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The Complete Guide to Surviving a Wedding as a Plus One When You Don’t Know a Soul: Wedding Guest Etiquette, Dresses, and More

by Alex DiBacco
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Wedding Guest Etiquette Plus One Guide

Weddings are traditionally fun events: everyone wants to be invited to them.  If the person you’ve been seeing for a few weeks suddenly asks you to be his plus one next weekend, of course you want to say yes. 

But the truth is that while attending a wedding always seems glamorous on the surface, it can actually be really sticky to be a plus one.  You’re friendless, you probably don’t have all the information about the dress code and venue, and you’re stuck in this situation for over 6 hours with no way out.

I’ve gone to a few too many weddings where I didn’t know a single soul besides my date.  Usually, I hadn’t even heard of the bride and groom before getting the invite. 

I eventually realized that while no wedding is exactly the same, there are similar patterns. 

I talked with a wedding specialist a few weeks ago and compiled a guide that’s mostly her professional information combined with some things I’ve either witness or experienced personally. Hopefully this will help you get through the night without embarrassing yourself or your date, while managing to even have a little fun!

Preparation

Dress the Part: If you walk in looking out of place, you’re probably already setting the stage to have a bad/awkward night.  You won’t feel like you fit in and so you won’t.  But a night that starts off a little awkward can be so much better if you look and feel amazing. 

Go over the dress code with your date multiple times and be sure you know what it means.  Seriously, I can’t stress this enough.  In my experience, guys will usually throw a few examples out there and assume you’ll be fine.  You won’t. 

You need to see the specific dress code on the invitation and do some research into what it means.  If you can’t get access to the invitation and it would be strange to ask your date, try to find the wedding website – it will usually state these details. Check out a wedding dress code guide and dress accordingly. In general, here are some rules you should follow:

-Don’t wear anything white, ivory, light pink, etc.

-Wear heels but nothing too high. A pair of delicate, strappy heels is always good.  Make sure to steer clear of anything that looks like you’re still in a sorority or are an old lady.  Aim for current but classic.

-Don’t wear anything tight, revealing, or with cutouts.  Again, be classic.  At the same time, choose something flattering that you know you look good in.  Longer maxi dresses (flowy on the bottom and fitted on the top) are good for formal weddings and wrap dresses work for the majority of the dress codes.

-Steer clear of anything that closely resembles a bridesmaid dress.  They’re typically plain and a bit more formal/less trendy.

-When in doubt, Lilly Pulitzer is always a classic choice.

Beautify Yourself: Before any big event, I always put in a little extra effort to look pretty.  This includes getting a light tan (if it’s warm outside, a natural tan looks best, otherwise I’ll go to a salon or use this self tanner), whiten your teeth, get eyelash extensions or practice with fake lashes, get artsy with eyeshadow palettes, glaze your hair, paint your nails or get them done, etc.

Gifting: While this is usually your date’s worry since he/she actually knows the bride and groom, it’s still on you if you go as a +1 and neither of you give a gift. 

If you know your date super well (are good friends, are actually dating him or are married, etc.), this part is easy.  Make sure you give a reasonable amount, either in cash/check or by buying a gift from the registry.  Write a classy, articulate note on the card wishing the couple well. 

If you don’t know your date very well, casually mention the gift.  If they says they’re going to take care of it, that’s the best you can do, but if they seems like they’re not getting something, your best bet is to try and find their wedding registry (through the website) and order something small from just you. 

Oftentimes you don’t even have to bring it to the wedding (a potentially awkward situation with your date) and can just send it to the couple after the wedding expressing how much fun you had and how great it was to meet them. 

The importance of etiquette is well-known to most people (and the couple getting married probably knows a bit about etiquette at this point!) so you want to make sure that you follow the most basic gifting rules.

The Ceremony

If your date is planning on attending the ceremony (according to wedding etiquette, he/she should be), be ready on time.

Have your purse packed at the front door a half hour before you need to leave.  There’s almost nothing more awkward than walking in halfway through the ceremony on one of the most important days of the couple’s life.

Follow your date’s lead on where to sit.  Be respectful during the ceremony, e.g. keep your phone on silent, sit quietly, smile when the bride walks down the aisle, etc. 

Basically, behave like a normal, polite adult.  I’ve actually seen quite a few people acting incredibly bored during the entire ceremony.  Don’t do that.  Paste a “interested but not overly emotional” expression on your face for the entire time and smile/clap when appropriate.

