Infographic by V. Lee Hawkins
The minefield of wedding etiquette is littered with cash bars, intrusive cell-phone photographers and receptions crashed by children gyrating madly to the“Chicken Dance.” New lifestyles, economic shifts and personal electronics have obliterated many traditions. “A lot has changed recently — things that would make the older generation cringe,” Lovebird Events owner Kate Franzen says.There’s a difference between freedom and free-for-alls when it comes to wedding planning. Experts say brides and grooms still need to plan and act thoughtfully — as do guests — to avoid damaging relationships with friends and relatives. Will the seating plan make anyone uncomfortable? Is it worth losing a friend to save the cost of a few glasses of wine? Here are what wedding professionals and recent brides have to say.
A surefire way to insult those you hold dear is to slap them with a reception cover charge or cash bar. You can’t believe couples would ask guests to pay for dinner? Search “wedding reception cover charge” online and see how many brides are floating the idea. “I am a firm believer in some traditions,” says wedding planner Keith Andes, owner of Everything But Your Groom. “I think it’s better to limit your guest and alcohol lists in order to not have to charge guests. Your guests have traveled and taken their time to be at your event, they should be able to enjoy it.”
Eliminate some frills if you’re tempted to pass on costs to your guests, LK Events + Design co-owner Lindsay Kennedy says. “If you want alcohol at your wedding and budget is a concern, why are you spending the extra $1 0on matte satin linen?”she says.
Kennedy suggests that couples make a list of their top priorities. “Nine times out of 10, you’ll write down ‘overall guest experience’ or ‘food and cocktails,’” she says, adding that couples on tight budgets frequently eliminate mixed drinks and buy wine in bulk.
Oversharing on Social Media
With people posting photos online of what they have for breakfast, you can imagine the temptation brides face as they plan weddings in the era of social media. But sharing every detail, photo and hitch on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Vine isn’t a good idea, according to experts. Attendants, guests and those not invited will grow weary of the gushing and whining, and there won’t be anything new to see on the wedding day.
Midlothian resident Jessica Beall didn’t share many details online before her wedding last summer. “I wanted everything to be a surprise for our guests — the venue, decorations, my dress details,” she says. “I only showed my parents, soon-to-be in-laws and bridesmaids a picture of my dress before the big day.”
Byrd Park neighborhood resident Leigh Echelberger also kept her dress a surprise, but she vented a bit about her frustrations. “I suppose I maybe ranted a little bit on Facebook just because the planning was really stressful at times,” she says.
Andes’ advice is to keep online wedding chatter to a minimum. “Post images of you getting manicures and pedicures and enjoying little things, but don't overdo it,” he says. “Keep the mystery.”
Say It with Paper
The formal engraved invitations of previous generations have been swallowed in an onslaught of engagement announcements, save-the-dates, menu cards, coasters, favor tags and calendars in which guests mark their birthdays and anniversaries.
Sue Corral’s Richmond-based online stationery business, Design Corral, offers cards that brides can mail to their prospective wedding-party members. The downloadable collection includes “will you be my bridesmaid,” “will you be my maid of honor,” “will you be my flower girl” and “will you be my ring bearer.”
With same-sex marriage now legal in 17 states, stationers are offering a growing number of corresponding wedding invitations, some featuring two bow ties or two interlocking female symbols.
Environmentally friendly invitations also are trending, with companies such as Botanical PaperWorks selling plantable seed-paper invitations and tree-free paper stock.
Emailing save-the-dates and invitations is another eco-friendly choice, but most wedding etiquette gurus still say snail mail is the appropriate way to go.
Splitting the Check
A recent survey by theknot.com showed that the price tag for an average wedding is about $28,000. In the past, the bride’s family would have picked up the bulk of that tab — the planning, wedding gown, photography, videography and reception. The groom’s side traditionally covered the rehearsal dinner and honeymoon. But Peggy Post, a legacy of etiquette arbiter Emily Post, says only 27 percent of weddings are paid for in full by parents these days, thanks in part to the depressed economy and soaring expenses. Brides and grooms also are working longer and marrying later.
“We’re seeing more couples pay for their wedding themselves,” Franzen says. “It seems like a lot of families are saying, ‘We’ll give you $20,000 toward the wedding.’ To get the wedding you envision, you may need a collection of everybody paying for it.”
Bridesmaids and groomsmen usually pay for their ensembles, although couples sometimes contribute toward those expenses. At her own wedding last year, Kennedy’s attendants purchased their own attire “but we were respectful of budgets,” she says. Kennedy’s sisters chose their dresses — styles that could be worn again — and groomsmen wore their own black suits and white shirts.
Dad’s Boss, Fourth Cousins not Included
Gone are the days of feeling obligated to invite everyone you and your parents know. Venue sizes and wedding budgets usually won’t allow couples to include far-flung cousins, college friends who haven’t been in contact for years and their parents’ entire Christmas-card list.“
Every family and couple is different,” Andes says. “Look at your overall catering budget, divide it by guests and ask yourself how much you would like to spend on strangers, family friends or acquaintances.”
