant part because the MOG clearly hated nothing more than failing to stand out in a crowd.

    At least the bride chose the right attitude by wedding day. She decided there was nothing she could do, her new mother-in-law was going to look and feel great, and the most important thing was to let go of that issue and enjoy her own wedding. But up to that point the most important thing on everyone’s mind seemed to be how it might look in the photographs.

    There were no signature drinks, slide shows, or butterfly release at my wedding to Mr. Twistie. Somehow we not only managed not to break any etiquette rules by making these choices, we’ve just celebrated fifteen years of married bliss and our friends still say we had a great wedding.

    If you’ve got the money and like the extras, that’s great! Enjoy! It’s just scary how many people think that etiquette is about separating you from your money, which it isn’t.

  3. Jennie says:

    Wedding etiquette is when the bride and groom have a beautiful ceremony, surrounded by friends and family without bankrupting themselves or their family. Advertising has done a fabulous job of convincing immature women that if they don’t spend tons of cash on ridiculous touches that the wedding will be a failure. Wouldn’t it be better to spent the $50,000.00 on a substantial house down payment? I have been to weddings that cost $200,000.00 and weddings that cost $200.00. What matters is the joy of the couple and the sharing of love. All else is extraneous.

  4. Christine says:

    This was really interesting to read. I can’t believe a wedding planner would get so upset over the groom’s mother’s red dress. Shouldn’t wedding planners be familiar with etiquette?
    (By the way, it’s spelled teetotal)

  5. KES says:

    My mother is wearing a red dress at my wedding. It was my idea. 🙂

  6. Fillyjonk says:

    I actually tried desperately to get my mom to wear black for the wedding, since black is what she wears, but she wouldn’t do it. At least she got over her nonsensical notion that she had to wear a dress (I don’t think I’ve seen her in a dress since I was five years old).

    I can’t believe that people think any of the above are etiquette (but then, I avoid all wedding sites that aren’t explicitly offbeat and/or populated by Twistie). Words mean things, you guys! The definition of “etiquette” is mutually exclusive with the removal of underthings in front of your grandma!

  7. Melissa B. says:

    Number 3, I think, is part of an even bigger misconception about etiquette — that etiquette means the couple has to make everyone 100% happy. Usually, etiquette means putting your guests at ease, but it doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat and bow to the every whim of your guests. Sometimes, it’s completely in keeping with etiquette to say “no, we won’t be serving alcohol” or “no, there is no meat option, all of the catering will be vegetarian,” even if some of your guests wish it were otherwise. No matter how polite and etiquette-conscious you are, there is no way to make everyone happy!

  8. Wendy says:

    The idea behind Number 1 is so pervasive in society today. We’ve actually had several family members ask us if we “made back our money on the wedding” and “if we made a profit”. First of all, that’s nobody’s business! Second of all, I never expected or set out to! The couple should spend “per plate” what they can reasonably afford, regardless of what they expect from each guest. And, as stated above, as the wedding couple you should not “expect” anything but their congratulatory wishes. The amount “per plate” that most weddings cost is substantially more than I would ever spend on myself. As a guest, I give what I feel comfortable giving, and if the couple spent more than that on my meal, well that’s their choice.

    As far as the MOG wearing red, who cares? As long as she looks and feels beautiful, that should be all that matters!

  9. shoutz says:

    The minute you get more than five or so people in a room, someone’s not going to be happy about the food or the drink or the… whatever. I think etiquette asks that you try to accommodate people as much as you’re able, within your own financial, dietary, religious or other constraints! The part I always love is when a bride talks about how “obsessed” she is with etiquette, then tells everyone about all the things she’s decided to trash, anyway. Huh? Does not compute!

