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Transcript: Monday, March 15 at 11 a.m. ET

On Love: 'Miss Manners' on wedding etiquette

"Miss Manners" columnist and author Judith Martin
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Judith Martin
"Miss Manners" columnist and author
Monday, March 15, 2010; 11:00 AM

Is your future mother-in-law insisting on a Jesus-filled ceremony even though you're both atheists? Has the junior bridesmaid, who's not yet out of sixth grade, asked if she can bring a date? Miss Manners -- a.k.a. Judith Martin -- author of "Miss Manners' Guide to a Surprisingly Dignified Wedding," is here to help solve your wedding quandaries.

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In her syndicated column, Mrs. Martin explains the etiquette element present in nearly every aspect of life. In her book that she co-authored with her newlywed daughter, Martin takes on today's culture of monster weddings and commercialized love. She is also a frequent lecturer and guest on national television and radio shows. As a reporter, feature writer and critic, she spent 25 years at The Washington Post, where she was an original member of the Style and Weekend sections.

For more tips, marital and relationship advice and to see how other couples have gotten to the altar, visit our OnLove section.

The transcript follows.

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Miss Manners: Gentle readers, Miss Manners is here to help.

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Holiday, Fla.: We've been invited to a wedding celebration for a longtime friend of my husband's family. We aren't planning to attend, and I need to know whether we're obligated to send a present. I don't even like the bride.

Miss Manners: You will be relieved to hear that you do not have to send a present, but less so to hear that in addition to your formal letter declining the invitation, you should send a letter wishing the couple happiness. In neither should you mention that you don't even like the bride.

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Jackson Hole, W.Y.: Dear Miss Manners,

This will be my third wedding. I make no apologies. I entered the first while still a teen, and both in good faith. My fiance, also in his mid-forties, has never been married, but lived with several women. Still, he's had no wedding ceremony.

The problem is his mother, who wants an elaborate event for her bachelor son. He believes he "owes" his family a big wedding, and I feel that, as a third-time bride, I'd like to give him what he wants. My family is distant, dysfunctional, elderly, and most decidedly not interested in attending my nuptials. (If they did, they'd be more interested in embarrassing me.) The majority of my dearest friends are half the world away.

I know that "etiquette" can't solve this. But is there any way to have a ceremony where the bride stands alone, surrounded by a hundred of his friends and relatives, without it looking odd? He'll happily elope if I ask him to, and we can deal with his family later.

Sincerely, Third Time's a Charm

Miss Manners: Aren't you lucky that your family won't attend that big wedding, murmuring dysfunctional comments? The repeat grand wedding is no longer unusual, and surely easier to go through than dealing with an unhappy family later.

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McLean, Va.: First of all, please allow me to say that I have enjoyed every word you have ever published, including your two novels and the speech you gave when your son graduated from college.

But on to the question. My son is getting married in the fall, and the woman he is marrying strongly dislikes the custom of kissing when the guests at the reception clang on their glasses. While I respect her wishes not to kiss on demand, she is also suggesting that if such clanging occurs my husband and I should kiss instead. I am not sure if this would be funny, or simply rude.

Miss Manners: Clank & Kiss is not a charming custom, and if the bride finds it unsuitable for herself, surely she should recognize that it is even less suitable for you. You might advise the couple to acknowledge the demand merely by raising their glasses to their guests, and hope that the guests don't bang their glasses to pieces in response.

And thank you for your kind words.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: I'm getting married this June. My older sister was supposed to be my maid-of-honor, but she learned in December that she was pregnant. Her due-date is less than a week after my wedding date, and her doctor has advised her not to travel at all during that time, so she's not going to be able to make it to the wedding. I'm really happy for my sister, but I'm not sure what to do. Do I make one of my other bridesmaids the maid of honor? Or can I just have my wedding without a maid of honor? Thank you so much for your time and advice!

Miss Manners: A maid of honor is not a wedding requirement as, for example, a bridegroom is.

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Hamburg, Germany:

Could you please tell us the correct etiquette regarding speechmaking at wedding receptions and other parties?

