Why we had guests wear nametags at our wedding

When Jason and I got engaged, the first thing we decided to do was to keep it a secret from all of our friends and family for the next week.

Being out of the country made this a little bit easier. Rather that launch right into the stresses of wedding planning, we wanted to thoroughly our new status together in peace. This also gave us some time ourselves to enjoy blissful engagement without being forced to answer any questions like: “Where?” “When?” “What kind of dress?” “What kind of venue?” “How many people?” “How many kids?”

The second thing we decided to do was to organize an “anything goes” brainstorming session about our wedding, free from the opinions of our parents, families, friends, and second-cousins-twice-removed.

Without skipping a beat, we decided that the sooner we did this, the fresher and more genuine the results would be. So the evening of our engagement, we stowed away at the only late-night pub in the small town of Arles, France, ordered a couple of mojitos, and started writing.

To give you a sense of just how loosely constructed this brainstorm session was, here are some highlights from our list:

  • Not a farm
  • Wedding bands (marching bands!)
  • Other speeches! Say nice things!
  • Late night snacks!
  • Fun everyone participates in (like rice-throwing…but not)
  • “Greek chorus?”
  • Narrator?
  • Live Google Hangout?
  • Popcorn for ceremony?

(For the record, we ended up moving forward with 6 of these 9 items.)

But on that first rose-tinted (not to mention rosé-tinted) engagement day, the thing we had the strongest conviction about was name tags. In fact, we wrote it on our list like this:

So… why nametags?

The best part about weddings is that they bring together the people you care about the most in one place. As a couple, it’s likely your only opportunity to carefully cultivate an experience that encourages direct interactions between your immediate family, your college friends, your school teachers (side note: cool kids stay friends with their teachers), your crazy relatives, and your “real world” work colleagues.

Weddings represent the most intriguing intersection of all of the circles of relationships throughout your life to date.

Everybody attending has one thing in common: You. And since friends and relationships tend to spawn more organically and naturally from “friends of friends,” it seems logical that weddings should be not only a good opportunity to meet people — but the best opportunity in your adult life to extend your friendships and other relationships.

As an avid networker and people connector (both in my day job and out), this to me feels like a massive opportunity. Wouldn’t it be great, for instance, to have all of the nerdy Lord of the Rings Fans at your wedding somehow find each other and chat? Or to give all of your college friends a chance to really get to know your mom? Or even to coyly introduce two people to each other who you just know will hit it off?

The possibilities are endless.

The only problem is — weddings aren’t optimized for spontaneous interactions among strangers. You sit at the ceremony with your plus one (someone you know), you’re assigned seats at dinner (likely with people who are already your friends), and you drink and you dance, clustering near to the very same people that you knew the most to begin with.

The times in between (the cocktail hour, the reception, waiting in line at the bar or bathroom) tend to favor the natural extroverts among us. The barrier to conversation may be less stressful than at a job fair, but unless you’ve made a career out of attending a networking event every week, chances are that striking up a conversation with a group of strangers may not feel particularly comfortable.

In other words, while in your head, you may be imagining a situation like this:

What you end up with is something more like this:

Enter nametags.

All at once, the playing field is leveled. If everybody wears nametags, then nobody is the stranger in the room.

Of course, we realized that our wedding was very different from a tech conference where we could just hand out lanyards or plastic-coated pin badges that people would eagerly stab through their expensive suits or dresses. So we decided right away that we would use magnet nametags. An added benefit would be that guests (if they liked them) could keep them on their fridges as mementos.

We also recognized that not everybody enjoys wearing nametags. Traditionally, nametags can have a bit of a bad rep and feel stuffy, formal, or even kitchy. Obviously, wearing nametags would be 100% optional for all guests, but just to show the sincerity of the gesture, Jason and I decided to wear them too. And to make the vibe feel less like a post-work happy hour and more like a funky party, Jason and I added an extra line underneath the name: A fun fact about that person.

We decided to include descriptions that were both clever and quippy, without being offensive. This turned out to not only be a fun activity for us to create, but provided hours of endless enjoyment and giggles to everyone attending.

Here are a few examples:

  • I save lives. Really. [he’s an EMT]
  • It’s my birthday! [it’s not, but we always pretend]
  • Missing Fleet Week for this [don’t ask]
  • Only one Emmy [humble brag]
  • First Edition, LOTR [Tolkien nerd]
  • Still honeymooning [recently married]
  • Disguised as Bethany’s dad [my Dad’s twin]

As it turned out, knowing someone’s name before you say hello is a huge help to starting a conversation. But knowing an inside joke about their life turns the whole thing into a game.

And people loved playing.

Weeks later, when looking back through our wedding photos, we were astonished to see how many unlikely friendships we saw taking place: Jason’s high school friend chatting with his aunt. My mom dancing with a friend from NYC. Two people who had never before met teaming up to steal goodies from one bathroom to another. Exactly the kind of frivolity you’d expect.

Scrolling back through our Instagram hashtag of our wedding, #marzcrystal, many of our friends snapped photos of their nametags. Even today, more than a year and a half after our wedding, when we bump into our wedding guests at other parties or weddings, they remind us what clever one-liner we had chosen for their nametag.

Even my parents joined along.

They loved the sense of humor and the personalization.

Forging friendships

At the end of the day, we just wanted our wedding to pass one basic test: “Will people leave with contact details of somebody they didn’t know before?”

Even if it was just a new Facebook friend or Instagram follower, we hoped to lower the barrier to meeting new people just enough to facilitate a few introductions that may not have otherwise happened. For us, nametags greased the wheels incredibly well.

Of course, nametags aren’t the only way to encourage serendipitous interactions at weddings. We’ve seen incredibly creative ways that other friends of ours have encouraged “structured mingling” at their weddings — everything from “themed costumed” weddings and incorporating lawn games to “wedding-turned-birthday-parties” that encourage an entirely new level of friendship.

So whether you happen to be planning your own wedding or attending one soon, try looking for a few opportunities to help bring together some unlikely pairings at your own event. You may be surprised how much fun you can have with relative strangers.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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