Try to introduce yourself to the happy couple shortly after the ceremony.  If there’s a receiving line, that’s the perfect time.  If not, hopefully your date will want to congratulate them outside, and you can get in a quick introduction. 

Thank them for having you, mention how beautiful the ceremony was, share how much the two of you have been looking forward to attending, etc.  Generally, compliments work.  It’s important that you get some sort of greeting in on the earlier end of the day.  Trust me, it’s super awkward (and bad wedding etiquette) to run into the bride in the bathroom at the end of the night having never officially met her.

If you’re a plus one to someone in the wedding party, that’s an even tougher situation.  You’ll probably be sitting alone during the ceremony, or with some of his friends or family.  Try not to act nervous.  Smile, keep your body loose, make casual conversation, etc.  Fake it till you make it.

The Cocktail Hour

Possibly the most uncomfortable time of attending any stranger’s wedding is the cocktail hour. It’s too well-lit, you’re forced to balance a drink and food and walk in heels, and the line for the bar is always ridiculously long. 

I’d grab a glass of champagne or wine (these are quicker and are sometimes available on trays) as the first stop. 

In this situation, it’s very okay and expected to stick to your date’s side like glue.  You can stand towards the side of the room and talk between the two of you or branch out if he knows other guests.

When chatting, it’s best to keep your drink in your left hand so that you can shake hands (if the other person offers). Try to remember names as you’re introduced (or at least avoid saying the wrong one) and use your best conversation skills. 

Be polite but don’t dominate the conversations – it’s not your turf. Mainly, follow your date’s lead and get through the experience.

Lastly, I don’t recommend eating during the cocktail hour. You’re more than likely going to spill the food on yourself, bite off an awkward amount and be stuck with food hanging out of your mouth, or drop it on the floor.  All of these have unfortunately happened to me and it sets you up to feel uncomfortable before you’re even in the main room.

The Reception

Because this is the main portion of the night, I’ve split this section of the guide into Dos and Don’ts for the reception hours.

DO:

Look for the other “low hanging fruit.”  Anyone who doesn’t have much of a relationship with the wedding party will fit perfectly.  They’ll probably feel awkward being at a wedding where they don’t really know the bride and groom.  You’re in the same boat. 

Most likely, they’ll happily befriend you, and suddenly you’ll have someone to walk over to when you can’t find your date. If your date isn’t super close to the bride and groom (he’s a childhood friend, college buddy, work colleague from a different department, etc.) then you’ll be seated with others who are more random invites, and that’s an easy avenue to start a conversation.

Make friends with your table.  Even if the crew you’re seated with is close to the bride and groom, you should attempt to converse with them before and during dinner. Some ice-breaker question that are appropriate include:

“How do you know the bride and groom?”
Complimenting another woman on her dress, shoes, earrings, hair, etc.
“Have you attended/will you be attending a lot of other weddings this year?”
“Are you from the area?”
“How long was the drive here?” (If they’re within driving distance)
“How was the flight? Where are you staying?” (If they’re from further away)
“What do you do for work?”
“Which option did you choose for dinner?” (You can turn the food/decor/venue into a decently long conversation if you’re stuck)
“Wasn’t the bride’s dress gorgeous?”
“How do you know (your date’s name)?”

My best advice for overcoming shyness is to stop focusing on yourself or what the others think of you, and instead focus on what others might be thinking and/or feeling about themselves, the conversation, and the reception. 

Seeing things from another’s point of view in terms of their thoughts and how they feel will really quickly switch your mindset of being self-conscious.  When you’re trying to make someone else feel at ease, you will suddenly say something that you wouldn’t have been brave enough to say before – you’ve stopped second guessing yourself.

Follow your date’s lead.  It’s his/her event, and you’re their date, so you go where they go and talk to who they want to speak with.  They want to hangout with a certain group or sit at the table?  Follow suit. 

If your date wants to dance a lot, it looks like you’ll be dancing.  You can of course split off from your date for a bit if the opportunity presents itself, but generally let them set the tone.

Dance! If your date is up for it (they probably will be since at some point during a wedding literally everyone is on the dance floor), off you go.  Even if you’re the worst dancer in the world, you have to do it.  It’s a wedding.  That’s why there’s a dance floor. 

