Your Biggest Wedding Etiquette Woes, Solved

The ultimate primer on keeping the peace during wedding season. 

Photo by Keri Pinzon / Getty Images

Real Simple’s modern manners columnist, Catherine Newman, etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy, offers the whole wedding party (including guests) her best tips on how to behave—from the engagement to the final thank-you note.

I am the only girl with two brothers in my family. One of my brothers is getting married this summer. My other brother is the best man, and my daughter is a junior bridesmaid. The bride did not ask me to be a bridesmaid. My parents are disappointed in the choice, and I am quite hurt. Is there a polite way to approach the subject with my future sister-in-law? Should I even bother? — S.A.

This is one of those cases where you feel legitimately hurt, on the one hand, but on the other, there's absolutely nothing to do about it. Traditional etiquette gives the bride full license to choose her half of the wedding party. It would have been lovely of her to include you, but the exclusion surely reflects the juggling of complex factors rather than personal snubbing or simple oversight. She may have a large family of her own, she may have a particular friend group she wanted to keep intact, or she may have picked her bridesmaids as a last gasp of her old life before joining her lot with your brother's. Whatever the reason, the invitation to your daughter is surely intended to be, among other things, a conciliatory gesture. Be soothed by it, encourage your parents to do the same, and move on. Your brother is getting married! Celebrate the happy couple, dance your heart out (in your dress of choice, by the way), and welcome his bride into your life.

A coworker is getting married, and many of us in the office have spent time discussing the details and the planning. None of us received a formal mailed invitation. Then, three weeks before the wedding, she invited all of us (12 people) via e-mail. She wrote that we are her work family and how important we are in her life. This seems odd. If she wanted us there, why were we not invited the proper way? How does one respond to this? — M. S.

Respond by accepting your coworker's invitation and showing up to celebrate with her. Wedding planning is complicated at best, and there are loads of variables. Depending on such factors as who is paying, the smallness of the venue, and the largeness of the families, there may be competing considerations about the guest list. You don't know what you don't know. If her fiancé has a gazillion cousins, for example, perhaps your coworker had to wait to see how the RSVPs shook out before extending invitations to her large work family. Maybe there were unusual constraints on the number of written invitations mailed out. It can be tempting to feel snubbed, but it's a fruitless indulgence. Your coworker really wants you there or she wouldn't have invited you. Feel glad to be included and that you work with such a close-knit group of people.

I'm making an invitation list for my bridal shower. The shower will be held in Southern California, where most of the women in my family live. But my fiancé's family is on the East Coast. He was raised primarily by his father, and his aunts and grandmother took on a motherly role, so they are important to him—and me. Do I invite them all, regardless of whether or not it would be logical for them to attend? — L.B.

Traditionally, the guests invited to a wedding shower are the bride's closest female friends and family. That said, you can invite whomever you like. And since you're inclined to include your husband-to-be's beloved kin, you should do just that. (Expansiveness is always a good rule of thumb.) But there's no need to conceal your intentions: A day or two after the invitations go out, send each of the far-flung relatives a note or an e-mail: "I couldn't resist inviting you to the bridal shower, but we don't really expect you to fly across the country for it, and please don't send a gift. Just know that you're in our thoughts, and we can't wait to celebrate with you at the wedding." For your fiancé's grandmother and aunts, this solution will offer the best of both worlds. They'll be tickled to receive an invitation and relieved of any pressure or uncertainty about what to do next.

Recently I received an e-card engagement announcement from a friend. Am I expected to buy her and her future partner an engagement present, and if so, what would be appropriate? M.C.

There's one thing that the happy couple ought to get from you immediately, and that's a hearty congratulations. Since they e-mailed you their news, you can send an informal response. Just hit Reply and offer a "happy for you" line or two. Generally I would say that you can hold off on a gift. After all, should a bridal shower or an engagement party be held, you will get a chance to give them something then. (This does not even factor in the wedding gift itself.)

If you feel strongly about wanting to make a gesture, send a token that pays tribute to the household they are creating: a matching towel set, a gourmet-treat basket, or a tried-and-true kitchen tool. If possible, personalize it with a note: "Someone gave us a corkscrew like this one when we got married, and we've used it ever since. We hope that it sees you both through many wonderful years to come." The sentiment will be appreciated as much as—or more than—the item itself.

My husband and I just eloped. How can we let everyone know about our marriage without making them feel obligated to give us a gift? — A.B.

First of all, if you haven't already, be sure to share your news directly with your nearest and dearest, who should hear of your marriage in person or by phone, rather than by a mass mailing.

For everyone else, send out an announcement telling them exactly what you want them to know. If you're not trolling for gifts, say so directly: "We eloped! We're so happy—and we have everything we need. If you have the urge to send something, mail us a card, a note, or your best advice for newlyweds."

Inevitably, some people will send a gift anyway, and that's fine. Since you haven't had to research wedding etiquette, here's a tiny FYI about presents: Send a handwritten thank-you note as soon as possible (within three months, ideally). Also consider tucking in a photo of your ceremony or even sending one out in an e-mail. There's no reason not to share a glimpse of the romantic event with your cheering section.

