Editor’s note: As an etiquette guide, this article is based on opinion. It’s goal is to create a standard.
If you’ve ever planned an event, you had to figure out how to handle the invitations. Not just who to invite but what method to use, when to send out the invitations, and even who to invite together. The guest list is determined by the nature of the event but I’m going to help you with the rest of it.
Sometimes people think they should choose an invitation method based on convenience, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. The most important factor is formality. The invitation is the first indication your guests will have of the formality of the event itself. The least formal is social media and the most formal is the professionally printed invitation. Save the public social media invitations, like status updates and event pages, for open invitations where you’re willing to have your guests add to the guest list. As far as electronic invitations in general, reserve them for the most casual of events. A good rule of thumb would be; if your event is too formal for guests to wear bikinis, it’s too formal for electronic invitations.
The next most formal is the face to face invitation. For obvious reasons, they’re only suitable for small gatherings. Essentially, you should invite your guests in person if the event is casual but calls for your guests to be shown a relatively high level of respect, like having your parents over to announce your engagement.
The most formal, and usually best, method of invitation is the printed invitation. The method of printing should then follow the formality of your event. In ascending order of formality, the printing methods I would consider worthwhile are; basic printing, letterpress, and engraving. If you’re going to use basic printing just do it yourself, nobody will notice the difference anyway. Higher quality materials also make an invitation more formal, but don’t cheap out just because you don’t need to be formal, it still needs to survive until the event. Another type of printing that is popular but I don’t think is ever appropriate, because I don’t think the kind of event it’s suited to should exist, and that’s the arts and crafts invitation, that’s only suitable for casual versions of traditionally formal events.
For delivery you want to go with more personal methods. Best is hand delivery, but don’t feel like you need to pay them a visit just to deliver an invitation. If you’re sending your invitations out by mail, use an envelope of the same quality as the paper you use for the invitation itself and an adhesive stamp, even if you have access to a postage metre. You should also seal the envelope appropriately. The least formal is using just the included adhesive and the most formal is to use an old fashioned wax seal.
There’s three completely non-optional elements to include in invitations; the nature of the event, the time, and the location. Without these your invitation serves no purpose. You want to use language that matches the formality and tone of the event, use natural language for casual events and go flowery and almost pompous for more formal occasions. You’ll also want to include anything you expect of your guests that they wouldn’t assume based on the event, like a dress code or a contribution to the food.
Example of an invitation to a formal dinner for my birthday;
You are cordially invited to a dinner honouring the thirtieth birthday of Mr. Steven William Loewen, this Saturday at his home. In lieu of gifts, donations may be made to the Musketeers Academy.
Dress is white tie.
Example of an invitation to a casual poker game;
Hey man, poker night, my place, 7:00, bring beer
In the former case I used very formal language and in the latter I was extremely casual. You may have also noticed that I didn’t specify where I live. This is acceptable if all the invitees already know how to reach the venue, as long as you state it in a manner they’ll understand.
You may also want to include other pieces with the invitation. These can be used to add character to the invitation, so long as they fit with the overall tone, or provide extra information, but the most important is the RSVP card. The RSVP card allows you to collect information about your guests in advance, most importantly whether or not they intend to attend. It’s usually a simple form that also lists some combination of postal addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and websites to which the RSVP can be returned as well as the intended RSVP deadline. If you’re inviting guests from out of town you should also include local information, most importantly a map to the venue. Only the primary information about the event should be on the invitation itself, the who, what, where, when, and why.
I don’t mean deciding who should be invited to attend, that is decided by the occasion and your social circle. I mean who your invitations should be addressed to. The most important rule is; nobody gets invited alone. For addressing invitations you can split your guests into three groups; couples, families, and individuals. Couples are the easiest; just address the invitation to both of them in the most formal manner appropriate to the event. Example:
John & Jane Smith
For families just add “& children” or “& family” to the parents names. It’s also acceptable to use other similar language or list all the children by name.
Individuals are harder. You can either add “& guest” to their names or, if you know who that guest would be, you can add them to the guest list and invite them as a couple.
Another sticky point is when children should be getting their own invitations. Personally I feel teenagers should be invited as adults, although it would still be acceptable to include them with their families if that’s the only reason their getting an invitation. If there are any children that are particularly important to invite, such as flower girls and ring bearers, they should get their own invitations, assuming they’re old enough to notice, but without guests unless their parents wouldn’t otherwise be invited.
As far as your guests escorts, that’s regulated by your social circle.
If you request RSVPs you’ll also need to set a deadline. This’ll need to be long enough in advance to give you time to track down the people that didn’t RSVP. I prefer the RSVP card method, a simple form with a return address and some extra space to properly send regrets, as this makes it less likely that you’ll need to follow-up. You can also give a phone number with voicemail, an email address, and/or a website, although a website is kind of low class, you may want to reserve that for casual events. Only ask about RSVPs if it comes up in conversation or the deadline has passed.
Save the Dates
Many people choose to send out pre-invitations, commonly called “save the dates.” Only do this if you can’t get your main invitation out early enough to give your guests time to plan to attend. Save the dates need only include a clearly stated date and an implication of the nature of the event. Otherwise you can be as creative as you like, just don’t imply a different tone than what the event will actually be.
There you have it, a guide to sending out invitations. I didn’t say much about electronic invitations because they don’t give you as much leeway and etiquette is less important in casual situations where they’d be appropriate. In the future I’ll write an article about how to handle being on the other end.