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Here comes the bride — and 150 cellphones

In the debate over where devices belong, weddings are the last frontier

By Alix Strauss

The bride and groom look as perfect as the mini-ornaments on their just-as-beautiful cake. The surroundings are impeccable. The food is expertly presented and prepared. The day feels photo-worthy, and it is: Everyone has taken one. Or two, or 50. Even the officiant has captured the moment and is posting to her Instagram page — and that’s after she read the service off her phone.

Once upon a time, weddings were private affairs, conducted by professionals, where everyone just focused on the couple — including the couple. But as with the rest of our lives, smartphones have taken over, not just to document weddings, but to operate them. Guests are recording and posting every moment, often with a wedding-sanctioned hashtag. Participants are using electronic gadgets to read poetry, vows, even the ceremony itself. And some purists are enraged.

“We used to rise when the bride comes down the aisle,” says Don Grant, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and expert on device management, who runs a counseling program called (Un)Boot Camp. “Now we rise to get a better photo, or the first photo. If you’re standing next to me, I’m not getting that emotional connection from you, either. So it’s really a missed experience for everyone.”

In the ongoing debate over our relationship with our devices, weddings might be the last frontier, where a cultural clash still rages over etiquette, boundaries, and the possible loss of something sacred. Grant is on one end of the continuum; on the other end, some say we should relent and just agree that the digital takeover is inevitable. And many couples are somewhere in the middle, feeling the dueling pull of sharing culture and wedding decorum, searching for a solution that clicks.

Lara Rojas, 27, a strategist for a branding company, has seen her share of cellphones at weddings, used for good and bad. She has witnessed etiquette errors, small and grand — from the guy whose phone rang during the ceremony, even though the couple had asked for devices to be silenced, to the time someone in the back row of church thrust his phone too far into the crowd as he took a video of the procession.

“He was asked not to. I don’t know why he felt he needed to be right there, up close. You’re not even going to look back at it,” Rojas says.

On the other hand, when Rojas officiated a wedding herself — ordained by the Universal Life Church to marry her mother and now-stepfather earlier this year — she delivered her 10-minute speech with help from an iPad.  “There was no way I was going to memorize everything,” says Rojas, who was still putting the finishing touches on her portion the day before. “You have a couple of options: a gross, ugly binder with a printout; note cards which can become out of order, lost or wet; or an iPad. For me it was about ease of use and functionality.”

The fact that some officiants now rely on devices comes hand in hand with new trends in officiation itself. In previous generations, most weddings were held in official environments with baked-in authority figures: a church, a synagogue, a mosque, a judge’s chambers. But as more states allow anyone to preside over a wedding, more couples are capitalizing on that option. And because many of these amateurs aren’t going by a ready-made script, it stands to reason that they’d need to use notes.

What’s up for debate, though, is how those notes should be delivered. Is it preferable to scroll than to memorize? Does the gravity of the event require handwritten note cards? Or is paper too 20th century?

“We’ve lost the visual of something sacred, like a Bible, that connects us to the event and makes it more spiritual. It’s been replaced by a device.”

Psychologist Pam Rutledge, director of the Newport, Calif.-based Media Psychology Research Center, argues that brides, grooms, and wedding guests should be agnostic about devices. The point is the message, not the method of delivery, she says. And for the right age group, digital tools feel absolutely natural.

“There’s a normalization of these devices in regular life that makes people not ask, ‘Does this fit here?’” Rutledge says. “If you’re a millennial, it makes perfect sense that their phone or iPad is their reading device — and they’re using that instead of printing or memorizing their speech.”

But Grant says screens get in the way of what should be a wedding’s most meaningful moment. “Scrolling during a ceremony is not very personal or professional,” he says. “The visualization of swiping sends the message to me that they aren’t as connected and familiar with either the content of what they’re saying, or the couple they’re speaking about. And we’ve lost the visual of something sacred, like a Bible, that connects us to the event and makes it more spiritual. It’s been replaced by a device.”

Even Rutledge acknowledges that screens change the wedding itself, or at least the memories of it. “People who use iPads to read their vows should expect to see that in their photos,” she says. “A smart photographer would advise clients about what will and won’t show up in the pictures.”

And that’s not counting the number of smartphones in the crowd, as guests document the unfolding scene. Professional photographers acknowledge that it’s hard, these days, to take a wedding photo with no devices in the frame.