Many times I have been at a party, engaged in an interesing conversation with one or more of my fellow guests, only to have it interrupted by yet another guest banging a spoon against a glass because he has something to say which he feels "everyone should hear." He then proceeds to make a speech, sometimes even over the protestations of the host, and almost always a lot less interesting than the conversation he just interrupted.

Does etiquette really require everybody to be quiet and listen everytime someone bangs a spoon? And is there a rule specifying who is or is not allowed to make a speech?

Miss Manners: Ad hoc wedding speeches, and even many planned ones, can be unfortunate, but using a hook to pull guests away from a microphone is unseemly. So yes, you do have to pretend to listen, and to hope that the host will get up and say, "Thank you, and now that the speeches are over, please be seated."

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Guess I'm Old Fashioned: My friends tell me I am old fashioned for expecting a thank you note for a wedding gift. I have a rule that if I don't get a thank you for the wedding gift, forget a baby gift. My friends tell me to loosen up. I say a thank you note is appropriate. What do you say?

Miss Manners: If they declare gratitude outdated, they must also declare generosity out-dated. If a present is received in silence, you may assume it did not please the recipient and not repeat your attempt.

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Boston, Mass.: I have a good friend whose wedding I attended about three years ago, but I have yet to buy the happy couple a wedding gift! I sent a shower gift on time, but just kept delaying buying a wedding gift, since I was searching for something "perfect." Months have now stretched into years and I'm still so embarrassed about it that I don't know what to do. I was thinking about buying them some nice wine with an effusively apologetic note (who knows what they even "need" any more, so long after their nuptials). Any suggestions on how to handle this big faux pas? Many thanks!

Miss Manners: Apologies tend to defend the original error. People do not like to hear that someone was too busy or too forgetful to think of them. Still, it is a good thing that this remains on your conscience. Why don't you send the wine as an anniversary present?

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SW Waterfront: My partner and I are planning a very small wedding with only immediate family and very close friends in attendance. We would, however, like to inform others as to our union without appearing to be begging for presents. Is a wedding announcement out of line? And, if not, how does one get across "no presents please" without having to state it on the announcement? Thank you for your thoughts.

Miss Manners: Formal wedding announcements are rarely sent nowadays, possibly because couples are too busy telling the entire world about their weddings on the internet. But announcements are intended to inform people who you believe would care to know; they are not demands for presents, however many people mistakenly think so. (They require merely a return message of good wishes.) But if you are wary of your friends' reactions, send them individual chatty messages instead.

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State of slight confusion: My wife's best friend got married nearly a year ago. The bride wore beautiful white wedding dress and carried flowers. A small number of friends were in attendance and a meal followed. Pictures were taken and posted online. The problem? This ceremony took place at a courthouse (there were insurance issues that needed to be addressed ASAP). So, this spring, a bit over a year later, they are holding a "real wedding," complete with another ceremony (and large reception). My wife thinks this is perfectly normal, but it seems odd to me. Is this the new normal? Thanks for your reply.

Miss Manners: It's not a "real wedding," because these people are already married. But there are many who regard weddings as a chance to indulge in ego-fests and want as many as possible (without the trouble of divorce), so they stage re-enactments.

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Alexandria, Va.: I'm a soon to be bride whose been more heartbroken than happy lately. The problem is my parents are causing so much drama in the wedding planning. We just can't seem to win. We offered to pay for the wedding ourselves since we knew that they wouldn't agree with our religious views for the ceremony; they accused us of being cold-hearted and that we would shame them by not allowing help. They have been pressuring us to choose vendors that they like, going to far to put deposits down without our consent on things that we are supposed to be paying for. It would be a gift if not for the fact that it was being crammed down our throats. My parents keep berating any choice that my fiance and I make, and have gone so far as to tell us that we should just let them choose everything because "any other bride would just show up and say thank you". They refer to it as their wedding and tell us that we should just shut up and show up (and plan on leaving early because people aren't coming to see us.)I'm trying to please so many masters here that invariably no one is happy. My fiance and I are sticking to our guns on our core beliefs, but every day its a fight, and no one is looking forward to my wedding. My bridesmaids are constantly being undermined, insulted and my folks have even screamed at me in public because we didn't want to choose the DJ that they liked. I'm trying really hard to continue to include them but I can't fathom how to be excited when there is all this bad blood that keeps cropping up. Been going to therapy but I feel like I need an intervention. Suggestions please? I'm tried of being accused of being a bridezilla when I feel like I'm bending over backwards to be just the opposite.