    My own mother-in-law elected to wear red to our wedding. (No, I wasn’t the bride on the show!) We were married just before Christmas. The idea was the mothers would wear darker Christmas-y colors – burgundy and forest green. My mother had wanted to wear burgundy, but mom-in-law said she’d found this perfect suit… so my mother went with forest green (and looked lovely). Come the day of the wedding, I had a good chuckle to myself at mom-in-law in bright – no two ways about it – RED. It didn’t ruin a thing – it just made her look like the attention seeker we’d always known she was. 🙂

  10. Nony Mouse says:

    I admit to an eye-roll over what my MIL wore to the wedding. For any reason you care to take: it was blue-jean denim, it wasn’t fitted well, it wasn’t in line with the formality of the event, and it wasn’t in the colors of my party, so it kinda clashed with her corsage. And, though I’d made sure she knew about the last two a couple of months in advance, she’d gone out and bought the outfit especially for the wedding right before hand. But an eye-roll was about the level of emotional expenditure I was willing to give it; there were more important things to be thinking about like, say, the people who were actually happy we were getting married.
    Many of my guests were in the ‘little black dress’ styles. Several people had asked before the wedding if I minded. I’d said, “The fun little black dress you’re looking for the perfect party to wear it to? Great! The long, somber thing with an old hat and black lace veil that make it look like you’re thinking of a funeral, not so much.” I don’t think anyone looking at our reception pics would be the least bit confused what the mood of the party was. But I guess I should be thankful my MIL’s rebellion was as mild as it was.

  11. Kudos to you, Nony Mouse, for focusing on all the people there enjoying your event instead of the one person who tried (in her own very mild way) to subvert it. I know plenty of people who would not have reacted so calmly to a jab like that! I’m picturing a denim jumper in my mind…and I think your MIL must have looked pretty silly next to all the people in their little black dresses.

  12. Mary says:

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that red was what people in mourning were supposed to wear to a wedding, so they wouldn’t look like they were expressing disapproval of the marriage by wearing black. That seems to imply that red is a perfectly correct color to wear for a wedding under traditional etiquette.

    I certainly didn’t presume to tell my MIL what to wear to my wedding, and she didn’t ask. She made a spectacularly bad decision, though, in terms of her own comfort. She wore a winter white wool pantsuit to our late morning April garden wedding. Most of the other women were in floral or pastel dresses or skirts and tops. By the end of lunch, it was over 80 degrees, and she had pinned her jacket and wasn’t wearing a shell under it, so she couldn’t remove it. She was miserable. I wasn’t pleased that she wore the same color I did, but I kept my mouth shut, other than to ask the caterer to turn on the air conditioning.

  13. Twistie says:

    Actually, Mary, while I’ve seen that written about red, I’ve never seen a proper citation for where the idea comes from. OTOH, Queen Victoria attended the weddings of most of her children in full widow’s weeds and her own wedding lace (Prince Albert had not yet died when Princess Victoria was married, and Princess Beatrice borrowed her mother’s wedding lace for her own gown), so the wearing of mourning to a happy event – provided one was in deep mourning – was perfectly acceptable. And most people did eventually go into what was called half-mourning, where they added in colors like grey, white, and certain shades of purple. Then after a while, they would leave off mourning entirely. Eternal mourning was pretty much a widow’s thing when it was done at all. Red never had anything to do with mourning for any purpose in any culture I’ve been made aware of. And the only problem with wearing mourning to a wedding was if one put it on specifically for that event.

    But red has never been rude for a wedding in any authoritative guide I’ve read, either. The only case I could think of would be a culture where red is the expected color for the bride to wear (such as a traditional Chinese or Hindu wedding)…but I don’t know for certain if it’s considered a bad thing even then.

    Oh dear. Your MIL must have been terrribly uncomfortable! It was gracious of you to try to see to her comfort when she had so thoroughly hosed herself. You definitely took the correct tack. Miss Manners would be proud of you.

  14. Dianasaur says:

    Amen Twistie! I got so sick of hearing all the things I needed to do to make my guests more comfortable. A few examples:

    No real flowers because of people (grandma) allergic to the scent. I was not giving in that one, it was an outdoor wedding so they weren’t trapped inside with the smell. Plus our flowers had a special meaning. No one had any problems (though I made the grandmother corsages from fake flowers for them).

