Assigned seating for dinner parties was de rigueur back in the day and had very prescribed rules of etiquette. Nowadays, you might occasionally see a dinner party seating plan, especially at weddings but also big dinners like Thanksgiving. Sometimes I suspect that this practice has survived because we want to use all those pretty/cool/interesting place cards more than any excessive need to control the table, but it can also be a hospitable gesture to offer each guest a named place at the table.
If you do want to arrange your guests for dinner, read on for a few tips on the fine art of the seating plan.
Seating your guests is a generous and hospitable thing to do for certain types of dinners. Big dinners (more than eight people) and events with lots of people who don't know each other can feel a bit awkward, as people tentatively approach the table, figuring out where to sit and whom they're going to talk to. Creating a seating plan creates a little moment of security, and a good seating plan can also help energy flow freely in conversation around the table.
Anyone who's had to plan a seating chart quickly discovers that it's not as easy as it seems, if you care at all about the comfort and wellbeing of your guests. Even family tables, like those at Thanksgiving, can be fraught with personality dynamics and old feuds.
If you're planning on assigning seats at your next party or event, it helps to keep the following in mind:
- Common interests. Try to pair people who have a common interest or experiences (both of them collect Victorian train schedules, for instance, or grew up in Botswana).
- Best friends. Don't seat best friends together, or even too close to each other. Part of a dinner party experience is to meet new people and have fresh encounters. It's sometimes hard, too, for a stranger to break into their tete-a-tete.
- Big personalities. Extroverts and people with big personalities should be seated away from each other. Their energy will carry from one side of the table to the other; don't bunch them up at one end and create a cul-de-sac of energy.
- Quieter people and introverts. You may think it would be a good idea to sit an introvert next to an extrovert, but this actually may be too much for the introvert. I usually try to sit more introverted people next to me or people who I know are good at quietly drawing them out.
- History. To the extent that you know it, pay attention to people's histories with each other and seat accordingly. Old feuds, petty differences, romantic entanglements and the like can make for tense, awkward dinner partners.
- Politics and religion. Depending on how strongly views are held, you may want to pair people with compatible views. Unless, of course, you are looking forward to a lively debate at your dinner table!
Alternating male and female, with the host and hostess at either end of the table is no longer necessary these days, unless it is a very formal table. Most people don't sit spouses next to each other but if young children are present, you may want to be sure they're sitting with a parent.
Have you ever planned a seating chart for your dinner party? What hints and tricks do you have for making sure your guests are having an interesting, companionable time at the table?