While every wedding is a little bit different, there are a few tried-and-true pieces of etiquette for guests that apply across the board—like arriving 15 minutes before the ceremony start time mentioned on the invitation or only RSVP-ing for the number of guests specified on the invitation’s envelope. While you probably won't find these directions listed on the wedding website or stuffed into the invitation suite, you should consider these wedding guest norms to be the unspoken laws of wedding reception attendance. We've compiled a list of a few things you need to know specifically about the reception, so you can be the very best wedding guest and ensure your seat at the next big event.
Taking Your Seat
Toward the end of cocktail hour, servers (and sometimes the wedding planner) will begin to approach guests and encourage them to make their way to the reception. Do your best to head that way when you’re asked, as delays in seating can also cause delays in the kitchen—meaning cold food. If you’re mid-conversation, wrap it up on the way to your seats, or seek out your companion later to finish what you were discussing. Not sure where to sit? Look for an escort-card display on your way to the reception space, which will tell you your table number. Once you’ve arrived, take a look at the table and see if there are place cards with guests’ names at each seat. If so, sit wherever you find your name. Otherwise, grab whichever seat looks good at your table; if there's no assigned seating it's expected that guests will go forth and pick at will.
Giving a Gift
While the couple's registry, invitation suite, and wedding website will usually be your point of reference for what type of gift to give, many guests can experience confusion about how they should actually present the gift to the couple. If you choose to forgo the option of shipping directly to the couple's home, gifting etiquette suggests that the gift should be brought to the reception itself. The newlyweds should have designated a trusted person (usually the wedding planner or a member of the wedding party) to relieve guests of their gifts and store them in a safe space.
Hitting the Dance Floor
Though the timeline will vary from wedding to wedding, dancing usually begins after the traditional first dance, father-daughter dance, and mother-son dance as it is expected that these VIPs will be responsible for opening up the dance floor to the rest of the guests. If you’re not sure when to hit the dance floor, keep an eye on the bridesmaids and groomsmen. They’ve been briefed about the evening’s schedule, so they’ll know when it’s their cue to get guests to join the newlyweds. Some weddings will begin with a dance set before dinner service starts, while others will have a full meal before anyone hits the dance floor. Follow the crowd, take your cues from hosts, and of course, listen for the DJ or bandleader to invite you.
Making a Toast
Unless you were invited by the couple to say something during the reception, or they specifically open the mic up to anyone who wishes to speak, do not try and give a speech. You may have something really genuine and sweet to say, but if it’s not part of the evening’s scheduled events, it may not be appreciated, no matter how heartfelt your words are. The wedding-day timeline and itinerary is comprised of a delicate balance of well thought out scheduling that the couple has ruminated on for months, so throwing in an unexpected impromptu speech can really make a mess of things. Instead, go up to the bride or groom and share a quick private moment.
Posting Pictures on Social Media
Before you start posting, check to see if you’ve gotten any signals from the bride or groom. It’s quite common to see a note on the ceremony program asking guests to put their phones away during this big moment, but that usually does not extend to the reception unless the couple specifically says so. If you do want to share a few snaps, see if the couple has a hashtag you should use. This will ensure they can easily see the pictures you shared once the wedding night is over.
In the past, the newlyweds didn’t always stay until the end of the reception—meaning guests stayed as long as the couple did, then left whenever they pleased after the honorees had departed. Today, with late-night celebrations and after-parties on the schedule, it’s not uncommon to see the happy couple out celebrating until the wee hours with their guests. Ready to head home, even if the band is still rocking? Wait until after the cake has been cut, which is a signal that the formalities of the evening are over. Don’t forget to have a bite or two, which is supposed to be good luck for the couple’s marriage. Make sure to seek out the newlyweds and their parents before you depart to say goodbye and give them your final well wishes.