12 December 2011

Consider the Seating Chart

Have you ever had this problem? A big group of people go out to dinner, you all sit down and conversation just dies. Maybe not right away, maybe not even obviously, but the fun spirit of eating out with people is totally gone. This wasn't a problem until a few years ago. In college, you can roll to dinners with twenty plus people and spirits remain high for hours. But that's college. Who has the energy nowadays?

For years, my friend and I have undertaken a rigorous course of observation about what makes group dinners "work" and we've decided that seating arrangements are the key. Given the chance, I'd socially manipulate every dinner I attend. Oh what power! Oh what fun! Is there a job where I can just seat arrange people all the time? Like a supplementary service to a wedding planner? I'd do it for free.

Let's come up with a scenario and work through it. A group of eight have reservations for a nice sit down meal. Most of them at least know each other, a few are close friends, and there is also a semi-stranger in the mix. First, let's consider the formation. Assuming a rectangular table, do you go boy-girl-boy-girl style like Emily Post suggests, or do you do something entirely different? I think we should forget Ms. Post, since she's slightly outdated and too formal for this crowd.

My seating arrangement philosophy centers around noise. Generally speaking, if talking, laughing, and discussions are happening, the dinner is happening. So where do you place the loud talkers? The ones with all the stories, the ones who make people laugh, the ones that spice up the place? More than likely, loud talkers congregate toward the middle, as those are the traditional power seats. I think this is a terrible mistake. If all the loud people are centered, the two edges are suddenly relegated to, well, the edge. The loud talkers need to be interspersed otherwise their sheer volume will make it look like their end of the table is having all the fun.

In fact, I prefer to stack the ends of the table with the two loudest people. They are the anchors for each side, #1 and #8. Plus, if they need to speak to each other, there's a great chance their voices will travel. The person least familiar with everyone must be nestled in the middle at #4, eliminating the chance that they'll feel left out.

Put the person closest to #4 at position #3, or if there isn't one, throw in someone good at being engaging and welcoming. That person is #4's lifeline, should they need it, and in charge of taking care of the newbie. A common mistake is to put the add-on and their friend (#3) next to each other. This just turns into them having a side-to-side conversation while facing each other, forcing everyone else out. Don't make this mistake, put them across from each other.

Your third loudest person goes at position #5. They must provide the energy to bridge the two sides of the table. And then there's the most crucial position of all, number six. Whoever sits at #6 has the potential to ruin everything. If they decide to turn away from the stranger at #4 and instead focus on talking to #5, 7, 8, the group conversation is done and the table is bifurcated. Disaster!

Number Six is the glue seat, the one that requires the most versatile talker and listener. This is the person that makes sure the group meal stays a group meal. It's a big responsibility, so be careful who you choose. A good number six will bond with #4, occasionally interact with all the odd numbers on the board, and shush #8 when he gets too loud. Which he will.

For seat #2, put a good friend of #1 there. These two need to have an easy relaxed rapport together. They'll be in charge of double teaming #4 when needed (to give #3 a break), or sometimes just interact amongst themselves for a moment. However, they can't be the type of duo who exclude everyone else, otherwise they just downsized an eight top into a six. The worst person to put at #2 is a quiet person, especially someone #1 doesn't really know. The reason is because #1 will then have to keep tossing "getting to know you" darts to #2, instead of being loud like their position requires.

Now there's two options as to what happens at #7. You can safely put a quiet person here, as they will be sitting near #5 and #7. Sure they could be volumed out but at least they'll feel like they're part of the party if #5, 6, 8 do their jobs right. The other thing you can do with #7 is to make it a dump seat. Sometimes someone is having a bad day, or they have a headache, or they just aren't into it. If they're going to be checking their cell phone all night or craning their neck to see the television, just put them at #7. That way they can be easily x'ed out without the table losing any momentum.

So that's my ideal formation/arrangement. How would you set up a table to maximize interaction and fun? You can ignore all this if for some reason all your big group dinners are sterling and super fun. Your fabulous friends must just magically coalesce around a table. Congratulations.

Lest you think all I care about is noise, that's not actually true. "Loud" is a catch all category for people who are engaging, socially (over-)adept, able to maintain constant chatter, and have the innate ability to just grab attention and entertain. Actual decibel level is not as important as a nice mix of these other characteristics. If you are simply loud without any of these qualities, you should probably just fucking pipe down.

A few notes: You cannot allow the good friends to clump together. They will leave everyone else out. Four people is a clump, sometimes even three. Split the friends apart, they'll get to see each other later. This splitting also applies for clumps of any kind. Like if you get me and two or more of my tech dorks sitting together, we're going to be talking about torrenting or the optimal way to set up your keyboard configuration or something. The rest of the table starts nodding off and that kills the mood.

Also, in a perfect world, you could switch seats mid-meal. This would be awesome and is a tradition I'd like to see ported over from wherever people regularly do that kind of thing. Short of doing that, it's good enough if people feel comfortable about temporarily switching seats when someone pops out to the bathroom. A quick seat swap always changes the dynamic and change is good. Nothing feels worse than feeling stuck at your seat. Move around, shake it out. Play musical chairs if things aren't working! Truth: Sometimes my friend and I will text each other to swap seats real quick to see if it makes a difference. Results are mixed but at least we try.

Another take home life assignment: What's your favorite/most qualified position to sit in assuming my positions and formation? Under normal circumstances, I generally like to be #2, sometimes #3.

Okay this is getting way too long. I may be too passionate about this topic. Perhaps I need to make a podcast about this so I can go more in-depth and also explore some alternate plans. Next time out I'd like to address specific types of people and where to seat them. For example: The Conversation Killer, The Quiet Talker, The Rude One, The Exclusionaire, The Sad Sack, The Platitude, The Couple, The Attention Hog, The Person Who Always Eats Too Loud, The Instant Food Coma-er, The Laugher, The "I don't want to talk about anything of substance" hater, etc. Basically it'll be a post calling out my friends.