Receiving Line: Etiquette, Options & Tips

What they say about weddings is true: It’ll all be over before you know it. So then how can you ensure you’ll get the chance to talk to each and every guest before the bell tolls? Enter the receiving line — the most formal and efficient line dance you’ll ever do. Here’s how to connect with your company, and give guests your most heartfelt greetings and gratitude.

Why Have One?

A receiving line is the best opportunity to greet each guest individually and thank him or her for coming to your wedding. And if you’re having more than 50 guests, it’s considered proper etiquette. The line also guarantees your guests a minute of face-to-face time with you, a chance to hug, kiss, and congratulate you both, and to say things like “The ceremony was lovely.” If you rely instead on the more casual greet-them-as-you-see-them approach, you may spend the whole party in a tailspin, ducking out of conversations to say hello to people you haven’t greeted yet, and inevitably you’ll end up missing someone.

When & Where?

Generally the receiving line is formed immediately following the ceremony or at the beginning of the reception. You’ll want to take spatial constraints into consideration when choosing where to line up so that family and bridal party members aren’t standing on top of each other and guests have room to move in a smooth, orderly procession (which in turn makes the line go faster so you can all get on to the party). Proper ventilation is also crucial to avoid sweaty brows and swooning bridesmaids. The most commonly used ceremony site areas include the hallway or vestibule at the head of the aisle, outside the entry doors, down the front steps, or on the front porch. At your reception site the options are many, depending on the party space: consider the cocktail lounge, the lobby, just outside the doors leading into the main room, or the reception room itself, perhaps on the dance floor. Ultimately, pick a spot where you and your guests can stand comfortably for the duration.

Who Stands in it?

Traditionally, the bride’s parents — as hosts — head the receiving line and are first to greet guests, followed by the bride and groom and then the groom’s parents. Many lines we’ve seen also include the entire bridal party (if there’s room), and sometimes even grandparents (if they’re able). Today, however, with more couples contributing to or paying for their own weddings, the lines have blurred (so to speak). The couple may wish to stand alone, especially if the majority of guests are their friends, or they may stand with just the moms while the dads circulate among and welcome the crowd during the cocktail hour.

Divorced & Remarried Parents

This may be one of the stickier situations you’ll encounter when orchestrating the big day, and the resolution often depends on the relationships between the relevant parties. If your parents are divorced, they should not stand next to one another in line — even if they are sharing hosting duties — as this gives the impression that they are still a couple. Instead, place Mom on one side of you and the groom, then the groom’s parents, then Dad. If this arrangement doesn’t sit well, consider placing another family member or an honor attendant between them. And what about stepparents? Should you include them too? That depends: Do you have a good relationship with them? Is your mom/dad capable of sharing this duty with your stepmom/dad with civility and grace? You should strive to make everyone feel as comfortable as possible. If this arrangement gets the green light, simply have your father stand with his new wife, and your mother with her new husband. This way guests will understand the relationships.

Introductions All Around

The receiving line is where your hosting duties as the bride and groom kick off. It’ll no doubt be a whirlwind of faces, but as much as possible you should introduce your new spouse and your parents to all the guests they have not yet met. First names and the guests’ relationships to you should suffice. Likewise all guests should take it upon themselves to offer this same information as introduction to attendants and family members whom they’ve never met as they proceed down the line; simply shake hands, offer congratulations, and keep moving. The bride and groom need only accept everyone’s hugs, kisses, and best wishes, and thank them for coming. It’s that simple. And yes, you’ll end up with a lot of lipstick on your cheeks, but fear not — you’re allowed to make a bathroom pit stop before heading to the party.

Variations on a Theme

As is common nowadays, traditions such as the receiving line are ultimately open to interpretation. Depending on the size of your guest list, you may opt to greet guests in other ways. One couple we know personally dismissed guests from their seats right after the ceremony, one row at a time (although we wouldn’t recommend this for gatherings of more than 150 people, or if guests have to remain seated — and suffer — through hot sun, rain, strong winds, or other inclement conditions). If you have fewer than 50 guests, you might decide to turn cocktail hour into the meet-and-greet opportunity instead of a formal receiving line. Whatever you choose, the basic tenets still apply: Greet each of your guests in turn and thank them for joining you on this joyful occasion.

— The Knot