Reunion Etiquette Tips by Ms. J

About a year ago, my cousin informed me that my mother’s side of the family was having a family reunion. Because I had not had the opportunity to meet them, I felt much excitement and a little apprehension; I immediately said “I want to go.” I decided right then that I wanted to meet, hopefully connect with, and begin a relationship with these long-lost relatives. I later found out that I was the long-lost relative. That’s another story for another day; however, I am pleased to report that it was a delightful experience. I now have a whole new set of wonderful people (relatives) in my life.

Meeting these relatives proved to be a gratifying and rewarding experience for me. Our new-found family embraced me and my brother as if we had been connected all our lives. I am looking forward to the next family reunion.

I was also fortunate enough to attend my husband’s family reunion in Los Angeles this summer. As this was the 4th or 5th reunion I’ve gone to with him, his family is truly my family now.

As The Life Etiquette Expert, I usually view things from an “etiquette” lens. Considering all of the family reunions and class reunions I’ve attended over the years, I have heard LOTS (yes, I used all caps on purpose) of stories—the good, the bad and the ugly—about reunions. I felt compelled to put together all of the comments I’ve heard into this article, Reunion Etiquette.

My initial focus was on family reunions. I shared with over 50 people that I was writing an article about Reunion Etiquette. I didn’t know what to expect really, but to my surprise I received more, much more than I expected. This article goes beyond the family reunion. The stories, along with the tips on what to do and what not to do, can be applied to formal and informal gatherings where people have not been together for at least a year—family reunions, class reunions, girlfriend weekends or retreats.

This article includes reunion pet peeves, HOT Buttons; things we love, things we hate, and even “meh” about family reunions. Some are so outrageously funny and other accounts will bring tears to your eyes. After reading this article, it is my hope that if you decide to go to another reunion or be on a reunion committee, you will go in with a positive attitude and a positive outlook for a wonderful time.

Here are the Top 20 Reunion Etiquette Tips

1. Submit your registration documents. The reunion committee needs to know who is coming. They need timely and accurate information.

2. Pay up! Ok, let’s get it out of the way. If you want to start off on the right foot, that is once you have made a commitment to attend, respond with your registration information AND your money. Ya gotta pay up people. The reunion committee needs something [funds/money/moola] to work with.

It costs to have a gathering of any kind. Reunion committee members may have the time but may not have the money to do what they need to do to plan accordingly. Some people seem to think that family picnics don’t cost anything. After all, it’s only one day. Wrong! It takes time, planning and money to have a picnic. Most parks require an application and an application fee. Banquet halls, caterers, printing companies, DJ’s and more, require deposits. When something goes wrong, or if something is not up to par, the first to get blamed is the reunion committee. The longer it takes to get funds, the longer it takes to solidify reunion details. Paying on time also shows respect (proper etiquette) for the reunion host committee. They need funds to work with.

The way that you prove you have made a commitment is to PAY YOUR FEE, and pay it in a timely manner.

In the words of one respondent, “My greatest pet peeve with a family reunion begins with the planning phase. I will say over and over and over and over again, “get your monies in on time!!!!” (See, I left the exclamation points just as given from the respondent).

Here’s a compromise that was offered. It could ease some of the tension around payments. One family member suggested having the attendees pay directly to the place where the event will be held. People normally pay directly to the hotel or car rental company but not for regular reunion activities. For example, if there’s going to be a banquet, attendees should be able to make the payment directly to the banquet hall. This can be problematic if it requires extra handling and additional staff. Talk with the management of the establishment and see what can be arranged.

3. Location, location, location. Some families believe that reunions should be held at, or very near, the family homestead. Some families like to travel from city to city. A good compromise is to consider a combination. If your family, class or group has scheduled reunions, then consider alternating between the homestead and another destination every other reunion. Keep in mind that traveling long distances may be a barrier for the elders, and expensive cities may be a barrier for those with limited financial means.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. We have more ways to connect with people than we have ever had but somehow, someone always gets left out. We’re in a multi-generational, multi-cultural era. The diversity of our family (group) units must be considered when corresponding with family members. Family members can range in age from 1 to 100. Your team should consist of people with good writing skills, good computer skills, good telephone skills and good social media skills. You’re probably going to need all of those channels to reach everyone.

