In the old days, dinner parties came with a code of etiquette — it was all about the seating. The hosts sat at opposite ends of the table, and their guests were arranged according to rules of etiquette and with an artful eye to the natural eddies of conversation. I'm fascinated by the old-fashioned attention to seating, and I'm curious: Do you assign seating at your dinner parties?
Here's one set of instructions on dinner party seating from a resource on etiquette published in 1940:
At an informal dinner, the hostess leads the women guests into the dining room followed by the host and the men guests. The hostess then tells her guests where to sit. She must always have the seating planned in advance in order to avoid confusion and delay. The host and hostess sit at opposite ends of the table. While customarily the oldest woman sits at the right of the host and the oldest man at the right of the hostess, guests may be placed wherever they will be happiest.
That's for an informal dinner in the 1940s. There were also more stiff codes for formal dinners, and, going further back, conventions like never placing a husband and wife next to each other or across from each other. There were also social niceties that addressed guests' responsibilities to evenly divide their conversation between the fellow dinner guest on their right, left, and across the table. (Ever read Georgette Heyer?)
Coming into today's social environment, carefully planned and orchestrated seating arrangements feel overly stiff and formal, unless one is at a large wedding or other formal event. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't pay attention to who sits by whom, especially when you have a party of 6 or more to dinner. I think that Emily Post's instructions and insights into human nature still ring very true:
It is usually a mistake to invite great talkers together. Brilliant men and women who love to talk want hearers, not rivals. Very silent people should be sandwiched between good talkers, or at least voluble talkers. Silly people should never be put anywhere near learned ones, nor the dull near the clever, unless the dull one is a young and pretty woman with a talent for listening, and the clever, a man with an admiration for beauty, and a love for talking.Her language may feel a little stiff and dated in its characterization of men and women, but it is still helpful. How often have we been at parties and dinners where married people chatter just to each other all night? Or one person who doesn't know anyone else very well gets stuck in a corner? Or where two opinionated and bright people dominate the entire conversation from one end of the table?
Most people think two brilliant people should be put together. Often they should, but with discretion. If both are voluble or nervous or “temperamental,” you may create a situation like putting two operatic sopranos in the same part and expecting them to sing together. (Source)
I'm always fascinated by the ways our forebears wisely considered all these elements when planning and arranging a dinner party. The goal, of course, is to help everyone have a good time and to enjoy mixed, interesting, and free-flowing conversation over good food. Arranging your seating is just one way to do this, but it's one thing I like to pay close attention to. I try, for instance, to always seat myself across from or next to the person I think will be quietest or most left out so I can pay attention and draw her out. People who I know will have no problem carrying a conversation are usually seated a little further down the table, and so on.
So, do you arrange your dinner party seating? Or is that too staged or stuffy for you? How big would your group of diners have to be in order for you to put them in some sort of arrangement?
(Images: Faith Durand)