Miss Manners: Elope.

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Rosslyn, Va.: Good morning. My 26-year-old daughter is getting married on May 15th. Are the traditions really kaput? Of six weddings she's attended in the past year, NO ONE sent a thank you note. She's decided (of her own accord, with her mom's blessing) that she will send thank you notes. My opinion of not sending thank you notes is this is the ultimate rudeness. Your thoughts?

Miss Manners: Thanking people is not kaput, but apparently your daughter's friends' manners are. Be grateful that she does not suffer from the same selfish problem.

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Washington, D.C.: Wedding issues tend to be my favorite to read about in advice columns, for nothing else seems to bring out the heinous, ugly side of human nature -- an irony, given that weddings are supposed to (in my mind) represent values like love, commitment and family. The most offensive ugly wedding issue I've ever encountered was a bride-to-be who wanted to request that one of her wedding party cousins not participate in any official group photos because the cousin was overweight. I've also read about a bridesmaid whom the bride chastized because the bridesmaid, who was working her way through graduate school at the time, could not afford the travel, lodging and dress expected of her to attend the "destination" wedding. I think whenever the term "my special day" starts to get thrown around, you know a disaster is in the works. If one finds oneself the victim of a bridezilla (or groomzilla, although this is rarer), what should be done? I know you've pointed out it is rude to point out others' rudeness, but simply not participating may send the wrong message. How can you emerge from such a mess with grace and (if desired) an amicable relationship with the newlyweds?

Miss Manners: Ah, yes, Miss Manners' mail is filled with examples such as you cite. "My special day," which seems to sanction selfishness, and "the Perfect Wedding," which sets an impossible goal, have done great damage, often turning formerly reasonable people into unpleasant maniacs. One cannot always keep away from such people when they are in that state, but it is well not to accept any honors from them that entail obligations other than attending the wedding as ordinary guests.

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Washington, D.C.: I've been married for eight years, but I still can't get over my guilt about not writing a thank-you note for one wedding gift we received. The gift came in the mail directly from the store where we registered, and it had no card or receipt indicating who the giver was. I called the store, but the giver paid with cash and so they had no information. I compared the list of gifts given with the list of invited guests, but there were over a dozen people who could have given the gift, and I didn't want to put them in the position of saying they hadn't given a gift by asking if the mystery gift came from them.

It makes me sad that a friend or family member thinks that their gift is unappreciated and unacknowledged. Do I need to let this go, or can you suggest another way I might find out who the giver is?

Miss Manners: That you still feel uneasy about an unacknowledged present is admirable, even though it was not your fault. But after eight years, surely the trail has gone cold. What you might have done then was to make sure you fretted about the problem to the likely suspects, something along the lines of, "Someone sent me this perfectly beautiful whatsis, and I'm devastated that I can't find out who it was."

You can try it now, but even the donors may have forgotten what they gave (or they may all claim it).

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Washington, D.C.: What is the etiquette for inviting my sister's new in-laws to my wedding? My sister was the first (out of four sisters) to get married and now with my own wedding coming up, I feel that I will be setting the precedent for whether or not to invite our sister's husband's parents. This has been a huge point of contention between my parents and I. Thank you.

Miss Manners: It would be gracious to include these people, but you are quite right in thinking this would set a precedent. The rule is to limit by categories -- no third cousins, or no children under 12-- rather than to risk insulting individuals. But with four marriageable sisters, it might be well to set a precedent of inclusive weddings. The guest list should have priority over the arrangements, which is to say that you ask first who should be there, and then what you can afford to feed them, rather than the other way around.

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Thank-you notes: Speaking as a person in my mid-30s, I just want to say that all of my friends and I are scrupulous about sending thank you notes. Etiquette is not dead!