Some people have never used a computer and they probably won’t. Be patient with them and communicate with them in a way that works for them. If you are not willing to be flexible and accommodating of the different ways that people prefer to communicate, then reconsider your role on the committee. I’ve heard people say, “Well we have a Facebook and that’s it, I’m not sending out any letters.” Well, you may have just cut out 90% of the elders. I’m just sayin’.

5. Keep good records. My husband’s family reunion was held here in Minnesota a couple of years ago. Thanks to my daughter-in-law, Melissa, we kept pretty good records of contact information and payments. We were able to pass that information on to the 2017 committee. If you have a roadmap, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you change your mail address, your email address, phone number or any of your social media account names, it is your responsibility to inform the reunion committee.

6. Be well-organized with events and activities. This goes with the “being on time” comment. Know your city and how long it takes to get from one point to another. If you do not provide your own transportation then be flexible and cooperative with the accommodations and arrangements. If you have limo or private car money, good for you. If not, you know what you must do. Go with the flow.

7. Be timely people! Timing is so important. When airplanes are ready to leave, they leave—planes, trains and busses have schedules. So do concerts, games and other entertainment. Reunion events should follow the same protocol—start on time! Field trip busses leave on time, dinner is served on time. That means we need to be dressed and ready to go ON TIME. If you are late and miss the bus, don’t get mad, upset or pouty. If you missed the bus because you were late, wwn your tardiness and find something else to do.

8. Identify yourself – Name tags please. This next suggestion came from a dear brother-friend. It’s so well-stated that I left most of it in its original text. “Wear name tags with your full name clearly printed, including your maiden name to identify which branch of the family you are from.” I second that motion. I know some of you out there are rolling your eyes but I like to call people by name. Let’s face it, people change. If it has been five years or more since you’ve seen someone, they may have changed significantly.

Speaking of people and names, please don’t hold someone hostage by withholding your name. It could get uncomfortable and embarrassing. Some people tell me, “Girl you haven’t changed at bit.” I have. In fact, I think I’ve gotten better with age…hummmm.

Anyway, 25 years, 25 pounds more or less, gray hair, wrinkles, cosmetic surgery and new “smiles” can make a whole lot of difference in a person’s appearance. Take the high road. Say “Jenny Jones (because she has her name tag on) I’m Juliet Mitchell (because I don’t have my name tag on). You may not remember me but we were in math class together.” If the person does not recall who you are but still appears interested in reconnecting with you, then stay with the conversation. If not, say, “It’s nice seeing you again. I hope you enjoy the reunion.” Then move on.

Here’s another approach to the name situation. If you don’t know someone’s name, just ask. They should tell you, but they may not. I have to share this story. You may not believe this, but it actually happened.

We were in a restaurant. My companion and another lady recognized each other. They said the perfunctory hellos. My companion said, “I don’t recall your name, what is it?” The person responded, “You don’t know my name! I’m not going to tell you. I know you know my name.” My companion, “I know your face, but I can’t recall your name.” Again, the person said, “Well, if you don’t know my name, I’m not going to tell you. Girl, you don’t remember my name?”

Well the conversation ended after several more moments. You know what? The women never did give her name. Missed opportunity. What was that all about? According to my companion, it had been over 15 years since she had seen that person. Fifteen years and perhaps 15,000 people later.

Take the high road. When we teach children’s etiquette, this is how we teach them to introduce themselves, “My name is Candace. What is your name?” “Hello Angie, nice to meet you.” Try it. It’s simple, straight forward, and it works.

More from my friend. He suggests that for school reunions, it would be nice if ladies included their maiden name on their name tag. Also consider including your nickname on your name tag. We come from a family where just about everyone has a nickname. I’m not talking about the embarrassing nickname that you don’t like, I’m talking about the nickname that you call yourself. If you know that people knew you more by your nickname than your given name, then include the nickname on the name tag.

9. Be inclusive. When creating the family tree include all family members that you know of. Family trees can reveal some wonderful things about the family. Family trees also can reveal some “family secrets.” Some old and hurtful stories may arise.

However, there is a graceful and sensitive way to handle this type of situation. Here’s an example of Uncle Joe’s son from another mother. “Yes, we have another brother and his name is John. His mother’s name is Ruby Moore.” You might get some funny looks. Some people may even be emboldened, nosy or just plain ignorant about boundaries. They may pry or inquire further. If that’s all the information you have, just say “That’s all the information I have.” If you have more information but feel uncomfortable, or just don’t want to get into your relative’s private affairs, and difficult to explain relationships, simply say, “I’m not sure of the nature of that relationship but John is our brother.” Then change the subject or excuse yourself for food, beverage or another activity.

