Mary shows you how to attend a wedding.

Your first day of work is intimidating. Realizing that you have to pay taxes is a bummer. But the biggest phantom punch of life after college hits when people who used to give you atomic wedgies in middle school or rock keg stands at your frat in college start getting married. The first time a wedding album crops up in your Facebook newsfeed, you’re first thought will probably be “holy $*&#!” But once you’ve calmed down, you should be getting amped to catch your first wedding invite. Ain’t no party like a wedding party…

But before you get too excited about open bars and enormous cakes, know this—free booze after a long, boring ceremony could easily precipitate a disastrous misstep will stay with you like a scarlet letter if you started it. We already taught you how to be the consummate wedding guest, but take a look at these tips on wedding etiquette to guarantee that the ceremony will be remembered happily ever after (even if the marriage isn’t).

The Invitation

Much like My Super Sweet 16 invites, wedding invitations can spark drama months before the ceremony even begins. If you receive an invitation, the best thing to do is RSVP as soon as you get it. Weddings are very expensive, and the couple needs to know exactly how many people are coming so they know how much (not) to spend. Almost all invitations come with a reply card on which you fill in your name and check either “accepts with pleasure” or “declines with regrets.” If the couple doesn’t provide a reply card, send a handwritten note. Warning: unless the invitation says explicitly says “+ guest,” you cannot bring a guest. So don’t reply telling them you’re bringing one anyway—it ain’t that type of party!

For the response, you can just parrot back the language of the invitation, but here are some sample acceptance and regret notes to clue you in:

Mr. Nathaniel Archibald
accepts with pleasure
Mr. and Mrs. Jones’
kind invitation for
Saturday the sixth of June

Mr. Nathaniel Archibald
regrets that he is unable to accept
Mr. and Mrs. Jones’
kind invitation for
Saturday the sixth of June

What if you’re busy or you heard about the wedding through the grapevine but never caught an invite? Here are some delicate situations that might crop up:

If you can’t go (or just don’t want to). Send a note excusing your absence (e.g., see above), express regret that you can’t make it, and wish the couple all the best. Don’t worry about offending anybody—soon enough they’ll forget all about it when they realize they just got MARRIED and start to freak out!
If you’re not invited (but think you should be). Don’t take it personally. Some couples like to have small, very private ceremonies. Some just prefer family. And some elope in Vegas (and get divorced 55 minutes later). If you truly think your invitation was lost in the mail, wait until the very last minute to contact the couple.
If the wedding is on the Côte d’Azur. Certain couples, drunk on their own love, decide to have their wedding in some exotic location and expect a recent grad to be able to attend. The nerve! Find out what other friends’ plans are and figure out how to defray costs by sharing rooms, etc. Or just respectfully decline.
Wedding Gifts

If you’re already dropping hard-earned cash to travel to the wedding and stay in a hotel, the gift may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Unfortunately, it’s customary for all invited guests to give presents. The good news is you don’t have to present the gift right way—generally you’re expected to give it up to twelve months after the wedding date, so if you need to save up some cash you have time. It’s definitely possible to stick to a sensible budget without looking like a miserly a-hole.

How much should I spend?

There’s no set rule for how much you should spend on a wedding gift, although most believe that the amount you spend on the gift should at least match the cost of your dinner at the wedding (but not how much whiskey you can consume!). Not good at eyeballing the cost of meals? In a nutshell, how much you spend on the gift depends on your relationship to the couple. If the fiancés are just your acquaintances, then $20–$50 gifts are perfectly acceptable. If your close friends are getting married, the benchmark range for a gift is between $50 and $100. On the flipside, if your best friend is tying the knot or if an immediate family member is getting married, etiquette dictates you should spend from $100 to $200 on the gift. Also, if you are more than just a guest (i.e., a member of the wedding party) then a gift closer to the $200 mark is more appropriate. Of course, these are just general guidelines, and presumably you know the couple best—use your discretion, but refer to the guidelines above if you’re completely lost.

Of course, if money is tight, couples will understand. Gifts are never demanded, and gracious couples will be pleased with whatever you get them if you’re on a budget. Plus, there should always be some pretty cheap items on the registry that will at least show that you put some thought into the gift.

What should I buy?

Most couples register their gifts online ahead of time so that the guests don’t need to worry about buying an unwanted/unneeded gift—usually they’ll tell you where they’ve registered. Unless you know for sure that they want something else, you should basically just stick to the registry, since the last thing they need is a bunch of crap they don’t need (they’ve got each other, after all). That said, sometimes just giving cash is also considered appropriate, especially if the couple is young.

Take a look at this article from theknot.com for more wedding gift ideas.

Keep in mind that while giving whoopee cushions, sex toys, or a stripper may have been hilarious in college, even the couple with the best sense of humor won’t appreciate the joke on their wedding. Save these items for the anniversary. Or the bachelor party. Or the divorce…

The Ceremony

Wedding ceremonies run the gamut from casual hitchin’ affairs in a barn to unbelievably orchestrated productions in gaudy venues, pulled off with the clockwork precision of the Beijing 2008 opening ceremony. But regardless of what kind of wedding you’re attending, you’ll probably be expected to observe some traditional rules of etiquette.

