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Even the choice to waive gifts altogether—another trend, which would appear to be completely selfless—can stir up negative feelings, depending on how the preference is presented. "We asked for donations in lieu of gifts because this is how we live our lives, and we wanted to share that with our wedding guests," says Fitter. Still, she was conscious of not offending her crowd in the way she requested contributions. "We offered a choice of charities, not just one. On our wedding Web site, we wrote, 'If you care to contribute…' not, 'We ask that you contribute.' It's subtle, but your tone does make a difference."
Fitter may have been more wary than most because of stories she had heard. "One person told me that the bride of a wedding she planned to attend actually enclosed donation envelopes in the invitations; another said the couple had envelopes handed out to guests as soon as they walked in the door to the ceremony," she reports. "People are offended by this! You don't want to feel like you're being corralled into donating to a cause."
Miriam Hodesh, of Savannah, also went the charity route. She says she was in the middle of a department store with her fiancé, registering for household items, when the two were hit by the realization that what they were doing didn't reflect them at all. "We deleted our registries," Miriam recalls. She ended up including a card in her invitation inviting guests to donate to the Save Darfur Coalition. The majority did donate, but some guests, mainly of their parents' generation, insisted on giving a physical gift in addition.
"Asking guests to donate to charity rather than gift the two people at the center of this occasion can be fraught with confusion," says Dr. Zukin. "The older generation, particularly, feels uneasy being a part of an event without giving something tangible to the couple. There are hundreds of years of cultural practices surrounding durable items like glasses and toasters—you can imagine these items living in a kitchen, being used on the table. The newness of practices like this, and giving experiences or more transient objects, feels a little strange to some people."
Yet it's the diminishing taboo of unconventional presents that's behind MyRegistry.com, a service that allows couples to compile a wedding-gift wish list of nearly anything—objects or services, sold online or not. "The tables have turned, and now wedding guests really do want to be given suggestions of what you want the most, whatever that is, whether it's scuba lessons or money to go back to school," says Nancy Lee, the company's president. Lee also says that much thought went into exactly how couples should ask for what they want on the site. The very popular cash option, for one, was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible, offering a space for couples to name and describe how they've earmarked the money (e.g. "Grand Piano Fund"). "This way, something that used to feel so impersonal is not anymore," she says. "It's not just writing a check. You don't have to wait until you receive the thank-you note to find out how you've helped the couple get something they've hoped for."