Invite people into conversations and activities. Try not to leave anyone out—men, women and children. Even the strange and hard-to-be-with relatives really do want to engage. Like any social event, prepare yourself for meeting and greeting people. Have some subjects in your hip pocket to talk about. Try to get to know someone you’ve never met. Who knows, you just might develop a new “life-long” connection?

Create an atmosphere where people can ease into engagement and connection. The reunion committee should have planned icebreakers and activities specifically focused on engagement. Activities should be for everyone; from the tots to the elders. Remember, some people may be challenged with mobility or other special needs. Try to be accommodating and inclusive. Some suggestions: softball, volley ball, bowling, board games and icebreakers.

10. Honor the elders. Be intentional about including the elders. Take time to acknowledge the elders. So much rich history is lost because family members do not capture the stories from the elders. If the stories are not shared and documented in writing, they are often lost. Here are some suggestions for other ways to honor the elders:

  1. Set aside a special table.
  2. Give an elder the honor of presenting the history.
  3. Assign attendants to the elder group, especially those with mobility issues. Think of it like customer service and a personal attendant all in one. Ask several people so that the service can be provided during all events and activities. Remember your manners. Ask the elder if they want or need assistance and be accepting of their “no”. Some elders may move a bit slowly but are still capable of taking care of themselves. Please don’t be offended if you’re told by an elder, “I got this”.

11. Honor your faith tradition. Consider your core family’s faith tradition and include a worship service as part of the reunion gathering. Put no pressure on people who do not want to attend, they may not have wanted to attend as a child. Respect and honor the reality that not all people will be open or excited about going to “church”. For those of you who have denounced the family faith tradition, have found another religion or declared no faith tradition at all, be respectful and honor the ones who do.

When approached, and you probably will be approached, you can say “No, I will not be attending the service but I’d be happy to get together with you afterward.” For the person who is going and wouldn’t miss it for the world, do not pressure, cajole, question, etc. that person’s decision. It’s fine to express your regret and move on. “I’m sorry you won’t be joining us. Perhaps we can get together later.” Or, “Enjoy your morning.”

12. Promote positive energy among family, friends and guests. This goes a long way, no matter the activity, the location or the timing. Parents, project a positive attitude. If you fuss or make negative comments about people, activities, etc., your children will hear you. They may respond just like you and not want to engage. Negativity begets negativity.

13. Be prepared for physical changes in a person’s appearance.   People change in appearance. Please do not make embarrassing remarks or go on and on about a person’s appearance. If they have changed for the better, and some of us do, tell them they look great and move on. Don’t say things like, “you’ve lost a TON of weight” or “I see you got your __________ fixed.” Worse still, please, please don’t say, “Man! You have gotten as big as a house!” Don’t be cruel, condescending, embarrassing or childish with your remarks and observations. Oh! Please talk with your children and give them some “manners” and reunion etiquette training so that they do not say embarrassing or insensitive things to others.

Depending on your relationship with the person, and your approach, you may say, “Girl, I don’t know what you are doing, but you look great!” She may respond with “thank you. It’s a secret.” In this case, she doesn’t want to share; don’t press or pry, just leave it alone and talk about something else. But, if she says, “Thank you so much. Do you want to know my secret? Or, can I give you a couple of tips on how I…?” In this case, grab a chair, sit on down and share away.

14. Drink responsibly. A whole list of ills can come from overindulging. Loose lips, belligerent behavior, inappropriate comments, damage to property. Remember, the young people in the family are looking at and learning from adult behavior.

15. Leave the drama behind. Prying into personal affairs and sensitive subjects often lead to drama. If you are the drama king or queen, you are off duty during the reunion. Drama gives the family something to talk about for years, but the talk is rarely positive. Drama can ruin a good time. People don’t pay their money for drama. Well some people thrive on drama; if you are that person; you know what to do—stay away from the reunion.

16. Don’t take more than you came with. I’m not sure where that came from but I’m sure someone out there can relate. Enough said.

