Magazine

The Weddings Issue

Miss Conduct’s survival guide for wedding guests

There’s all sorts of advice out there for the bride and groom, but what about the rest of us?

Jonathan Carlson

My invitation didn’t include my partner/kids/a plus-one. Can I bring her/them/him anyway?

Sadly, no. Only the explicitly invited may attend a wedding. RSVP cards aren’t election ballots; you can’t just write in whomever you want as a protest vote.

It’s usually not polite to ask if you can bring someone extra. If you have to travel to the wedding and children aren’t invited, you can ask the couple about child-care options. And if your spouse or longtime life partner isn’t invited, you can discreetly check if that was a mistake. A celebration of couplehood shouldn’t require people to leave their partners at home.

Something has come up. Can I back out of a wedding I’ve RSVP’d to?

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You get back in that pew and smile through your ruptured appendix, young lady.

Weddings are a Major Life Event, but not the only one, and if an M.L.E. of your own — the death of a relative, an illness, a financial emergency — makes it difficult or impossible to attend, you may excuse yourself. If you suddenly can’t participate as a member of the wedding party, let the couple know as soon as possible and do your best to gracefully delegate any responsibilities. Etiquette doesn’t require you to explain your situation to the rest of the wedding party, but human psychology does — everyone’s going to wonder and gossip, so you may as well get your story out there.

How do I make a good toast?

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Think about that story you’ve been telling about Chris since eighth grade. No, not that story, the other one. It’s sweet. You tell that story, just as if you’re sitting around telling it — this isn’t “public speaking.” You tell it, and then you say something like “And that’s when I learned the kind of person Chris is” or “That’s how Chris taught me what ‘trust’ means,” and then you say something like “And I know you’re both going to do great things together,” and then you say “I love you, Chris,” and then you say “To Chris and Leslie!” Say your words slowly, and don’t say very many of them.

The wedding invitation says “bohemian formal” (or something like that). What does that mean?

It means there’s a high likelihood of whimsical desserts and a low chance of the Electric Slide. It means that the couple want you to dress up but also to enjoy it, and that they believe this is possible for everyone and that they believe obfuscation promotes creativity. It means nobody else will know what to wear either. It means you should wear something simple and dark with flat shoes and one boffo accessory, just like you do for every other wedding.

I don’t know anyone here. What should I do?

The instinct is to pounce on a fellow singleton, but don’t. Maybe you won’t have anything in common and then you’ll be feeling lonely and awkward with another person, which is far worse. What you want to do is find a couple who aren’t talking — a married couple with nothing to say to each other at the moment, two other singletons who tried that “find another lonely person” thing and are realizing it doesn’t always work — and start a conversation with them.

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A couple, romantic or not, that is hamstrung for conversation at a wedding can be revitalized by the addition of a third party, and they’ll be desperate and grateful enough that they won’t let the ball drop. Start with “How do you know the newlyweds?” “What do you do?” and then hit them with “Do you hate when people ask ‘What do you do?’ as small talk?” You’ll charm all four of their socks off.

Jonathan Carlson

The only gifts on the registry are way over my budget. What do I do?

Get one that isn’t. Buying off-registry is entirely legitimate — believe it or not, the registry actually exists for the benefit of the guests more than the wedding couple.

If you don’t know the couple well enough to choose something to their tastes, get them something consumable, like a gift box of Penzeys spices. (I’m not getting a kickback from Penzeys, mind you. Using brand names is the kind of specific detail that gives writing . . . flavor.)

If you know other people who will be attending the wedding, you could do one of the big-ticket items as a group gift, saving both time and mental energy.

By the way, don’t factor the fanciness of the wedding into how much you spend. There is no such thing as a “cover-your-plate rule.”

Do you tip the bartender at the reception?

If there is a tip jar out, then yes. There shouldn’t be, because that’s tacky as flypaper, but that’s the fault of the couple, not the barkeep.

Everyone is drinking, but I can’t. Help!

If you’re in recovery, sobriety comes first. You can leave early, duck out to call your sponsor, decline the invitation entirely. This is when you need to do you.

If your abstinence is more of a problem for other people than for you, you can always be the designated driver. If you’re pressured to drink, you can parry without being too personal: “I’m good with not drinking, but some people are struggling to stay sober, and the way you’re pushing, it could be very bad for someone like that.” (This is also a useful technique for childless people getting flak about their reproductive plans: “I’m good with not having kids, but . . . ”)

Everyone is dancing, but I can’t. Help!

You have options! You can sway with your honey to the slow dances. Learn two moves — anyone can learn two moves — and repeat them ad infinitum. Dance with the little kids. Chair dance. Study up on epically bad dancers, like Elaine from Seinfeld, and go ahead and dance for comic effect. Bringing people laughter is a mitzvah, after all.

Whatever else you do, arrange to be in the bathroom when the group dances start.

It’s been a year and I still haven’t gotten a thank you note. Should I say something?

It depends on the purity of your motives. You don’t get to scold your friends for their poor etiquette, but you do have the right and responsibility to ensure that your gift arrived as intended. Packages get misdelivered and envelopes fall out of pockets every day. Unless you handed the gift off in person, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I just wanted to make sure you got the . . . ”

More coveage:

- Harvard med students’s city-chic wedding at The Sinclair

- Perfect accessories for cool-weather weddings

- Taking over a Berkshires lodge for a one-of-a-kind wedding

- More from Miss Conduct

Robin Abrahams is Miss Conduct, whose advice column appears weekly in the Globe Magazine. E-mail her at missconduct@globe.com.
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