There is a HUGE difference between something that is a wedding “tradition” and something that is wedding “etiquette.” And yet, there seem to be many, many brides who treat the two terms as interchangeable.

Photo Credit: Saul Padua

Just so we’re not leaving this open to my interpretation of the facts, let’s review what Merriam-Webster says about it:

Tradition – the handing down of information, beliefs or customs from one generation to another (synonyms include custom, practice, convention, ritual observance, way, usage, habit, institution).

Etiquette – the conduct or procedure required by good breeding or prescribed by authority to be observed in social or official life (synonyms include protocol, manners, accepted behavior, rules of conduct, decorum, good form).

A wedding tradition is something that has been a wedding custom for a long time. Wedding etiquette refers to the socially-accepted rules of behavior for hosting, or attending, a wedding.

There are some brides and grooms who are married (pun intended) to a formal, traditional wedding plan that includes all the bells and whistles. They feel it’s important to stick with a traditional wedding party (same number of same-sex attendants on both sides, dressed the same, etc.) and to observe other expected practices, such as having the bride escorted down the aisle, assigning the exact seats at each table using escort cards and placecards, feeding each other cake while cameras flash around them, and tossing the bouquet to their single girlfriends at the end of the festivities.

If those things matter to you, that’s exactly what you should do.

Nowadays, there are more non-traditional couples out there planning weddings than traditional ones (I base that statement on my own experience with more than 500 different couples). Many brides and grooms have zero interest in worrying about whether they’ve covered their bases and included all the traditions guests might be expecting. They’re more focused on creating a wedding and reception that reflects their own taste and style, wedding traditions be damned. But that doesn’t mean they’re forgetting about following proper wedding etiquette as they plan a non-traditional big day.

Wedding etiquette is a completely different subject matter. Etiquette is the socially-acceptable way to behave in a situation. Etiquette applies to weddings, but it also applies in business, travel, and other social situations. In short, etiquette refers to appropriate manners. And “wedding etiquette,” specifically, defines good wedding manners. It has absolutely nothing to do with whether you’re observing antiquated traditions. Wediquette, as it’s known in the industry, is nothing more than socially-accepted manners that couples, and their guests, use as guidelines for giving or attending a wedding.

Place cards indicate where each guest should sit at a table; escort cards indicate at which table they are to be seated (Photo Credit: EP Anderson)

Why is etiquette important? Because it gives everybody – brides, grooms, and guests – some guidelines to follow about how to behave, and what is expected of them. Not everybody has the benefit of growing up in a household where etiquette is taught to them as part of everyday life. But very few brides wish to plan a wedding that doesn’t conform to anything their guests are expecting. If guests don’t understand what’s going on, they don’t know how to properly respond.

Let me make this even clearer – wedding etiquette lays out the expectations for everyone involved. Not every couple knows what is considered polite, or rude. But wedding etiquette demystifies much of the process so that there’s no confusion. That’s why any bridal chat group features lots of questions that begin with the words “What is the etiquette for…” They aren’t sure what to do about a step-grandmother at their wedding. Or how to seat unhappily divorced parents that cannot share a row. So they turn to time-honored wedding etiquette to give them solutions to their dilemmas.

Let’s examine five very common rules of wedding etiquette that make life easier:

  1. Weddings are by invitation only. The only people invited are the ones whose names are on the invitation.
  2. All invited guests are expected to send a gift, even if they’re not able to attend.
  3. Invitations have an RSVP deadline, and wedding guests are expected to give their final answer by the deadline, preferably using the couple’s preferred method of delivery.
  4. The time on the wedding invitation indicates when the ceremony will begin. Guests are expected to arrive at the ceremony 15-30 minutes ahead of the start time.
  5. Wedding guests should avoid wearing white, ivory, light gold, or any other color that could be interpreted as competing with the bride’s wedding gown.

They all seem to be pretty common sense things, right? Although you would hope most people would know better than to ignore those basic rules, the list above speaks directly to brides and grooms most common complaints about their guests.

Extra or uninvited guests

Your budget is based on how many guests you’ve invited to your wedding. Observance of proper invitation etiquette means guests may not bring uninvited children or extended family, or a date, if those names or “and guest” didn’t appear on the envelope. Etiquette is also what gives a couple the right to say “no” when they’re asked to extend additional invitations (if the guests were following etiquette, they wouldn’t have asked to invite more guests in the first place).

Gift giving

It’s considered an honor to be invited to a wedding, and you send a gift to acknowledge that, even if you’re not able to attend. The same rule applies to bridal showers. Guests have up to one year after the wedding to send a gift. And they will expect to receive a thank you note in a timely manner after delivery.

Failure to RSVP

One of the biggest complaints I hear from wedding couples is that they spent forever chasing down invitees who couldn’t be bothered to respond – meaning, they wish those guests practiced better etiquette. Good manners dictate a timely response to an invitation of any kind, but larger events like weddings have deadlines that are pinned to budgets and deadlines for giving final numbers (and dinner orders, in some cases) to the caterers. When people don’t RSVP, brides and grooms must contact them to get their responses.

Late arrivals

Late arrivals shouldn’t delay the start of the wedding, but if the missing guests are VIPs, it throws everything off schedule for the rest of the night. Guests who arrive at the exact time on the invitation will find themselves walking in just as the wedding party is processing into the ceremony, and may have to wait at the back until everything is finished and underway. Brides and grooms who run behind schedule not only wreak havoc on the entire timeline they’ve spent months planning, but they also force their guests to sit around waiting on them. While it’s always annoying, it can also be uncomfortable if your ceremony is outside in the sun, or the seating is not ideal.

All-white weddings were trendy for a few years (Photo Credit: EP Anderson)

Wedding attire

Most couples indicate their preferred attire somewhere on the wedding invitation. Formal, black-tie optional, semi-formal, cocktail attire, beach chic – there are lots of different ways to style your wedding. No matter how much guidance you give them, there will always be one guy in a sport coat and khakis at your “formal wedding,” and there will always be one guy in a dark suit and tie at your “beach chic” nuptials. But not dressing in white or ivory is the one critical wedding etiquette rule that it’s never okay to break, unless it’s an all-white wedding and all the guests are asked to wear white. This is still important to non-traditional brides who are wearing colors other than white – they have the prerogative to claim any color they choose, and request that other female guests refrain from wearing the same.

You can do away with as many wedding traditions as you like, but you can’t eschew traditional wedding etiquette in the same way. Whether or not you choose to do a traditional first dance is entirely up to you. But if you do it, etiquette says the rest of the guests stay off the dance floor while you have your special moment.

Dessert bars are a popular alternative for less traditional couples (Photo Credit: EP Anderson)

There’s no rule that says you must do a formal cake cutting, with pictures and cake smashing. But etiquette dictates that your guests to wait until the wedding cake is served – with the first piece going to the bride and groom – rather than helping themselves to a big slab whenever they have the craving.

Wedding etiquette is all about guidelines and manners. It defines the expected behavior for wedding couples and their guests. As it’s the socially-accepted norm, there is an expectation that the extension of appropriate manners goes both ways. Just as brides and grooms become irate when guests fail to RSVP and then show up at the reception with an uninvited plus one, invitees are frustrated when an unconventional wedding invitation doesn’t provide all the usual information they expect to have before accepting the invitation.

Choose or lose as many wedding “traditions” as you like, and personalize your wedding to reflect your individual taste and style. But don’t excuse yourself from traditional “wedding etiquette” unless you plan to send out a new rulebook explaining your plans to everyone invited.

Until next time, good luck and happy wedding planning!