“The reality is you’re going to have as many phones as there are pews,” says Brian Dorsey, a New York-based photographer who has been documenting weddings for almost two decades, charging from $7,400 to as much as $50,000.

“You can crop out as much as possible, but their presence is a statement of where we are today,” Dorsey says. “It defines the time.”    

Those phones change the wedding experience, robbing everyone in the room of a collective memory, Grant says. For guests, “they’re so interested in capturing a photo that they miss experiencing the moment they’re so busy capturing.” And a couple getting married doesn’t see expectant faces or emotional interactions, he says. “The backs of the phones are blocking people’s faces, so there’s a loss of a moment that’s supposed to bond us.”

Still, others argue that social media sharing — the language and currency of modern interactions — is simply the preferred new way of capturing a meaningful event.

 “This is the new normal; this is how you document something. The question is, does taking a photo disrupt or is it problematic for the couple?” says Rutledge. “Granted, a picture of a church full of cell phones may not be the look of intimacy couples are going for, but it’s a reflection of the meaningfulness of the event to their guests.”

Some professional wedding documenters are getting creative in their efforts to keep the phones at bay. Many videographers now offer a 60-second mini-recap — a bit like a film trailer — which couples can put on their Facebook or Instagram feeds and friends can repost or share. The idea is to decrease guests’ impulse to reach for their phones to capture something crucial, as someone already has them covered. And it lets the couple control what’s being seen and shared.

It turns out, many couples are seeking out a middle ground — or having a middle ground thrust upon them. When Samantha Renik got married three years ago, in a small 20-person event held at her parents’ Manhattan apartment, she hired a photographer at her parents’ insistence. He emailed her guests ahead of time, telling them that he’d be taking photos and sharing them with attendees — and politely asking them not to pull out their phones.

“He wanted phone-free photos. I loved that he did that,” Renik says. “It was nice just to have a quiet moment where everyone was focused.”

But when it came to her party, held in a restaurant for more than 150 people, it was as many phone-photos as possible, with no photographer in sight. “Everyone we knew had an iPhone, and most take beautiful pictures on Instagram, so we knew they’d be fine,” Renik says. “A single photographer cannot be everywhere at once. He can’t possibly capture what 175 guests can. We wanted friends and family to share the moments we ourselves were not present for.” 

Renik’s compromise — creating separate zones that are screen-friendly and screen-free — reflects a growing trend, says Anne Chertoff, a wedding expert at Beaumont Etiquette, an etiquette and protocol training firm located in Manhattan and California. “There are lots of couples, parents, even professionals who don’t want guests watching the wedding through their screens,” she says.  “They want their guests to experience and appreciate all the time and money that went into creating the event, which won’t happen if they’re on their phones and posting to Instagram.”

“A single photographer cannot be everywhere at once. He can’t possibly capture what 175 guests can. We wanted friends and family to share the moments we ourselves were not present for.”

But those boundaries have to come with fair warning, Chertoff says. Some couples are including a request for a tech-free wedding in their invitations. Others post a large sign at an entrance, declaring that devices are banned. Others ask bridal party members or close relatives to spread the word. Some let authority figures break the news: as in the movies or theatrical performance, the officiant steps forward before the ceremony starts and tells guests they’re in a no-photo zone.

“If you give guests an opportunity during the party to take photos, or tell them that the couple will be sharing photos with everyone afterwards, and that a professional is here taking photos, people are pretty good about listening,” said Chertoff.

And to replace the cellphone, some couples are adding extras that help guests fulfill their inner need to record the event: designated areas where phones can be used, photo booths, and napkins with hashtags on them.

A solid set of new rules about wedding etiquette may well be unobtainable, specialists say — so couples will have to draw the lines on their own. The ultimate solution may be a meeting in the middle: adaptation and acceptance from those with old-fashioned ideals; a thoughtful pause from those who impulsively turn to devices.

“We have to start learning to set boundaries and rules in new ways,” Rutledge says. “There will be people who argue that there is a sense of propriety and respect that a wedding or other event demands. But these are ill-defined rules that have not born out well over time. What should drive these norms is whether or not it interferes with someone else’s experience.”

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Alix Strauss is a writer based in New York.


Illustration by Grégoire Gicquel


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