The Death of Wedding Etiquette

The bride looked at me and then at her groom and then back to me and said, "What do you mean? Like, a paper invitation? I thought we would just send an email and direct them to a website."
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A couple of weeks ago, I was meeting with a new client discussing plans for their rather elaborate destination wedding when I brought up concepts for their wedding invitations. The bride looked at me and then at her groom and then back to me and said, "What do you mean? Like, a paper invitation? I thought we would just send an email and direct them to a website."

The truth is a few years ago, I would have been shocked... appalled even, and done my very best to explain to her the time honored tradition of the wedding invitation, the rare luxury of paper mail and its conveying the guests' importance and how this, above all, would "set the tone" for her wedding. I would have gone into my spiel about how this was a wedding and not, say, an Oscar party, and therefore merited a more momentous form of "inviting". Finally, I would have said "And, what are they supposed to do? Email you back to tell you that they are coming? And then do you email back and say, 'Are you brining a guest?' And then they email back and say 'Can I tell you later?'"

Instead, I said nothing, just nodded my head up and down and crossed that line item out of my budget. The cause was lost, and I was on the losing side of history: "traditions" are dying out, but wedding etiquette is already dead; to defend its importance to my clients makes me seem as "with the times" as the Countess Dowager. It's not only dead, it's unwelcomed.

Etiquette, the set of "rules" that were intended to dictate the behavior of "civilized society", has long been in a tailspin in this country as we've gotten too casual and fast paced for its constraints. But, in the arena of weddings -- with all the pomp and tradition -- having "rules" to follow seemed to add some welcomed structure into the otherwise overwhelming process of planning a Big Day. Indeed, at its purest level, the purpose of etiquette is to offer up guidelines not so much to restrict behavior but to encourage the consideration of other people's feelings. During the high-speed self-involvement that inherently comes when planning a wedding, the protocols of etiquette act as a kind of speed bump to give some thought to guests' experiences.

Except that here's the thing: guests are all too often so self-involved in their own lives that they aren't paying that much attention to the feelings of the bride and groom. Etiquette is all well and good when everyone is playing by the same rules, but when it comes to weddings, it seems silly for a hosting couple to follow one set of rules when the guests themselves are clueless.

For instance, wedding etiquette dictates that you name, expressly, on an invitation envelope who is invited, so as to make it clear to the person on the receiving end that they are invited alone, with a guest, or with their children. However, this doesn't seem to stop people from responding with an uninvited guest or showing up with their uninvited children. Wedding etiquette dictates that you include in your invitation a pre-paid stamped envelope and a card with a date on it indicating that you would like to know if they are coming to make it easier for guests to respond. Yet this doesn't stop countless people from never mailing their response cards back and needing to be chased down by the bride and groom. Finally, part of the reason behind the written invitation and the written response was to put in writing (a.k.a. give your word) that you were going to be in attendance at such an important occasion. Yet each weekend, at countless weddings across the country there are empty chairs and unclaimed escort cards left by "no-show" guests who simply didn't make it.

Not to mention the simple fact that so many of these rules for "modern" etiquette are completely arbitrary and irrelevant: there is no "official" call on how to process down the aisle when your parents are all divorced and re-married. Emily Post didn't offer an alternative plan for who pays for the rehearsal dinner in the event that the groom doesn't speak to his parents because they were abusive. There isn't an official "right way" for how to address an invitation to an unmarried couple that are living together because when most of these rules were invented that social situation didn't exist in "civilized" society. (I usually say go alpha by last name.)

The High Priestess of Etiquette, Emily Post, once said: "Consideration for the feelings of others isn't a rule for behavior in public but the foundation upon which social life is built". This, I will say, I can get down with and I invite you to do the same. The new rule is, there are no rules... The modern couple is re-writing the rules of what weddings can look, feel and be like -- but would it hurt both hosts and guests to mark this milestone with some consideration? You'll be amazed at how many tough wedding quandaries resolve themselves when you put yourself in the shoes of the other person. Would you want to be seated at a table away from your spouse? Would you want to get dressed up, arrive and have a cash bar? Would you want someone to bring a guest to a dinner you were paying $200 for? There needn't be a rulebook, just a bit of heartfelt common sense.