    Need some alcohol or people won’t stay for the reception. Let them leave! The people who really cared about us would stay. Besides, it cost several hundred dollars more for the location if we served alcohol, and we didn’t want any repercussions of someone overdoing it.

    No dancing because it would make some relatives who think it’s a sin uncomfortable. Hah! There’s lots of dancing in the Bible, and I’ve been a professional company dancer for years. I even choreographed an awesome first dance for us. We had several areas for the reception and they could go to another one if they were uncomfortable.

  15. Twistie says:

    Dianasaur, it sounds like you did things perfectly politely. You gave allergic grandma faux flowers so they wouldn’t make her sneeze, had multiple areas so those uncomfortable with dancing had somewhere they could do…and I assume there were beverages available even if they were not alcoholic in nature. Had grandma’s allergies played up, I’m also sure you would have been gracious had she needed to leave early. But if there’s one thing you probably learned while planning your wedding, it’s that everyone has an opinion!

    Luckily for most bridal couples, the majority of the decisions tend to rest with them.

  16. Melissa B. says:

    Dianasaur, you’re a professional dancer and some people wanted you to forgo dancing at the reception?! That kinda blows my mind. I’m so glad you didn’t cave in. Personally speaking I’d be really bummed out if I went to the wedding of a friend who I knew was a great dancer, only to find out there’d be no first dance!

  17. La BellaDonna says:

    I’m gobsmacked, Dianasaur, at the people who seemed to think you should forego dancing at your own wedding. Way to utterly invalidate the way someone’s chosen to spend her professional life, folks!

    Let me repeat here: Etiquette is NOT a club for beating other people. The idea is NOT to sneak up on other people, surprising them with, “Ah-HA! UR DOIN IT RONG!” and belting them one. Etiquette really is just a way of trying to make it possible for the most people to get along as painlessly as possible.

    That said? I really do think for the female guests, a colour other than white or ivory should be chosen. Really. I’m sure there’s something else in the wardrobe that would be just as flattering as that ivory or white whatever. Something, say, in black. Or red. Or anything else.

    And if you are a mother of the bride, or mother of the groom, and you have not been explicitly instructed by the bride to wear white or ivory? For shame. You do know better, and we will all make fun of you remorselessly.

  18. Sydney says:

    When I married I made my own cake (a gorgeous three tiered affair with a fountain btw), and garnished it with beatiful ribbon and fresh flowers to make up for the fact that it wouldn’t have super embellished icing work. We found a florist who was low cost and high output and we didn’t have a sit down dinner, opting for hot and cold tables of h’orderves. We had a fabulous photographer who, 18 yrs ago, only cost $500 and gave us gorgeous photos. I invited 300 people figuring only half would come (because I got married in a sweet little very old episcopal chapel that only seated 160 folks – but more than half of my people were from out of state so I never thought they’d come). They all came. Every single last one of them. lol I felt so bad that half of my guests had to stand outside.

    Inside the reception hall, aside from floral arrangements I didn’t have much money and it was a church hall, in any event, so we bought silver and clear balloons, large beautiful ones, rented a helium tank, and filled several hundred of them up ourselves, attaching pretty ribbon to the bottoms so they filled the hall and with the lights turned down it really looked quite magical and not as tacky as you’d think. And since we let everyone bring their children, they had a blast running through all the hanging ribbons, grabbing them by the handsful and pulling the balloons down and watching them float up again, and people danced in a sea of floating ribbon, almost like New Years Eve. Oh and… we didn’t have the money for dj so we made tapes of all of OUR favorite music, our songs together, in advance and played those. We had champagne punch instead of champagne.

    It was nice, believe it or not. We were young and in love…

    It didn’t last, mind you. Our love I mean. But the wedding was sweet for two undergraduates on a budget.

    The only difficult thing was that I ended up doing a lot of work myself on and before my wedding day and I was exhausted. If I ever have it to do again, I am throwing a bunch of money at the Driskill Hotel in Austin and using it as my venue and letting them handle the entire thing. lol

  19. Sydney: That sounds absolutely lovely, though I can see how it would have tuckered you out!