Dining Etiquette Series – The Pleasure of Your Company is Requested



Nothing annoys people so much as not receiving invitations.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Dr. Carolyn and Mr. Warren Nelson
Request the Pleasure of Your Company
On the Twentieth Day of June
At 8:00 O’clock in the Evening
At Their Residence
To Celebrate the Occasion of Their
Twenty-Fifth Wedding Anniversary
Black Tie Optional

Whether the invitation is formally engraved in calligraphy or spoken casually in passing, the invitation to break bread is the first step in the dining etiquette process, whether the occasion is a formal dinner, buffet supper or back yard barbeque.  Following are the types of invitations you might receive, the guidelines for responding, and descriptions of the dress codes that are often included with invitations.

Types of Invitations


Engraved or printed invitations on elegant paper stock sent via snail mail usually mean a formal occasion, such as a wedding, black-tie charity dinner or ball, official reception or state dinner.

Printed, fill-in or handwritten invitations – including on your personal stationery, may be sent for birthday, anniversary or other celebration luncheons, dinners, receptions or parties.

Email invitations sent to one or a few people for casual business or personal gatherings are more common now than in the past.

E-vites have become popular and are generally used to invite a large number of people to an event, such as a lunch & learn, a networking reception or other academic or professional gathering.


Invitations by phone are perfect and appropriate for informal or casual gatherings of family, friends, neighbors or recent acquaintances to one’s home, or to invite a client, other business contact or colleague, or job candidate to a business lunch or dinner

Oral or By Word of Mouth

Invitations delivered face-to-face are just as valid as those that are in writing or over the phone, and should be treated with the same importance.

Word of an event or party that is delivered to you via word of mouth, i.e., by a third or fourth party can be considered to be more casual.  However, before attending confirm with the host or sponsor to ensure that the party is open to anyone.  You don’t want to discover upon arrival that it is an invitation-only event.

Dress Codes, Decoded

In many countries and cultures, and even in various parts of the U.S., dress code designations often differ.  Therefore, it’s always correct to ask the host or sponsor to clarify the dress code.

Following is a quick reference to some of the most common U.S. dress codes, with descriptions, that you will find on invitations:

Very Formal – White Tie (for evening affairs, after 6:00 p.m.)
Men: Black dress coat (sometimes called a tailcoat), matching trousers with a single satin stripe or braid (US), white piqué wing-collared shirt with stiff front, white vest, mother of pearl studs and cufflinks, white bow tie, white or gray gloves, black dress shoes (regular or patent leather) and black dress socks.  Top hats, once a staple of this very formal ensemble, are not worn so much – but still check.

Women: Full-length formal evening gown; with optional long white kid or silk gloves (the length is measured by the number of buttons) that should be removed — or folded back at the wrist opening if there is one — when in offering your hand in a receiving line or when dining or dancing.  The shorter the sleeves on the dress, the longer the gloves.

White Tie with Decorations (evening, after 6:00 p.m.)
This designation usually involves a state or royal dinner in which the men wear white- tie formal attire with their military awards or medals.

Formal (evening, after 6:00 p.m.)
Men: Black Tie, i.e., tuxedo, cummerbund optional, black bow tie, dress shirt, dress shoes, black socks, no gloves)

Women:  long dress or short “after-five” or cocktail dress

Creative Black Tie (Only wear this style if stated on the invitation!)
Men:  Traditional tuxedo, but with trendy or quirky components or accessories such as matching bow tie and cummerbund in a color other than black or white or in a print.  The other alternative is a solid black suit, shirt and silk four-in-hand tie.

Women:  Traditional formal or semi-formal gown or dress, but with unique or unusual touches, provided they are attractive and decorous and not provocative or revealing.

Daytime Formal
Men:  A black, charcoal gray or light-colored morning Coat is the form of dress is usually worn to daytime weddings, with a regular tie (four-in-hand) rather than a bow tie.

Women:  Short elegant suit or dress, something a bit dressier than for work.  Adding a hat can dress up any ensemble, and right now fascinator hats are very popular and usually very flattering to most women.

Black Tie Preferred or Optional
Men:  Black tie if possible, but also acceptable is a regular suit, provided it’s dressy and in a dark color, along with a white shirt and silk tie in a muted solid color or subtle print.

Women:  An evening gown or cocktail dress is preferred, but also acceptable are evening separates (i.e., an elegant top and long skirt) or dressy pant suit and top with evening jewelry and accessories (bag, jewelry).

Semi-Formal (Refers to after 5:00 p.m. events)
Men:  Dark business suit, white dress shirt, silk four-in-hand tie, dress shoes, dress socks that match the suit pants.

Women:  Dressy cocktail dress, evening separates or dressy pant suit and top with evening jewelry and accessories.

Business Formal
Men:  Dark business suit, shirt and tie, dark shoes and dress socks, conservative jewelry.

Women:  Suit, tailored dress with jacket, sheer legwear (pantyhose), high heels (2 ½ – 3 inches is ideal), conservative jewelry and accessories.

Business Casual
Men:  Sport jacket / blazer, casual pants (chinos), button down or polo shirt, loafers and socks.  Tie and socks can be less conservative and contain fun (but not too far out) designs that express the wearer’s personality.

Women:  Sporty dress or separates with casual jacket.  Brighter colors and more expressive accessories may be worn to express the wearer’s personality.

Festive Attire (Usually seen on holiday party invitations)
For both men and women, this commonly means semi formal or business casual with festive colors and accessories in keeping with the particular holiday or celebration theme of the party.

Dressy Casual
Men:  Dressy sport jacket with a casual top, such as a solid good-quality tee shirt and dress jeans, and casual shoes.  In warmer weather, a lightweight and light-colored blazer and  pants with loafers with/without socks is a good dressy casual look.

Women:  Dressy jacket and top with dress jeans, with wedge or high heels.  In summer, this look goes well with peep toes or sandals.

Note that this look is not appropriate for the workplace; it is definitely off-hour or party attire.

Men:  Dress jeans or walking/Bermuda shorts, loafers (w/wo socks), polo/casual shirt.

Women:  Dress jeans or shorts, long summer dress or skirt, casual top, casual shoes or sandals.

This is a highly subjective term that people have compared, variously, to “business formal,” “casual,” and even “semi-formal.”  Thus, unless you can clearly ascertain from the invitation into which category this term might fall it is essential that you clarify with the host or sponsor of the event.  To my mind, “informal” equates to “business casual.”

Rules for Responding

An “R.s.v.p.,” the abbreviation of the French request, répondez, s’il vous plaît, which in English means, “please reply” must be honored, whether it appears on an engraved invitation or your friend says to you, “just let me know if you can be there on Saturday.”

Unless the person or organization inviting you requests a reply sooner, 72 hours is an appropriate timeframe in which to respond.  Follow the notation on the invitation to reply (return card provided, by phone, via text message, etc.).  If a response is required, but no instructions how, then hand write a response on your personal stationery and mail it within a few days.

Technically, you need not provide a reason why you are declining an invitation, but the reality is that in many cases you do.  Declining a wedding invitation from a family member or dinner with friends can be tricky without some sort of explanation.  A less personal invitation, such as to a party hosted by someone you recently met, still requires a response but does not require a reason if you must decline.

Once you have accepted an invitation, the only reasons for canceling are illness or a bona fide emergency; you are honor bound to keep your word.  If you decline and later realize you can accept, call the host and ask if it is too late to accept.  When you are not sure if you will be free, make a phone call to explain and promise to get back soon with an reply.  Your reputation, and your brand, will be affected positively or negatively by how you reply – or do not reply  to any invitation.         

Until next time,


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