Experts: The Propriety Pro

Good wedding manners involve a lot more than just fancy table settings and proper phrasing on invitations. Local etiquette consultant Jodi R. R. Smith tells us why it’s all about ensuring that everyone enjoys the (drama-free) festivities.


Photograph by Jared Leeds

NO WEDDING DILEMMA is impossible to untangle for Jodi R. R. Smith, president of the Marblehead-based etiquette consulting business Mannersmith and author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners (Sterling). Smith is an unflappable fairy-godmother type who advises the soon-to-be married about the trickiest details: navigating guest-list politics (are you obliged to invite someone because she invited you to her wedding?), deciding whether to feed each other cake, and managing a thorny seating chart. Smith fills us in on how to minimize conflict on and leading up to the big day.

What is the fine line that separates good and bad wedding etiquette?
A wedding has a dual purpose: to celebrate the joining of two people, and for everybody to enjoy the celebration. And that part, the celebration, takes some consideration — like if you have a lot of elderly relatives, then maybe the punk-rock band at 6 in the evening isn’t the best choice.

People think “perfect” etiquette means having white tablecloths and a five-course meal at your wedding. You can have a perfectly polite event on the beach in sundresses and shorts — as long as you handle it appropriately. For example, a bride can wear a bright red mini dress down the aisle, but she has to understand that it’s going to shock a lot of the guests, because they expect white, ivory, or pastel. On the wedding program, she can indicate, “Please note: In accordance with Suzy’s non-traditional outlook on life, she has eschewed ivory and will be wearing a color that pops.” That way the guests expect a surprise — but it’s a surprise in a good way, not in a bad way.

If you are inviting a lot of out-of-town guests, you have to feed them more than cake and champagne. Or you have to make it clear on the invitations: “A ceremony at 2 p.m., followed by a cake and champagne reception.” It’s all about allowing people to anticipate the interaction.

What are some etiquette mistakes that many couples make?
The bride and groom forget that this is their opportunity to behave like mature adults, and they revert to their childhood roles. They should, first and foremost, create a budget. Once they have a dollar amount, then they can begin planning. Couples also need to think about how to honor the people in their lives who helped them reach their wedding day — regardless of whether the person is helping to fund it. Lastly, couples forget that the wedding is not “all about them.” Weddings are the joining of two families, and occasionally the blending of cultures, and this needs to be factored in as well.

On your website, you field inquiries on etiquette. How does that work?

I actually do it pro bono, because I enjoy helping brides and grooms. People get very emotionally involved in the moment, and I can give them some perspective.

Is there anything you see at weddings that you’d rather not?
The one thing I can’t stand is the garter toss. It’s gotten to the point of disgusting; it’s salacious. I’ve seen it done in horrific ways. Case in point would be when the wedding party blindfolds the groom and puts his new mother-in-law in the seat. It’s cringe-worthy. Anything that makes your guests cringe is probably something that you shouldn’t be doing.

We’re pretty sure you’re not a fan of the couple feeding or shoving the cake in each other’s faces, either.

That’s another one I cannot stand. Some frosting on the nose for the photographer — I’ll acquiesce to that. But I don’t want to see brides feeding the grooms or vice versa. The smashing of the cake is a no-no.

What is your definition of bad etiquette?
Having good manners means having confidence in yourself and the ability to make those around you feel comfortable. So bad etiquette would be the opposite: not having confidence and making those around you uncomfortable. Not thinking about what is polite can cause unnecessary hurt feelings, and even long-term feuds. So, for example, inviting one aunt and uncle but not another, or putting two drama queens who hate each other at the same table.

And what’s the best thing that can happen as a result of good etiquette?
It’s like that famous Coco Chanel quote: “If a woman is poorly dressed, you notice the clothes. If she is impeccably dressed, you notice the woman.” People don’t leave and say, “Jodi had good manners!” They leave the wedding saying, “That was a beautiful wedding.” When you do it right, people just enjoy being around you and being at your event.

If — when — things do go crazy, any words of wisdom to keep sane?

One of the things I tell brides: You have control over yourself. You can control the way you interact with other people. But you cannot control other people. You have to remember that. Pause, take a moment, and act instead of react. That will serve you well in the wedding-planning process.

Tips: Jodi R. R. Smith shares a few strategies for keeping your wedding delightful and disaster-free.

Start Smart
The invitation is the first piece of information your guests will have about the upcoming affair, so consider your theme and message as you choose the invitation that best suits your wedding day.

Register Responsibly
Be sure your registry includes items in a wide range of prices so your guests are able to find something that matches their budget.

Take Note
You do not have a year to write thank-you notes: Gifts should be acknowledged as soon as possible. Thank-you cards for gifts received at the wedding should be written within two weeks of your return from the honeymoon.

Jodi R. R. Smith,