Attending a wedding for the first time – what you need to know

I once got talking to a lovely young lady who was excitedly telling me she’d just been invited to her very first wedding. After a few minutes of chatting, it was clear that so much of the wedding etiquette and “common sense” that we expect from our guests, is not in fact, common knowledge.  Attending a wedding for the first time (or the first time as an adult) can be rather daunting. So I thought I’d go over some of the must-dos when you’re attending the “I Do’s”.

Natalie* was up front with me. She had absolutely no idea what was required of a well-behaved wedding guest, and when you think about it, why would she? “I didn’t realise you can’t just bring someone with you!” she told me. Many people suspect their guests bring random people along out of spite or bullheadedness… but here it’s a case of “she just didn’t know better”.

You learn about weddings by, well, attending them. Or reading wedding etiquette blogs and books, and an early-20s single career woman doesn’t have much reason to do that huh! How is it fair that we expect guests, who’ve never been to a wedding before, to be on their best behaviour?

So I promised her a list of wedding-things-you-should-know, and in doing so I hope I help Natalie, her friends getting married, and also maybe your guests who are virgins to the wedding scene.

What do you need to know when attending a wedding for the first time?

I recorded a video to summarise the main point, if you fancy sitting back and listening… otherwise, keep scrolling and keep reading below.

Use your wedding invitation for clues

  • How is your wedding invitation addressed? Natalie? Natalie and Partner? (If the invite doesn’t have a name on it, this makes it a little tricky). This tells you if you’re able to bring your boyfriend or friend to the wedding. Don’t worry if you’re single and didn’t get a “plus one” (that’s wedding lingo for getting to bring a friend along). Chances are you’ll know plenty of people at the wedding and the bride will be courteous enough to put you at a table with other friends. (If you don’t know many people going, it’s a good idea to make it along to the hen’s night – that way you can meet some of the female guests)
  • If you’ve been invited sans partner, do not ask if you can bring a date, or a mate. Or your sister. Please. Ever. It puts the couple in the awkward position of having to explain themselves and having to say no.
  • What colour is the wedding invite? OK, this might seem like a totally random question. But yes, the colour of the wedding invitation does mean something usually. Most of the time, the wedding invitation gives you an indication of the colour scheme of the wedding. This allows you to figure out what colour the bridesmaids might be wearing… and you can avoid it. Why? Because if you end up in the same colour or even same dress as the bridesmaids, it can be awkward!
  • What is the dress code? Some invites will spell out the dress code, and others you’ll have to guess. Check out this post on decoding the dress code for more. And don’t wear white!

  • What do they want for a present? While it’s not “compulsory” to bring a present – it’s a bit rough not to. Many invites these days include an indication of what sort of gift might be preferable. It’s not strictly polite for couples to do this, but it saves you a ton of stress that you’ve got them something they don’t want – so that’s a good thing, right?! If they haven’t said anything about presents, have a look through this post for some inspiration – while it’s for Christmas presents, there’s plenty of things that will suit for the actual day too.
  • When do you have to RSVP? I know ignoring Facebook Event Invites is passable, but forgetting to RSVP is a cardinal sin. Make sure you let the couple know in plenty of time whether you’re attending, or not. Your invitation should spell out how to RSVP, but if in doubt, just make sure they know one way or another (these cute cards are a fun option if you want to let them know formally).

Behaviour at the wedding – need to knows

  • Make sure you arrive 15 minutes to half an hour before the ceremony begins. So if the wedding invitation says the ceremony is at 3.00pm, make sure you arrive by 2.45pm. The time on the invite is the time everything kicks off, and you don’t want to be trying to sneak in while the bride is making her grand entrance. Some oldies will be there from 45 minutes before!
  • You’ll be carrying a card and/or present (yes, you need to bring a gift). Don’t try hand your gift to the newly married couple as they swing past for a quick congratulatory hug on their way to get photos. Once you get to the reception you should be able to find a table set aside for the gifts, or a wishing well set up somewhere.
  • What happens next varies wedding to wedding. Some people have a gap between the ceremony & reception where they get wedding photos, and you’re expected to fend for yourself for a while. I recommend finding some friends (existing ones, or make some new ones!) and grabbing a drink and nibbles somewhere nice. Just make sure you’re back to the reception by the time indicated on the wedding invitation. Other couples will have entertainment or activities planned between-times, so just go with the flow and enjoy a relaxing couple of hours.

Any questions on attending a wedding for the first time?

Are you a wedding rookie? If you’ve got questions about what happens, then post them below and I’ll do my best to answer them for you. Don’t be shy, no question is stupid!

*name changed to protect the innocent

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