Just Give Her Something to Do!

Why I spend hours researching “the sister of the groom,” the great dead zone of wedding etiquette.

Confused woman surrounded by floating cake, camera and flowers.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by jgroup/iStock/Getty Images Plus, L_Mirror/iStock/Getty Images Plus, ohhlanla/iStock/Getty Images Plus, and Khosrork/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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“How do you feel about your younger brother beating you down the aisle?”

Since my brother announced his engagement, this question has been lobbed at me by countless well-meaning family members, co-workers, and neighbors. I’m thrilled, I tell them—my future sister-in-law is a gem. But alongside the happiness, if I’ve being honest, there’s a fair amount of trepidation. As the “sister of the groom,” I’m struggling with a role that is undefined, confusing, and clouded by gender stereotypes that belong in another era. I’m excited for the big day, and my part in it. But what is that part, exactly?

Weddings are one of the last bastions of old-fashioned etiquette, with decorum surrounding everything from how many envelopes to enclose in an invitation to how to cut the cake. There are “rules,” too, about never having a cash bar and how to quietly inform guests about a couple’s registry. Moreover, etiquette dictates the traditional role of everyone from the bride’s sister (maid of honor) to the groom’s mother (wear beige and stand in the back). Yet, there’s no obvious, traditional role for the groom’s sister or the bride’s brother. As one of these forgotten souls, I’m now find myself wandering in an etiquette desert.

Fortunately, we are still a year and a half out from the wedding, so I have time to find my way. As a person who thrives on structures and rules, my approach, naturally, has been to research and synthesize a path to clarity. A few days after my brother proposed, I looked for a book that would help me navigate this dead zone. My search turned up nothing useful. I found a few journals with “sister of the groom” written in bridesmaid font, and I came across dozens of romance novels that don’t even feature a sister of the groom as a main character.

Since then, I’ve read dozens of advice and etiquette columns, as well as stories in bridal magazines. I’ve been on Reddit and have even fallen into the dark web of bridal forums. Other than learning the obvious no-nos (don’t text the bride asking if she can change the wedding date or wear a white, lacy dress to the event), I’ve discovered the one area of consensus among  experts about sisters of the groom is that they should be given a job—any job—for the big day.

To be sure, wedding planners and decorum specialists agree that brides should not feel obligated to make their fiancé’s sisters bridesmaids. (My future sister-in-law, or FSIL as she’d be known on wedding discussion boards, did ask me to be a member of her bridal party. Like I said, she’s a gem.) The same experts, though, urge finding some way to make the sister of the groom feel included.

The recommendations range from the fairly traditional (she can perform a reading at the ceremony or light a unity candle) to the decidedly more modern (she can be groomswoman and stand with her brother during the ceremony). An article on Martha Stewart Weddings recommends having her help to research vendors or to “capitalize on her talents” by having her design signs for the reception or bake a groom’s cake. Florida-based wedding planner Aviva Samuels offered my favorite suggestion, telling Brides that the groom’s sister can be put in charge of reapplying the bride’s lipstick or fixing her hair in between the ceremony and the reception. No pressure there.

On discussion boards, brides turn to each other looking for a task they can hand off to their future husband’s sisters. As is often the case with weddings (and internet discussion boards), the drama is high. One bride rejected her fiancé’s request to include his sister in her bridal party because it wouldn’t be “meaningful” to her, even though it was to her fiancé. One sister of the groom complained the wedding date conflicted with her kids’ soccer practice. Another pair of sisters stressed out the bride by refusing to order their bridesmaid dresses, even as the wedding was less than three months away. And then there’s the bride trying to manage her “feisty” feminist future sister-in-law’s rejection of wearing a dress, heels, and makeup and shaving her legs for the wedding.

But I also regularly find posts from brides seeking ways to make their fiancé’s sisters feel genuinely included in the wedding. How about having her escort grandma down the aisle? Or perhaps she could carry the broom for the broom-jumping ceremony?

There is no similar obsession about the bride’s brother. He might give a toast or serve as an usher. Or, he may just be a guest wearing a special boutonniere. There’s not a lot of hand-wringing over finding him a job because he’s not subject to the “lingering jealousy issues” that sisters apparently struggle with as they consider a life of spinsterhood. No one fears that without a specific duty, he’ll become overly involved in wedding planning.

We sisters, though, wedding experts say, will want to be involved, whether because of traditional gender norms, jealousy, desperation, or a combination of the three. And I do want to be involved, but it’s not because I’m resentful or obsessed with planning a wedding, even if it’s not mine. It’s because I want to know that I’ll always have a part in my brother and future sister-in-law’s life—whether it’s applying lipstick or giving a reading or fluffing a dress.

For now, I’ve settled into a role that I have almost a lifetime’s experience with: big sister. I’m serving as a sounding board for the couple as they navigate wedding planning, oohing and aahing over photos of possible venues, and trying to only offer my opinion when asked. I’ve promised my future sister-in-law that I will make fun of my brother until he abandons any truly horrible wedding ideas, such as his plan to wear baby-blue sneakers with his navy-blue suit.

After all, that’s what big sisters do. And now, I get to be a big sister to my brother and his fiancé. There’s a lot of change coming up for the two of them—but that’s a contribution that will last.