Obviously you don’t want to be the only one out there, or busting a move when it’s mainly just the wedding party goofing around together, but at some point you should do some normal, nondescript dancing.

DON’T:

Use your phone.  If you do check it to take a Snapchat or respond to a text, do it quickly (30 seconds to a minute max) and then apologize to your date or the person you were talking to (even if you don’t mean it).  Most definitely do not pull out your phone if you’re in a 2 person conversation and the other person is in the middle of speaking.

Engage in intimate activities (even kissing or flirting) with anyone who isn’t your date.  So this has never happened to me personally on either end (phew!) but it’s still worthy of being included.  Not only is this very rude to your date, but it gives the wrong impression to anyone who doesn’t know you, which is (usually almost) everyone. 

The one exception to this rule is if your date is a clearly defined friend.  The only real examples of this would be if he has a significant other but was unable to bring her, his preferences are for male partners, or you’re related.  In these cases, if you do meet someone of interest, light flirting is acceptable but anything more will probably be judged. 

Calling yourself friends and both being available doesn’t count – the lines are very blurry and under no circumstances should you flirt with any other guest.

Talk about anything controversial.  People actually get heated when politics, religion, money, or any other weird topics come up at weddings.  Even if you’re super opinionated (especially if you’re super opinionated!), now isn’t the time.  You’re an extension of your date, so let them talk if they want to and just add non-descript lines to maintain the conversation if anything controversial comes up.

Overtly attempt to catch the bouquet.  I’ve seen plus one guests (who no one knows) try to do this occasionally and I cringe every time.  If you want to be involved, go stand towards the back/middle of the girl crowd (the front should be left for closer friends, sisters, and cousins) but don’t go into attack mode in order to snag it.

Be the drunkest person in the room.  Yikes!  This one is bad, because once you get there, there’s no turning back.  Seriously, pace yourself.  Feeling awkward can lead to gulping down a few extra drinks, but when you start to feel more than a little tipsy, pull back for an hour and drink a water.  If you’re too drunk, no one can fix it. 

Your date can’t control you (and will most likely be annoyed) and you certainly can’t control yourself.  If you do happen to cross over into scary territory, and there’s no return (i.e. you’re going to have a two day hangover) then get out of there now and send an especially nice gift.

Catch the “wedding feels” and emote all over your date.  I’m not a particularly romantic person, but it’s impossible to not catch the wedding feels as you watch the couple get married, sway to the first dance, and be cute with each other throughout the night. 

I’ve found that not knowing them makes it even worse, because you start thinking about what marriage is generally and how amazing it is that people all over the world begin their lives together every day.  And sure, it’s wonderful, but don’t cry excessively (you don’t know the couple so that’s strange), become overly romantic/sappy with your date, or start talking about marriage, or things could get awkward.

Be picky about your food.  Eat a roll or two and finish your salad so you have a buffer if you don’t like the food. 

If you didn’t get what you ordered, unless you have a serious allergy or dietary lifestyle that prevents you from eating it, I recommend dealing with it. Eat something small before so you’re not starving and don’t focus on the meal too much.

Get mad at your date for deserting you.  Theoretically, he should stick with you through the ceremony and cocktail hour, but during the reception, you may be on your own for periods of time.  Don’t worry too much: no one knows who you are so no one is really judging you for sitting quietly. 

If you make friends, seek them out (without being clingy) until your date returns.  He’s probably there because he actually knows people, so this is expected for at least a portion of the reception.  That’s the assumption that comes with being a plus one.  Just know going in that your date probably won’t meet all of your expectations: weddings are a death trap for couples.  If something happens that is a recurring problem, you can talk about it tomorrow, but you don’t want to be that couple screaming outside on the sidewalk.

Lastly, do not, I repeat DO NOT back out of the wedding last minute. Your date is expecting you and arrangements have been made for your seating, meal, etc. It is one of the worst etiquette Faux Pas POSSIBLE to skip attending a wedding. 

Unless you have a huge family emergency or life threatening illness (and I mean something very serious – your cousin spraining her ankle doesn’t count) then you must attend as soon as you have committed.

Departure

Follow your date’s lead on when to depart – it’s his event.  Say the appropriate goodbyes, make sure you left the present, and leave.  This part is pretty easy.  You can do it.

Follow this guide, plan ahead, look amazing, and have a fun evening not knowing anyone.  You can be whoever you want to be for a night. How often does that happen?

Happy wedding season!

xo, Alex

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