Ask Team Practical: A British Person’s Guide To American Weddings

By Kirsty, APW UK Guest Editor

It’s often said that the UK and the US are two countries divided by a common language. You say chips, we say crisps; you say cookies, we say biscuits; you say corn dog, we say that sounds disgusting. As a long-time reader of APW, I’ve noticed one or two Americanisms that didn’t seem to correspond neatly to their British equivalents, but could never find a reliable guide to help me navigate the tricky transatlantic waters. So, while Liz is taking a well-earned break for the Fourth of July weekend, I’m seizing this opportunity to answer a random sample of my own daft questions and start a (highly subjective) British Person’s Guide to American Weddings.

Who is Miss Manners and why is she so obsessed with envelopes?

Miss Manners is the nom de plume of Judith Martin, an American author and etiquette guru. She writes a globally syndicated advice column and is generally recognised as a leading expert in all things etiquette in the US. The problem is that, while etiquette is largely a function of basic good manners and common sense, it is underpinned by a complex set of social rules that can vary dramatically between cultures. Miss Manners is witty and sharp, and her advice is always thorough and well-researched, but if you’re concerned about accidentally picking up some quirk of American etiquette that doesn’t apply here, be sure to cross-check her advice with British etiquette bible Debrett’s.

As for the envelope thing, I have no idea. Am I the only one who throws envelopes in the bin without reading them? But Debrett’s seems to be equally excited about them, so there must be something to it. For example, did you know that invitations sent to married couples were traditionally addressed to the wife alone? I dread to think what Miss Manners would have to say about that (or Meg, for that matter). (Editors note: Meg pipes up from her barbecue to say she is actually really excited about this, and hopes we start this tradition right after we get out of the pool.)

The concept of evening guests seems to be frowned upon in America, but I’ve attended lots of weddings where some guests are only invited for the evening. Evening guests are still acceptable, aren’t they?

An evening guest, by way of explanation for the American readership, is a guest who is not invited to the ceremony or the meal, typically arriving around 7.30pm for the entertainment and dancing portion of the wedding. Often, these are people who are maybe not as close to the couple, but whom they still want to include in their celebration (work colleagues are a classic example).

Personally, despite their huge popularity with British couples, I have mixed feelings about evening guests. It’s always an honour to be invited, in whatever capacity, to share a couple’s wedding day with them. But as an evening guest, there’s a nagging feeling you’ve missed the best part, like running down to watch a passing parade only to see the last lone tuba player disappear round the corner. Plus it makes it even more important to stick to a strict wedding day schedule, or risk leaving your evening guests standing in a corridor while the best man tells yet another long and hilarious story that they won’t hear (as a chronically late person, this terrifies me).

But that’s just me. If having a smaller ceremony and meal followed by a big, blow-out party is what works for you, your guests and your budget, then yes, they are absolutely still acceptable. Miss Manners says so, and Debrett’s agrees. And if any Americans would like to borrow the concept, you can just tell any doubters that you’re having a British-themed wedding. Bonus: then you can make them all wear hats, too.

What about rehearsal dinners? I already have a wedding to plan, do I really need to entertain my guests the night before, too?

Ah, the rehearsal dinner. I remember the first one I attended, aged twelve, the night before my cousin’s wedding in Rhode Island. An extra party, with more free food, and more people fawning over our adorable Scottish accents? Seemed like a great idea to me. Not so great the next morning, when my parents appeared to be on the brink of death and lay in a darkened room until the last possible moment before the ceremony. Apparently there were free drinks, too.

The short answer is that the rehearsal dinner is an entirely American tradition and no, you do not need to have one. You can, if you like, but it’s not compulsory or even expected at a British wedding. There are no set rules about who would pay for it or host it, since it’s a relatively new phenomenon over here. If you do decide to have one, a word of advice: be careful with the Scottish relatives and the free drinks. That’s all I’m saying.

Liz says I need to have a full and frank conversation with my partner/mother-in-law/florist/whoever is responsible for the latest wedding-related crisis. Can’t I follow my usual strategy of pretending everything is fine, making passive aggressive remarks under my breath and spending the rest of my life quietly nursing my wrath? Isn’t that just how the British do things?

First, forgive me for the sweeping generalisation. Britain is a nation as varied and diverse as any other, and there are plenty of us who approach issues in a healthy, open and mature way. But Very British Problems wouldn’t be so funny if it weren’t also painfully accurate. How often have I said, “Really, it’s fine,” through gritted teeth, when precisely the opposite is true? Osborne may have wept at Thatcher’s funeral, but he’d probably rather die himself than talk about it. Expressing emotion isn’t something that has always come easily to the British and, in my experience, it’s still something we struggle with.

This is one time, though, when the Americans might be on to something. Putting aside any awkwardness and opening up to those we care about? Broaching difficult subjects instead of suffering in silence? Finding solutions, moving forward, forging new pathways in our most important relationships? It’s revolutionary, sure, but it just might work.

What the hell is a Mason jar and why did everyone lose their shit over them?

I HAVE NO IDEA. Just use a jam jar. Done.

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This is just the tip of the iceberg. There are endless examples of things that can, viewed through the prism of another culture, seem quaint or even downright bizarre (the British obsession with fruitcake is admittedly a bit odd, and don’t even get me started on the garter toss thing).

So, Team Practical, it’s over to you. What American or British wedding traditions have left you baffled? Are there any you wish you could bring over to your side of the pond?

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