In Defense of +1

Slate's Culture Blog
June 24 2010 2:50 PM

In Defense of +1

The first time I was invited to a wedding sans +1, I thought it was a mistake. I'd been with my girlfriend for more than a year, and we'd talked about the event with the bride and groom on several occasions. So I sent back the RSVP card with a note: absolutely, thank you, we're both really looking forward to it!

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Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

A nervous telephone call soon followed. "Sorry, Dan, there's just not enough space ... mm-hmm, no one who isn't yet married or engaged ... yes, you guys have been together for longer than we have ... look, that's the rule. What can I say?"

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Fair enough. My next wedding and the next time I was denied a +1 came the following spring. I was the best man; the groom was my brother. Never mind that I'd planned his bachelor party, flown out to Seattle, and orchestrated a long wedding toast to be delivered via PowerPoint. There just wasn't room. No friends allowed.

It's been a few years since then, and I've now fallen victim to every arbitrary rule that's ever been concocted to prune a guest list: Only spouses, only domestic partners, only live-in girlfriends, only people you've been dating for at least two years. (The New York Times suggests an age-based cut-off: If you're over 35, you get a +1 ; otherwise, suck it.) A brief tour of wedding Web sites confirms the obvious: Brides-to-be are hunkering down with their fiances all across the nation, conniving new and better ways to exclude people. You can read their cries of determination: " Uhh I haaate plus 1's! "

When did newlyweds get so negative? Granted, with average wedding costs up in the tens of thousands of dollars , excess guests do seem like a needless indulgence. That, or a bunch of interlopers whose gin rickeys and chocolate-dipped strawberries might be invested in second cousins instead.

Forgive my insolence, but this subtractionist ideology degrades the happy event. It's a victim of the wedding-industrial complex , and a surrender to the fascistic valuation of control over pleasure. I'm afraid there are no more Bridezillas, these days. That term suggests something good unbridled passion. No, the modern bride is less a rampaging monster than a number-crunching technocrat. She's bent over a ledger, pondering the big questions: Which cost-cutting measures can be implemented? How can product costs be streamlined? It's as if we all want to get married like Peter Orszag .

What this approach forgets, or willfully ignores, is that the point of a wedding is excess. A celebration is, by definition, a kind of overflowing or superabundance not +1, but +100 or +250. If you need to cut costs, get married at City Hall.

Not only is it stingy to eliminate +1s; it's counterproductive. You may think you'll have a better wedding if you limit the guest list to core family and friends. But that's chasing rainbows. Even the strictest admissions criteria allow for spouses and fiances, which means your party will be overrun by grumbling tagalongs whether you like it or not. These are the guests who spend the whole reception at the bar, checking sports scores on their BlackBerry.

Meanwhile, you'll have taken extraordinary measures to keep out the most charming people of all. Consider: We don't select our husbands and wives, or our long-term boyfriends and girlfriends, for their social skills and dancing prowess. But when it comes to inviting a +1, those qualities are exactly the ones in high demand. When I'm granted leave to bring someone to a wedding, I make sure to choose an escort who's affable and appropriate, graceful and enthusiastic. I pick someone who loves hot hors d'oeuvres, '80s music, and old people. In other words, I engineer my date to be the ideal wedding guest. My hand-picked +1 will hoist your chair and bring joy to the dance floor; someone else's grumpy husband will skulk in the corner.

The best thing about +1s is their unpredictability. Unfettered by personal ties, the wedding stranger can escape the social whirlpools that parse your guests into preset groups. A good date will chat up your college friends, then drift over to the great-aunts table, share a smoke with the caterers, and flirt with the bride's sister. The +1 mixes the waters; he introduces people.

For those who worry at having strangers in the mix, I'll point out that even the most liberal +1 policy isn't likely to deliver more than a small assortment of these superguests. I'm just guessing here, but it's hard to imagine that any more than 10 percent of your invitees would make use of a +1 license. In that case, we're talking about 10 to 15 unfamiliar faces for a midsized wedding, sprinkled among the rest. That's not enough to distort the tableaux of loved ones you've worked so hard to create.

Sure, these extra guests may set you back a few hundred dollars, or maybe a few thousand. But I submit that +1s are a bargain at twice the cost. There are other, better ways to pinch pennies. A rollicking party with mediocre floral arrangements, for example, is a lot more memorable than a lousy one with towering orchids . I'll save my other ideas for how to manage a wedding budget for future blog posts but here's a preview: Sell tickets to your guests.

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