17. Don’t be a stop-by or a sneak-out. Just for clarification, a “stop-by” is a person who did not pay and just decides to “stop by” because so-and-so is in town. While the person is there, they know that they are going to be offered some refreshments. If it’s only one person, well they may be accommodated; but when the “stop-by” includes the spouse, the kids, the dogs, cats, friends and neighbors, well that’s a problem.

So what’s a “sneak-out”? A sneak-out is a person who rises early before anyone else, dresses and “sneaks out” without paying. For real, true story. A person shared that they have a cousin who never pays. The cousin and family come and share your home or your hotel room, just for the night. The cousin tells you that they are going to share the cost of the room or pay their money “tomorrow” and then leaves [sneaks out, family and all] without a word. When you talk with the person, you are told, “Oh, I didn’t want to disturb you.” This person now wonders why “there is no room at the inn”.

To the stop-bys, even if there is an abundance of food and refreshments, please don’t eat and then ask for a plate to take with you. Rude zone! Of course, if there is an overabundance, the host may encourage you to take food for the road. If that is the case, by all means say “thank you very much” and partake of the abundance.

Hint: If you really did intend to pay but just didn’t have the time, didn’t have the money or just forgot, at least offer to pay on the spot. If you do, your relatives and friends will not be talking about you behind your back. Believe me, you will be watched for the next 10 years.

18. Be cooperative. Dress for the family picture. Remember, it will be a part of your family history. You may not like the t-shirt design or color. It’s a reunion, just wear the shirt if you bought one. Speaking of which, some people may not be able to purchase the t-shirt. Don’t try to explain or rationalize someone else’s financial situation. If they don’t have the shirt, they don’t have the shirt. I would, however, let them know the t-shirt color and perhaps they can wear something in the color line…or not.

Play the silly games; indulge the elders by listening to the stories of old; be a little uncomfortable with the weather; eat the food that has been prepared. If you have specific dietary concerns, be prepared to bring your own food. Relax, you might just find yourself having fun and enjoying your family.

19. Use good table manners and proper dining etiquette. On this one, I had to make a list. Here goes.

  1. Do not talk, cough, sneeze or burp over the food.
  2. Do not cough or sneeze into your hands and then touch the serving implements.
  3. Wash your hands. If you can’t wash, have some hand sanitizer available.
  4. Do not over-indulge. Before asking for a plate to take with you, wait until everyone has been served. Some people even ask for an extra plate before everyone “picks over the food”.
  5. I know that there will some finger lickin’ and some using of sleeves and backs of hands for napkins, but be selective and discrete about it. It really grosses people out, especially when that person goes back and gets more food without washing their hands or using sanitizer. On this one you get so say “ick” or “ewww”.
  6. Did you know that one of the biggest dining pet peeves is seeing people chew with their mouth open? Don’t be the one to do that. Food in, close mouth, chew, swallow. Let the other person talk while you chew and vice versa. That’s the flow of table conversation.

Show appreciation to the reunion committee. People often talk about the reunion committee, criticizing their decisions about the location, the activities, the food, the weather…yes, even the weather. If there is something that can be criticized, someone will find something to criticize, complain and nit-pick about. Remember that the reunion committee is a volunteer group. Most, if not all, have a family, a job, and activities beyond the family reunion. If you are a “grumbler” or a “complainer”, then consider being on the committee. Otherwise, give the committee a break. Thank them for their time, energy and efforts. When asked for information, send the information. When asked for help, volunteer to help. When money is requested, send the money. If asked for suggestions, contribute your ideas.

20. Please refrain from putting people on blast via social media. Refrain from posting negative comments and unflattering photos. Refrain from spreading gossip, telling folk’s business, or sharing personal and private information, such as medical conditions, divorces, and family rifts. Remember what goes on at the reunion, stays at the reunion.

Family reunions, high school reunions, girls or guys annual get-togethers? Reunion etiquette says-Take the high road:

Be nice.

Be kind.

Be considerate.

Be cooperative.


Don’t be a snake, a snob, an instigator, an interrogator, a boor, a bore or a brat!

Above all, be respectful.

Someone shared a reading with me called The Main Thing. One line in the reading says, “Keep the main thing, the main thing.” With reunions, very simply stated by my sister-in-law, Mary and my sister-friend May, the main thing is to be together as one and the whole thing will turn out just fine.

This is Ms. J, The Life Etiquette Expert

Enjoy the reunion!



Write a comment