Sophie Watson, 07.25.2017

Single at a wedding: the new rules of wedding guest etiquette

Being single during wedding season has long had a bad rap. We’re constantly told about the misery of attending a wedding alone and the difficulty of determining if you have a plus one. However, our new study has revealed that singles’ attitudes towards weddings are changing: so much so that it's time to rewrite the rules of wedding guest etiquette.

Research has shown that 80% of American weddings occur between May and October, with the busiest part of the season taking place from August to October.1 That means we’re about to hit the peak of wedding season – and EliteSingles decided to celebrate by writing a survival guide for single guests.

However, after surveying 1500 Americans on their wedding etiquette opinions, we found out something interesting. American singles don’t need a survival guide at all. In fact, the rules of wedding guest etiquette may need to be rewritten, for being single at a wedding is no longer something to dread. In fact, for many of our users, it's something to celebrate. 

5 new rules of wedding guest etiquette

Old rule: it’s kind to give all guests a plus-one
New rule: your guests are happy to fly solo

Engaged and married people’s ‘other halves’ get an automatic wedding invitation, but it’s never been a rule that single invitees must be allowed to bring a date. That said, it’s often assumed that it’s the nice thing to do – and that single guests will be disappointed without the plus one option. This assumption is so common that even etiquette doyens like Martha Stewart often dish out advice on how to deal with the fallout and still keep the friendship.2

Yet, our survey revealed that the majority of American singles don’t actually want a plus one invitation. In fact, far from being a must-have, 58% feel that including an ‘and guest’ on a single person’s wedding invitation puts too much pressure on the invitee to come up with a suitable date.Interestingly though, it appears that this attitude is something that comes with maturity: just 41% of singles under 30 would prefer to be without a plus one, compared with 52% of those aged 30-45 and 58% of those aged 45-60.

  • Fast fact: 58% of American singles don't think that plus-ones are a good idea

Old rule: women care the most about being single at a wedding
New rule: men feel a stronger need to find a wedding date

Classic romcoms like My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Wedding Date see women going to ridiculous lengths to find a partner who will ease their single-at-a-wedding anxiety. Then there are the likes of Wedding Crashers and Zac and Dave Need Wedding Dates, where men have the time of their lives at weddings – as long as they don’t have a date around to cramp their style.

But has this stereotype had its day? Our survey says yes! The truth is, if there’s one gender that’s unfazed about being single at a wedding, it’s women. If given an invitation without a plus one option, 77% of women would happily go solo to a wedding, compared with 65% of men. What’s more, 25% of men would defy wedding guest etiquette rules3 and ask if they could bring a date or bring someone without asking. Just 17% of women would do the same.

EliteSingles’ in-house relationship psychologist Zoe Coetzee says ''although being single at a wedding is not the touchy topic it traditionally was, the genders can still experience the ceremony differently. Women can view a wedding more as a communal celebration of love focused on the newly married couple. However, men can experience a wedding more as a competitive arena; the wedding environment increasing the instinctual drive to secure a partner, and raising the preference to bring a plus one to the party.''

  • Fast fact: 25% of men think it's ok to try a bring a date along, even without a plus one invite

Old rule: the singles’ table is something to dread
New rule: single guests actually appreciate the chance to bond

Strictly speaking, the singles’ table might have more to do with wedding tradition than etiquette, but that doesn’t stop it from a being a hot matrimonial topic. The loudest voices are often those who paint the idea of a singles’ table as dire, seeing it as awkward or synonymous with the ‘misfits table’– and this is certainly the case in pop culture, with everything from Sex and the City to The Wedding Singer showing the singles’ table as the last place you want to be.

So should singles’ tables be banned? Don’t even think about it. Far from being a wedding taboo, 42% of people surveyed say it's actually the single-at-a-wedding tradition they’re most likely to enjoy (for context, the second most-liked tradition, being actively set up with other singles, only got 19% of the vote!). Perhaps this is because singles in the survey see the table as a romantic opportunity – something emphasized by the fact that 61% of men and 52% of women see a wedding as the perfect occasion to meet someone special.

  • Fast fact: the singles' table is America's favorite single-at-a-wedding tradition

Old rule: make singles feel special with a bouquet toss or special dance
New rule: don't single out the singles – treat your guests alike

After the dinner and the speeches, you'll often hear the DJ calling all couples up for the couples’ dance. Singles don't take part, but get their turn in the spotlight when it’s time for the bouquet or garter toss. And, as they don’t have someone to dance with, they usually can partner up with an elderly relative or young flower girl, and everyone will be happy, right?

Well, according to the survey, perhaps not. The two least-enjoyed singles’ wedding traditions are being expected to be the one who will dance with the kids (disliked by 29%), and taking part in the bouquet/garter toss (disliked by 26%). In fact, aside from the singles’ table, any activity that marks out your single guests as different might need to be rethought, even that couples’ dance. For 1-in-3 American singles (36%), watching the couples’ dance when you don’t have someone to dance with yourself is the hardest part of being single at a wedding.  

  • Fast fact: a quarter of American singles (26%) don't want to take part in the bouquet/garter toss

Old rule: if you bring someone with you, it has to be romantic
New rule: platonic friends make the ideal wedding dates

Formal wedding guest etiquette says that if you’re given the option of bringing a companion to someone’s wedding, you must take a ‘serious date’. According to Lizzie Post (the great-great-granddaughter of the famous Emily), friends, relatives, housemates, and new beaus just don’t pass muster – if it’s not a committed romantic relationship, it’s best to attend solo.4

However, modern predilections are at odds with these rules. If given a firm plus one invite, just 41% of those not in serious relationships would please Ms Post and choose to fly solo. The rest would bring dates – but they’d keep it casual. 28% would bring a platonic friend, 27% would pick a new crush or someone they'd just started dating, and 2% would look for a date online.

So, it would seem that the new wedding etiquette should appreciate the fact that Americans think less formal wedding dates are ok. But do they still need to be romantic? Here, the gender divide again rears its head. For women, the best date is a friend: 37% would pick a pal, and only 16% would take a brand new squeeze. For men, it’s very different: just 17% would want to attend with a platonic friend, while 41% would prefer to take a crush/new flame.

Zoe Coetzee believes that this is because ''women may feel that taking a new date to a wedding can put too much pressure on a fledgling relationship, and accompanying a partner in the early stages of a relationship adds an added responsibility for the event. Whereas, men can see a wedding as a romantic occasion to kick off a relationship, with it being a beneficial platform to display social capital and enjoy the positive effect of a celebratory atmosphere.''

  • Fast fact: 37% of single women think a platonic friend makes the best wedding date. Just 17% of men agree

Singles at weddings may not love every activity that’s thrown their way. Yet, the stereotype of single people dreading weddings and scrambling to find a suitable date has had its day. The vast majority of American singles are in fact happy to fly solo at a wedding, content to mingle at the singles’ table, and, when they do take a date, open to the idea of going with a good friend. Perhaps, this wedding season, it’s time to rewrite the rules of wedding guest etiquette.

If you have questions or comments about correct wedding guest etiquette, or about this study, let us know! Write a comment below or email us at editorial@elitesingles.com

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