Dinner Party Seating Strategies
Create a no-fail seating plan in two easy steps.
Step 1: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Even your dearest family and friends have their idiosyncrasies. Start by noting each guest’s personality traits (like the eight described in this story).
Step 2: Put Them in Their Place
So, you’ve worked out who will click and who will clash. But how do you put all the pieces―or people―together? Use the printable cards (see the link on the next page) to arrange—and rearrange—your dinner guests based on their personality types.
Consider yourself the evening's conductor. Sit close enough to the kitchen that you can clear plates, change courses, and uncork wine without disturbing people. It's also the host's job to manage problem guests.
Seat next to: the Introvert, the Diva.
Avoid: a cohost.
Tip: "Your guests will take cues from you. If you're laughing, talking to people, and having a good time, they will, too," says Sue Fox, author of Etiquette for Dummies ($22, amazon.com).
"You like lettuce? That is so weird! I love lettuce!" The Diva works well next to the Introvert―that way, the shy guy doesn't have to make uncomfortable small talk.
Seat next to: the Introvert, the Charmer.
Avoid: the Entertainer.
Tip: "Put this person at the end of the table, where she won't monopolize the entire conversation," says Marlene Holloway, a San Diego–based etiquette expert.
The Gossip Fodder
Your guests can't stop talking about this person and his scandalous divorce/court case/ dating habits. So keep him comfortable. Avoid seating him next to someone who might judge or question him.
Seat next to: the Host, the Charmer, the Outsider.
Avoid: the Politico.
Tip: "I always want a person with a juicy story to sit by me. I want to know everything!" says Nigella Lawson, host of the Food Network series Nigella Feasts.
She makes more eye contact with the whole baked red snapper than with the guy across the table. Seat her next to the Charmer. The Gossip Fodder also works well, since the Introvert is too shy to ask questions. Never seat her next to the Outsider. Bor-ing!
Seat next to: the Host, the Charmer, the Gossip Fodder.
Avoid: the Outsider, the Politico.
Tip: "If someone is unforthcoming at a dinner party, I'll feel less stressed if I sit next to him and bear the brunt of it," says Lawson.
The Charmer could make delightful conversation with an ice sculpture. He will eat―and adore―everything you put in front of him. In a crisis, he will help you remove the steak sauce from your mother-in-law's silk blouse or put out a kitchen fire.
Seat next to: Anyone.
Avoid: the Host.
Tip: "If you don't have friends like this, make them," says Ted Allen, host of Food Network's Chopped.
The more controversial the topic, the more this guest wants to talk about it. Debating stem-cell research and national security can be tricky, but a good Politico keeps things lively. Just rein him in if he veers toward dangerous territory.
Seat next to: the Diva, the Entertainer, the Host.
Avoid: the Introvert, the Gossip Fodder.
Tip: "Be alert enough to keep the conversation topics moving. It's OK to interrupt this person time and time again to change the subject," says cookbook author Nathalie Dupree.
He always has something to offer a crowd. Maybe it's a talent or an interesting job. ("Tell me about your work as a rodeo clown, Tom.") He's great at commanding a room, but he's not overbearing like the Diva. Pair him with the Gossip Fodder, who can let the Entertainer take center stage.
Seat next to: the Gossip Fodder, the Introvert.
Avoid: the Diva, the Host.
Tip: "If the stories are good and everyone else is interested, let him talk," says Dupree
This could be the new love interest of another guest or an unexpected tagalong. The honest truth? You’d prefer she wasn’t there. Break the traditional rules and seat her next to the person who brought her.
Seat next to: the Charmer, the Host, the person’s companion.
Avoid: the Introvert.
Tip: “Probably the most nervous guest at your party. Seat him next to someone warm and nice, like the Charmer,” says Holloway.
Plan a Perfect Seating Arrangement
Use the Seating Card Worksheet to arrange (and rearrange) your dinner guests based on their personality types.
Solutions to Dinner-Party Seating Problems
When should you use place cards?
Trust your instincts. Arranged seating can help defuse awkward situations, but it also adds an element of formality to your party. If that’s what you want, then it’s acceptable to use place cards for parties larger than four. If you prefer a more casual approach, use verbal direction for groups of up to eight, or as many as you feel you can manage. Just be prepared to bend a little if people don’t follow your directions precisely. Focus on getting a few key people in the right places. (Putting the Charmer in a middle seat, where he can direct the fun and smooth over any sticky moments, is a good start.)
One table or more?
Fox likes tables of six to eight for generating the best conversations, where everyone gets involved. If you have more than eight guests, split into two or more tables. That way, you won’t be yelling or straining to hear. The host’s table will always be viewed as the best place to sit, so if you’re sharing hosting duties with your husband or a friend, sit at separate tables. If you’re hosting alone, then make a point to mingle quite a bit, to ensure that nobody feels unimportant. And if you choose to go with more than one table, use the same seating rules that you would for a single group.
When assigning seats, where do you start?
Lawson always begins with those sitting nearest to her. “Sometimes that will be the most difficult person to place,” she says. “But sometimes it will be the guest of honor.” Generally speaking, it makes sense to start with the people who concern you the most. “You can always take your time with the Charmer,” says Holloway. “She can sit anywhere.”
If kids are involved, should you have a separate kids’ table?
Children will probably enjoy eating with one another more than with adults. Also, adults sometimes have a hard time relaxing when they have a child next to them. “Kids should be at their own table until they are old enough to contribute to an adult conversation,” says Allen. “I know 9-year-olds who can do that.” Teenagers can throw you for a loop. They won’t want to sit at a kids’ table. (You’re bound to hear “I’m not a little kid anymore, Mom!”) But they might not want to hang with adults. (“You’re so boring!”) Sit them with the kids for now. “A little teenage resentment is just something you’re going to have to learn to live with,” says Lawson. Amen.
How long should you wait for a latecomer?
If cocktail hour is over and late guests still haven’t arrived, you can start dinner without them. When stragglers finally get to your house, greet them graciously and serve them the course the rest of the table is eating. But don’t starve them as punishment: “If you’re on dessert and the poor people got so lost that they are just arriving, it’s definitely OK to bend these rules,” says Holloway.
How do you keep the conversation flowing?
If this is a mixed group, start by giving your guests an opportunity to get to know one another. “I like to place a sticker on the bottom of everyone’s dinner plate that has a tip about their neighbor,” says Holloway. “One might say, ‘The person to your left went to college with the host. Ask her to tell you a story about freshman year.’” As things warm up, try to draw everyone into one central conversation―or two if it’s a larger group. Avoid fragmented chitchat: It can be noisy and distracting, and it often leaves people out.
What should you do if things get awkward?
Change locations. “There’s always that moment in Victorian movies where someone says something that is staggeringly inappropriate,” says Allen, “and the hostess picks up her dinner bell and says, ‘I think we’ll adjourn to the library for dessert.’” The plan works. A change of location encourages a switch in conversations and gives you a chance to reseat anyone who is uncomfortable or making trouble. If someone drops a clanger midmeal, do the best you can to change the subject with a question. (“Mary, how was your mother’s trip to St. John?”) The rest of the guests will silently thank you.