Social Etiquitte: The Party Seating Challenge
You can audition caterers, drill service staff and curate the music. But there’s one part of a dinner party that’s hard to control—the interaction between guests. In the best of times, you’ve carefully plotted out a seating chart that allows for comfortable, casual conversation and, perhaps, a newly created friendship.
But the best-laid plans often go awry. Suzanne Willis, an etiquette guru and owner of Mimi’s Manners in Fort Myers, says getting the seating chart just right is one of the most difficult parts of throwing a formal dinner party.
“It’s one of the things my clients ask a lot about,” she says. “And there’s really no good rule of thumb for how to do it.”
In all seriousness though, Willis says it’s about common sense. If you want to create a lively party, just think about next to whom you are sitting your guests.
“You want to find commonalities,” she says. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily sit two lawyers or doctors next to each other. Then they are probably only going to talk about work and alienate the other people around them. But if you know you’ve got two classical music fans or guests from Cleveland, they are going to have a lot to talk about.
Also, sit couples apart from each other. “They likely have the same stories to share anyway,” Willis says. “And they’ve certainly already heard each other’s stories.”
In the end, it’s out of your hands. You’ve put people together you think will get along. If they don’t, that’s not all on you.
“A guest is responsible for being a good guest,” Willis says. “They should come ready with appropriate conversation and be ready to have a good time.”
Here we collected a few amusing anecdotes about what can go very right or very wrong when it comes to assigned seating.
Always be accommodating
Local construction leader and philanthropist Todd Gates says things can get unintentionally tricky when you don’t know all the guests. He and his wife hosted a fundraising dinner at their home where a certain local high-roller ordered up two full tables. (Note: Some of the details have been changed or omitted to protect those innocent or less so.)
The man, an octogenarian widower, invited many couples to his tables, but also a couple of single older women. When creating the seating chart, Gates put the two women together as they were the only people not attending as part of a couple.
“So this guy’s assistant comes by, a few hours before the party, to make sure everything was in order,” Gates recalls. “And she looks at the seating chart and says, ‘We have a problem.’ ”
Turns out the single ladies were both special friends of the “Mr. So and So.”
“One was Mr. So and So’s friend from Michigan,” Gates says. “The other, his friend from Ohio. My assistant and I just started laughing. I love that he had the comfort level to invite both of them to the same dinner.”
Needless to say, Gates rearranged the seating chart to separate Michigan from Ohio.
Doing a little research can make sure guests who don’t know each other can have plenty to talk about. And it can also create happy accidents. As a host for many Naples Winter Wine Festival vintner dinners, Denise
Cobb says it’s tough to figure out how to seat people the host may not know.
To make things a little easier, Cobb does her research. Even just a cursory Internet search on people often comes up with enough information to create fast dinner friends.
“My favorite story is one year seating our vintner, Shari Staglin, next to someone from her small hometown of Mitchell, S.D.,” Cobb says. “I saw on Google that this man also grew up there. It turned out they had been neighbors. She had a terrible crush on him all through grade school and middle school. He was older and a star football player, and he never gave her the time of day.
“They hadn’t seen each other in 45 years until seated next to each other at the dinner. She loved it because now she was the star.”
Accidents will happen
Even though the worst seating mishaps will most likely just cause some hurt feelings and a few uncomfortable hours, it can be worse. One story—related to us anonymously—ends up with the offended couple bolting town never to be heard from again.
As our source tells us: “There was a dinner party for about 20 people (10 couples) at the Naples Grande (now Waldorf Astoria), and I did the seating. One of the guys was a known drinker and partier, and another of the women specifically asked that she not be seated next to him. She was extremely shy and quiet.
“I did as she asked, but another of the guests snuck into the room during the cocktail hour, saw they were seated next to him and so switched all the place cards which ended with Ms. Shy’s place card next to Mr. Party. No one knew it until we all entered the dining room and of course it was too late to change it without causing a scene.
“As expected, Mr. Party was quite boisterous, even dancing on his chair at one point and pulling Ms. Shy up with him. She and her husband left the dinner early. Two weeks later, their house was on the market, and they moved from Naples to places unknown.”
Seating Chart Fun Facts
Fact No. 1: Guests of honor should always sit to the right of the host, who sits at the head of the table.
Fact No. 2: Unless, of course, that guest is a head of state or some other super important dignitary, then they get to sit at the head of the table.
Fact No. 3: King Arthur’s round table was a way to signify equality amongst his knights. With no head of the table, all were considered equals.
Fact No. 4: Except that then the knights started judging their importance by the niceness of the chairs they sat in.