The sticky wicket of “plus-ones” gives most brides a little anxiety when opening the R.S.V.P. cards. If the outer and inner invitation envelopes specify one person and a guest arbitrarily adds a date, Franzen says it’s appropriate to call the guest on it. “You need to have good communication” about your guest list, she says. “You wouldn’t be inviting them if you didn’t know them on that deeper level.”
Making the call on inviting work associates can be tricky, Franzen says, but if you want to include your boss for political purposes, it’s understandable. “If you’re friends with them outside of the nine-to-five, then OK,” she says. “That way, someone who’s not included can see the difference between them and someone else and won’t be so hurt.”
Couples living together before their wedding have most household items they need. Many are choosing to skip registries and ask for money to put toward a honeymoon or down payment on a home. Others are registering for a few items, but listing gift cards as their preference.
With older relatives, you need to be delicate about how you approach the registry. “You can’t just ask for cash unless you tell them what you’re putting it toward,” Franzen says. “Call it out as being put toward something meaningful you’re going to do together or build together.”
Echelberger and her husband, Jared Marek, had been together more than two years and didn’t register anywhere. “We wanted to go to Hawaii, and Hawaii is not cheap,” Echelberger says. “My mom was a little put off by that. A few people did give us gifts, and that was nice, but I think the ‘honeyfund’ accounts online are a great idea.” Honeymoon registries, while somewhat more personal than cash, notify the couple every time a guest contributes to the trip. Many charge fees, some have expiration dates and others sell at inflated rates, so it’s wise to read the fine print carefully.
Franzen says a few of her clients are accepting donations to nonprofits or donating to favorite charities in lieu of party favors for guests.
Mingling Versus Seating Charts
Open seating is making a comeback, according to some wedding experts — particularly for small weddings. Not only does it eliminate fussing over a complicated seating chart, it gives guests a chance to circulate and meet others.
But not having assigned tables can lead to confusion and awkwardness. Jessica and Jeff Beall mixed casual and formal last summer at the Hotel John Marshall. “Because we held our ceremony and reception at the same location, we were able to hold a cocktail hour between the wedding ceremony and reception rather than having everyone drive from one location to another,” Jessica says. “This allowed our guests to mingle with one another and enjoy each other’s company while my husband Jeff and I took pictures with the bridal party. At our reception, we used name cards and assigned table numbers in order to make it easier for our guests to find seats and avoid chaos.”
The couple had a buffet and various food stations that encouraged guests to move around more than they would have with wait staff serving plated dinners.
Couples should place "reserved" signs on tables for the bridal party and parents in open-seating setups. Guests should be respectful of their seat assignment and not switch place cards.
Separate but Equal
Who needs underlying tension or outright hostility at a wedding? Divorced parents, stepmothers and stepfathers require some extra thought when devising seating arrangements for family members at the ceremony and reception. Experts say it’s important to discuss placements in advance.
Even if divorced parents are on good terms, wedding planners usually recommend seating them at separate tables, especially if there are new spouses involved. Echelberger’s parents have been divorced for 20 years and are on friendly terms, which made the seating assignments fairly easy. “We invited my dad’s friends and brothers to sit at his table and my mom and her parents at another table, but next to each other so that both felt the same place of honor,” she says.
Couples should also tell their photographer about any delicate situations and plan accordingly. Make a list of the types of family pictures you’d like taken and avoid large-group family photos unless everyone is comfortable with the idea.
Children are unpredictable little people. It’s difficult to know how they’ll behave at a wedding, whether they’re part of the ceremony or just squirming in a seat.
Some couples want their young relatives and friends’ children included in their special day. Others do not. For the second group, getting the no-kids message out requires finesse. Addressing invitations to adults is no guarantee that the guests won’t bring their children. “The message doesn’t always transfer to the recipient,” says Elizabeth Howard, owner ofinvitation and wedding planning business The Cordial Cricket.
So how do you ban those babies?
An evening wedding could schedule them out. “You can put on reception cards phrases like ‘Adult reception dinner and dancing after the wedding,’ ” Howard says.
The situation becomes stickier with out-of-town guests. “You can’t ask them to leave their children at the hotel,” Howard says. Occasionally, bridal families will set up a babysitting service at the venue or someone’s home for the duration of the wedding.
Local photographer Edward Small has tried to shoot weddings at which guests jumped in the aisle to snap photos during the ceremony. “Be aware that you may be blocking the view of the photographer’s camera — especially during moments like the kiss,” he says. “I can’t stop the ceremony and say, ‘Hey, could you do that kiss again?’"
1. Ask the officiant or reception master/mistress of ceremonies to make an announcement asking guests to turn off cell phones and cameras and be truly present.
2. Put a blurb in the wedding program or a sign by the guest book that asks attendees not to take photos during the ceremony.
3. Have the photographer’s business cards on each table, with instructions on how to order prints of the wedding online.
4. Diana Lewkowicz, founder of Photoquette, has designed cell-and digital-phone photo etiquette cards for use at weddings (photoetiquettecards.com).
5. Have a phone-check basket at the door.