Bringing a Guest

For some reason, bringing unwanted guests enrages the wedding party more than any other offense. Don’t bring a date unless it says “+ guest” on the invitation. There won’t be room at your table for your guest if you do, and there won’t be booze or food to serve them.

If you’re allowed to bring a guest, use your judgment. You definitely don’t want to be the person who brings the guest who ralphs on the wedding cake. However, it’s a good opportunity to bring a date you want to pressure into feeling sad, unmarried, and liable to hook up as a coping mechanism.

If you can’t find a date, don’t fret: Weddings are an excellent place to find a potential hook-up. In the midst of freely flowing champagne you might just get lucky sitting at the “singles” table.

What to Wear

As a general rule of thumb, wedding ceremonies are a formal affair. Most wedding invitations tell you explicitly what to wear. If they don’t, look at the invitation for hints. If it’s an ostentatiously adorned piece of parchment tied in a bow and littered with beautiful calligraphy, assume cocktail attire. A plainer invitation indicates more casual wear. Most weddings aren’t black tie, but if they are that’s when you bust out the tuxedo or formal dress. Dudes should note that while tux rentals have gone digital, it pays to be on the ball—most rental outlets need to be notified at least two weeks in advance to have you fitted (you’ll need to actually go get fitted in person if you want to look crisp).

Of course, if you know the couple well, it can never hurt to call and ask them what type of attire they’re expecting. If you’re still playing Inspector Morse after all that, check what time of day the wedding is held: morning/afternoon ceremonies are less formal than evening ones. No one should wear black to a daytime ceremony, and girls should never wear white because it says in the Bible that if you upstage the bride you go straight to hell (or something like that).

If You’re Part of the Wedding Party

First off, don’t assume you are a groomsman or a bridesmaid unless you’ve been told that you are by the couple (that could get awkward…). In the hierarchy of wedding guests, members of the wedding party sit at the top, with the best man and maid of honor reigning supreme over the others. If you’re one of the lucky chosen, be prepared to spend more on wedding gifts and to dress more formally than if you were a regular guest. The couple will contact you beforehand and let you know what they expect you to wear and what to do during the ceremony. (They may have even picked out a dress for you.) Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re unsure—better to be safe than look like a dingus during the ceremony. As an added perk, expect to get lots of presents. And for another surprise perk (that is, a perk if you like public speaking), expect to be asked to give a speech.

Avoiding Common Screw-Ups

Weddings ceremonies have a big payoff: open bar and the chance to dance with octogenarians. But you’ve got to earn it—the ceremony can be pretty tedious, and sadly, knowing how to endure boredom gracefully is the epitome of maturity. As long as you don’t make a scene, your right to party is irrevocable. Here are a few quick tips on how to compose yourself during “Here Comes the Bride”:

Don’t be late. Avoid this at all costs. If you arrive as the bride is walking down the aisle, don’t be an idiot: wait for her to reach the groom and then quietly take your seat. Never walk down the center aisle.
Take pictures sparingly. Most couples hire professional photographers. While the couple might enjoy being treated like the Beckhams, flashes can be distracting. Save your camera for the reception.
When in Rome… Many religious weddings involve traditions that you might not be familiar with. Be aware of what’s going on and follow others’ lead. If you’re not religious you won’t be expected to participate, but sit quietly out of respect for the couple. Either way, don’t make a spectacle of yourself.
Keep it down. Although weddings are inherently celebratory, refrain from clapping, cheering, or otherwise drawing attention to yourself during the ceremony. Generally, the congregation doesn’t applaud until after the kiss, and even then it’s pretty sedate. Cut loose at the reception, instead.
Hold your peace. Although movies are littered with scenes of impassioned lovers storming their true love’s wedding ceremonies, if you actually do interrupt a service, even as a joke, you’ll only bring dishonor and embarrassment upon yourself.
Party Time

The wedding reception is every guest’s reward for surviving through the ceremony—this is an opportunity to get a free meal, enjoy free booze, and listen to (hopefully) mortifying toasts about the newlyweds. At this point, you should be home free to enjoy the festivities, but there are a few more etiquette traps to keep in mind..

Dancing with the bride or groom. If you’re close to either of the newlyweds you might get roped in to this. Just play along and keep it PG. Clearly, grinding is out of the question.
Don’t bitch. If you have a problem with the seating arrangement or you think the salmon is revolting, let it go. This is not your day!
Table topics. Waiting for the food to arrive can cause some to chatter without thinking. It’s generally a bad idea to ask whether the bride is pregnant or to hint at either the bride’s or the groom’s past sexcapades (e.g., don’t say to the groom: “So I guess you didn’t mind marrying my sloppy seconds? Good for you, bro!”). If elderly family members are present, grandma might have a stroke at the thought that her little angel wasn’t pure for her wedding day.
Although marriage may seem like a terrifying prospect for recent grads, attending a wedding as a guest is actually pretty sweet. Wedding ceremonies are not, as the cynics claim, just a waste of money and a prerequisite to divorce. If anything, a wedding is an open bar with people your age dancing and having a good time. Enjoy yourself—at least it’s not your own, right!?

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