Miss Manners: Bless you and thank you.

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Washington, D.C.: Does the rule about receptions change in Vegas if the few guests and the bride and groom all go out to dinner after the wedding? Who's expected to pay?

Miss Manners: Guests are guests. If you are entertaining them, no matter where, you should pay.

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Children: Dear Miss Manners,

Thank you for answering my question. I am in the midst of wedding planning and am in a quandary about inviting children to the wedding. A number of my friends have children, who are lovely and I honestly enjoy being with. These children are all under the age of three.

I would like to invite our friends with children, knowing that a) my friends would definitely take their child out of the room during the ceremony/reception if s/he started crying and b)many may chose to use a babysitter so they can enjoy the evening. We of course will also help find babysitters for out of town guests.

However, my family says that people don't enjoy being at weddings with children -- that they are a nuisance and take away from the parents' enjoyment of the day. I lean towards letting the parents decide if they would like their children to attend, and trusting in their abilities as parents to not let their children roam wild (I don't believe this trust is misplaced). But I don't want guests without children to have a bad time at the wedding. What would you advise, and if you do advise not inviting children, how can I politely tell people? Thank you for your help.

Miss Manners: Surely your friends know best whether they would enjoy bringing their children to your wedding. And for everyone else who objects in general to children at weddings, there are others who find their presence adds charm to what is, after all, a family occasion. However, it is considerate, if you can manage it, to hire someone to provide nearby childcare so that the parents can have some respite from supervision.

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Washington, D.C.: How does one know when NOT to give a wedding or shower gift when one is told not to, but others do? Let me explain: my friend, in her 60s, married for the first time. Because she and her now-husband already had two complete households, the wedding invitations requested that we not give them gifts, but, if so inclined, make donations to one of the charities they listed. I made such a donation. Then, I attended a "bridal luncheon" (not a "bridal shower") and I ended up being the only person there who did not give the bride a gift. I even asked one of the hostesses whether I should bring a shower gift, and she told me that she thought the charitable donation was all that the bride wanted. Well, I was completely embarrassed because I had taken both the bride and the luncheon hostess at their words. I ended up buying a wedding present and mailing it, thus spending almost twice as much as I had budgeted for a gift, since I had already made the donation. What did I do wrong here?

Miss Manners: What you did wrong was to be embarrassed about following the bride's wishes.

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Gainesville, Va.: Good morning. I am getting married in June and expect about 100 guests of mostly family and close friends. I would also like for a few people from my office to attend, but because I work with a small group of people (six to be exact), I wonder: Is it OK to invite some but not all?

Miss Manners: Invite those with whom you socialize away from the office (workaday lunches and business events disguised as parties do not count): Those are your friends.

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Arlington: I have enjoyed your columns and books for many years and just read your latest wedding book, even though I won't be planning my daughters' weddings for quite a few years. Even though I'm not that old, I am dismayed by the explosion of wedding mania and the attendant costs in just the past few years. Please don't give up hope for the younger generation, though. After perusing your book and checking out the invitation to our wedding, my 11-year old informed us that my mother and I had indeed used the correct form!

Miss Manners: Please give your 11-year-old Miss Manners' congratulations. You have a delightful wedding to look forward to some day.

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Save the date: Save the date cards were mailed. Now, however, the wedding is off. How should one inform the recipients of "save the date": formally or informally (i.e., cards, notes, phone calls)?

Miss Manners: it would be well to do this with an informal note, saying that the wedding has been called off by mutual decision (the only official reason a wedding is called off, even if the bride has discovered that the bridegroom has wife and six children elsewhere). Organized people file those save-the-date cards in their engagement calendars, but may not be organized enough to remember a telephone call canceling the event.

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Washington, D.C.: My husband and I did not include his parents' names on our wedding invitation. We felt this was appropriate because (1) it was traditional and (2) his parents did not pay or even offer to pay for a single thing (not even a rehearsal dinner), nor did they assist in any other way. They gave him a very hard time over the omission. We had not anticipated that what we thought was an appropriate invitation would cause such a stir with his parents. Others might find themselves in a similar situation, so your thoughts are appreciated.