My boyfriend's younger sister recently became engaged, and she indicated to me that I would be a bridesmaid. However, now that she has begun planning, she has assembled her wedding party and I'm not in it. Is it wrong of me to feel hurt? We're close. Or so I thought. Should I bring up the fact that I'm upset or let it go? And when my boyfriend and I get married one day, am I obligated to include her in my wedding party? I would have done so previously, but now I'm on the fence. A.J.

It's understandable that you feel snubbed and disappointed. At a minimum, the bride-to-be should have taken you aside and explained the change of plans, which may be the result of competing obligations to family and friends. But in truth she may have extended her offer to you in the first flush of excitement, before she understood the tangled web of responsibility that a wedding weaves.

Here's your opportunity to be gracious. Choose to feel flattered by her heartfelt inclination to include you, celebrate with her, and let go of the slight. She probably wasn't trying to be hurtful, and you wouldn't want to darken her joy with conflict. If you feel the need to vent, try your boyfriend. In addition to a sympathetic ear, he might have some reassuring family insight to offer. And when you get married someday? You'll be far more likely to understand his sister's dilemma—and be too blissful (and busy) to spend time focusing on an old grudge.

A year and a half ago, I got engaged and set a date for my wedding. Just a few months ago, my cousin got engaged and decided to schedule her wedding two weeks before mine. (Neither of us lives near most of our relatives.) I feel that my extended family is going to be under a lot of pressure to choose one wedding or the other. Am I right to be annoyed? And is there any way to express my unhappiness to her? — K.K.

I hope it helps to hear that, yes, you are right to be annoyed, because there's not much else that I can offer you. If you feel that your resentment will cause irreparable damage to your relationship with your cousin, then once both of you have returned from your honeymoons, you can share your feelings with her. Perhaps you will learn that there's an explanation for the timing—one that will erase, or at least mitigate, your irritation.

But do not have this conversation now. Expressing your unhappiness would only lead to regret, as an argument could cast its shadow over your happy day and hers without resolving anything. Don't taint your celebrations with bitterness. Consider these small consolations instead: This conflict probably won't affect the plans of numerous guests, including your friends and your fiancé's loved ones. Contrary to your assumptions, some family members may attend both weddings. And if some relatives make it to only your cousin's? If you and your fiancé attend, too, you will have an opportunity to chat with them, which you'll have scant time to do at your own wedding. Remember: Marriage is a happy but imperfect state, and wedding planning gives you a little preview of that fact.

My fiancé and I have lost control of our wedding. We wanted to have a small affair. But his parents and mine both insisted on something bigger. Now, with their additions, the guest list is more than 200 people. We also wanted to keep costs down. (While our parents are making contributions, a sizable chunk of the expense is falling on us.) But our families aren't sensitive to our budget concerns. For example, they insist that we have a salad course. How can we have the wedding we want without upsetting anyone? — L.H.

No way—your parents are butting in on your wedding planning?! Just kidding. Welcome to the club, which includes pretty much everyone who has ever walked down the aisle. This is to say, what you're experiencing is a rite of passage and one that's no picnic.

Start here: Tell your parents how grateful you are for their help and financial support. Then try saying something like "Thanks to your advice, we made inclusivity a priority. We're thrilled to have everyone joining in our celebration. But to include all these guests and to stick to our established budget, we need to make the reception less elaborate. And that's what we're going to do."

You're stretching your wings, and your parents are watching their child take flight. Your husband-to-be's parents are doing the same. This transition might not be graceful, but unlike the salad course, it's important—not just for the sake of the wedding but for your married life to come, too. Nip this butting-in in the bud, before you have two sets of parents opining about your mortgage, your careers, and your sleepless baby. Remind your parents that the wedding is about your love and commitment and that the reception is just icing on the cake.

I am wondering if it is acceptable to miss a friend’s wedding. Five years ago, shortly after we were roommates in university, this friend was a bridesmaid in my wedding. Since then, we have slowly grown apart. I even found out about her engagement through Facebook. I can’t afford a plane ticket and would have to drive nine hours to the wedding. Can I excuse myself and send a gift in the mail? — A. B.

You’re certainly not obligated to go to the wedding of a person you aren’t close to. Life should not be approached in a tit-for-tat way, and it’s good, if sometimes bittersweet, to roll with the changes. You were close five years ago, when you got married, and now you’re not. That said—and you knew there would be a “but” here—there are a couple of weddings I didn’t go to when I was younger, and those missed events are among my very few regrets in life. One friend is someone I was close to, then lived far away from at the time she got married, and now am close to again. Her wedding pictures kill me. (For what it’s worth: I also felt too broke at the time to buy a plane ticket, but I can see now that the cost wouldn’t have mattered too much in the long run. I realize that’s different for everybody.) So go to the wedding if you can. That’s my advice in a nutshell. You’ll never regret going, and you might regret not going, especially if you and your friend drift back together.

​Want to ask your own etiquette question? Submit your social conundrums. Selected letters will be featured on the website.