ETIQUETTE FOR WEDDINGS An expert unveils rules

Think that wedding invitation you received is your ticket to free food, drink and entertainment? Think again. Wedding guests have rules to follow. That's what etiquette expert Peggy Post will tell you.
Being a good wedding guest takes thought and effort. A good guest contributes to the overall success of a wedding or any social event just as an irresponsible guest detracts.
Post, in the fourth edition of "Emily Post's Wedding Etiquette," addresses cherished traditions and contemporary changes in the bridal celebration. She outlines pertinent information for guests that can be broadly categorized into behavior, attire and gifts.
Be on your best, simply put. From the time you receive the invitation to when you leave the reception, be gracious.
The RSVP with invitations sometimes puzzles people. "Some people simply don't know what it means," said Post during a recent telephone interview from her home in southern Florida. The RSVP card is a way to prompt a response whether a person will or won't accept an invitation to a wedding or other social event.
Another problem is getting replies. "In general I think people are so busy they forget about replying," said Post. "They put the invitation aside, meaning to get to it, and it's human nature to forget. That's not an excuse but an explanation."
But it is imperative for the bridal couple to know how many people will be attending the reception so that food and refreshments are ordered accordingly. "Weddings are so costly these days ... not to reply to an RSVP is inconsiderate and rude," said Post.
It's ironic, Post noted, that the RSVP card is encountering the problem that makes it necessary in the first place -- getting a response. Years ago when social behavior was governed by strict code of conduct, people automatically replied in writing by sending their acceptance or regrets to social invitations. As that custom faded, response cards evolved out of necessity for the hostess to know how many guests were accepting an invitation. In fact, the first mention of response cards was in 1982 by Elizabeth Post, Peggy Post's mother-in-law and predecessor, who wrote about etiquette from 1965-95.
Post also said a deadline to return response cards is helpful. If that fails, it's acceptable for the hostess to call guests. Another innovation is "save the date" cards mailed out weeks before the actual wedding invitations. These cards inform guests about the upcoming event, and Post said they are especially useful if the wedding will occur during a busy social time.
If your name is written on the wedding invitation envelope, you're invited. "I advise couples not to include something confusing such as "number of people attending" on the response card," Post explained. That may mislead some people into thinking they are free to include children or house guests.
Behavior at the ceremony should be respectful, Post said. "When the ceremony is a religious one different from our own beliefs, guests should participate as much as their own religion and the ceremony allow." Even if the ceremony is in a casual setting, a beach or park, guests must value the meaning of the ceremony, she added.
At the reception, socializing is encouraged, but there are limits. If there is a receiving line, introduce yourself to the first person in line, keep comments brief and move along. Don't monopolize the newlyweds, Post advised.
Respect place cards, and don't move them. If you're seated at a table with strangers, see it as a chance to meet new people and find out how they know the newlyweds. Also, if there are elderly or disabled people at your table, tactfully offer assistance. Single men are encouraged to ask single women at the table to dance.
A wedding gift is an obligation, Post said, whether you attend the wedding or not. "There is no set formula for what to spend," Post said. "It should be based on how well you know the couple, your budget and what is customary in your community."
Gift registries are suggestions on what the couple needs and what they like. "It's not mandatory to follow," Post said. "There's also a myth about spending the amount that each meal at the reception costs."
Couples often ask whether they can request money instead of gifts directly on the invitation, but that's a no-no, Post said. "There are ways of getting the word out through family and friends. For encore weddings, gifts are not obligatory but usually customary. They may take the form of donations to the couple's favorite charity or contributions to the honeymoon trip."
Gifts may be sent to the bride's home, the home of her parents or the couple's home if they live together, before the wedding. Gifts also may be taken to the reception, Post said.
Let common sense rule when it comes to gift exceptions. If you haven't seen the bride or groom for years, you're not obliged to send a gift, Post said.
Regional customs are a guideline, and guests also have clues from the formality of the invitation. The time of day and season in which the wedding will take place are other indications concerning attire. "Now it's acceptable to wear white or black to a wedding. If it's black, don't look funereal; and if you pick white, don't look bridal," Post said.
"Ask [a family member or the couple] if you're in doubt about what to wear," Post advised. "It's better to be more conservative than go all out with spangles."
In general, men's attire should be dark suits with conservative shirts and ties except for an informal daytime summer wedding, when male guests may wear dark blazers and light trousers.
For female guests, street-length cocktail or afternoon dresses are suggested. An exception is most formal evening when long dresses may be worn, which also is dependent on local custom. If women wear long dresses, men should wear tuxedoes.

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