One glance at the Facebook wall of a recently engaged woman and it's easy to see that the overwhelming response is "congratulations." But did you know that the well wishers are actually defying tradition?
If, like us, you weren't aware of this particular piece of traditional wedding etiquette, here's the gist of it: Apparently, telling a bride "congratulations" insinuates that it was not a given that she would succeed at getting married or that she didn't have her choice of suitors. Instead, you're supposed to tell the bride "best wishes" and reserve your "congrats" for the groom, who presumably played the role of hunter and succeeded at his goal of convincing his bride to say yes.
In a word? Oy.
According to lifestyle and etiquette expert Elaine Swann, author of Let Crazy Be Crazy, this tradition dates back to the Victorian era but has since fallen out of the realm of common knowledge. You might have caught a reference to the "congratulations" faux pas on the Season 4 finale of "Mad Men," when Don Draper announces his engagement to Megan at his office and Pete Campbell corrects a co-worker, "You don't say 'congratulations' to the bride -- you say 'best wishes.' Congratulations, Don!" If Pete had to keep folks in check over this etiquette rule back in the 1960s, what about now?
"There isn't anything that has said, 'OK, we don't have to do this anymore,'" said Swann. "It's just that, today, most brides aren't even aware of the tradition."
Plus, with more women pushing against old patriarchal norms and proposing to men themselves, it feels silly to abide by such an outdated etiquette rule. But Judith Martin, aka Miss Manners herself, offered up another way to look at the tradition in her book Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. Martin explains why brides aren't likely to be offended whether you insist on saying "congratulations" or "best wishes":
This is not because the courtship patterns have changed. Even if the lady proposes to the gentleman on bended knee, Miss Manners and other polite people should figure he is lucky to get her. Nor is it entirely because those who offer congratulations mean well but don't know the rule and it would be churlish to quibble.
It is because today's brides hear far worse. Those who are repeatedly told "It's about time!" and asked "Are you pregnant?" are only too happy to accept kind thoughts, however they are phrased.
A good rule of thumb, according to Swann, is to keep your well-wishes consistent between the bride and groom: If you say "best wishes" to the bride, then make sure you say it to the groom, too. Oh, and avoid following that with "finally."