Miss Manners: The traditional form, while still in use, presumed that everyone knew who the bridegroom's family was, probably because they lived next door to the bride's. Some solve the problem of identifying them by a joint wedding invitation from both sets of parents, but they could also simply insert their visiting card in the standard formal invitation.

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How many gifts?: How many gifts am I supposed to give when I attend a wedding? I used to think one (a substantial one, usually from their registry), either given at the bridal shower or sent prior to the wedding, but now I've heard I'm also supposed to bring a gift to the wedding regardless. I thought that gift table was for those people who didn't send one prior to the wedding, but maybe I'm wrong. Essentially, the rule I've heard is now a substantial wedding gift is expected upon announcement of the nuptials, and another if you actually attend the wedding.

Am I supposed to give another substantial one as well if I'm in the wedding or at the bachelorette party as well? Engagement party? Usually, I'll give smaller, more personal gifts at those times, such as a framed snapshot of the happy couple, but is more expected?

I'm not even complaining about the expense of it all, but I get so frustrated with getting caught between everyone's differing expectations!

Miss Manners: And the expectations become larger and greedier by the minute. Anything beyond a small present if you attend a bridal shower and one wedding present is ridiculous, no matter what people seem to expect.

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Boston, Mass.: Pre-wedding question: do you tell your best friend of two decades that he's making a huge mistake in getting married, or clam up?

For what it's worth, telling him will not change his mind, and I don't want to be in the "I told you so" business.

Miss Manners: Then clam up.

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Silver Spring, Md.: My fiance and I are getting married in a few weeks, and we're having trouble paying for it. Her parents have each said how mow they are willing to pay, but my parents haven't said a word. Is it wrong to keep asking when they are going to help us out?

Miss Manners: Yes. You should be putting that effort into re-planning a wedding you can afford.

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Chinatown: Is it completely inappropriate to ask friends who are getting married if we can bring our four year old daughter to the wedding if we don't expect an extra meal or chair for her at the reception? She is very well-behaved and we are ultra-conscious about her behavior. In fact, the weekend before this wedding, she will be the flowergirl at her aunt's wedding.

Miss Manners: Yes, it is completely out of line. Your daughter was not invited, and you have no idea of the trouble it might make for your friends if she attends when other children of their relatives and friends did not.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm free to marry in DC now. Hurray! I am also a member of a local social club connected with an annual drag pageant. Drag queens in the wedding party? Yea or nay?

Miss Manners: The wedding party should consist of your close friends and/or relatives, not required to pretend what they are not.

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San Francisco, Calif.: How much food is necessary at a wedding? My mother and I fought constantly, with my mother always thinking more is better, while I don't think our guests came to gorge themselves and that overkill can be tacky. For example, the meal at our venue included a dessert. At her insistence, we also agreed to a cake. She surprised us by adding an extra tier, so that we would have enough for each guest to have a generous slice and dessert, plus extra slices for about half the 200+ guests. At the end of the evening, less than half of the cake was eaten. She also increased the caterer's recommended amount for coffee, hors d'oeuvres, etc., insisting they couldn't possibly be high enough. I figured the staffers were professionals at a very reputable, high-priced venue who have done this for a while, and they have no incentive to tell us to get less than we need. There was a lot of waste, which rather bothered me, but she insists this was necessary to not look cheap. What is your take?

Miss Manners: There are some people who feel that a marriage isn't legal until all the guests have been stuffed to the point of discomfort, and your mother seems to be one of them. Now that she settled the argument by ordering it, your task is merely to freeze the leftovers.

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Destination weddings: If guests are spending substantial amounts to travel to destination weddings, are guests expected to bring gifts of the same value of attending a local wedding without travel costs?

Miss Manners: The two expenses are not related. People who cannot or do not care to spend the money to travel should not go. Those who choose inconvenient locations should not expect everyone to swallow that inconvenience. In any case, wedding presents should not cost more than the givers can comfortably afford.

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Miss Manners: I am so sorry that I was unable to get to all the questions before time ran out. However, I will still be answering questions through the newspaper and internet columns. Thank all of you gentle readers for your attention.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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