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Assigned dinner seating

I'm hosting a 30th birthday celebration @ a local restaurant for 20+ people. About 1/3 of the group are friends, 1/3 are their significant others/spouses most of whom are 'new' to the group, and the remainder are long lost friends coming in from all over the place. I would like for everyone to mingle, although understandably a seated dinner makes it a bit tricky, and was wondering what people thought of assigned seating? To achieve the objective of mixing it up, i would not be sitting couples next to couples.
Any thoughts?

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  1. Assigned seating is a lovely and gracious way for you to make your guests feel most comfortable, especially since some do not know one another. Scrambling for a place at table is fine for a picnic on the grass, but in this venue, placecards make much more sense for everyone.

    Instead of targetting "couples" why don't you think of your seating as making the most amiable group possible. Put "talkers" next to "non-talkers". Make certain that everyone is reasonably close to someone they already know, but not so close that they can hide out as hermits. I try to scatter the gregarious souls along the table length so that the ends are not the only "sparkle" place, the middle has its share of stars.

    For a special 3-0 birthday, the occasion itself helps to make conversation flow and guests shine. Your job, as host, is to make everyone feel warmly welcomed for coming to mark the day as well as to introduce the new-to-the-group people. Having someone help you with this will make your evening more fun as well as making certain that the job is done well.

    I hope that you have a memorable, fun celebration.

    1. I'm probably in the minority here, but I don't much care for assigned seating that separates couples. I used to live with a wonderful person who wasn't very social (not great at making chit-chat, especially with strangers and acquaintances) and whenever we'd go to a gathering where there was assigned seating and we were split-up, he was miserable for the duration. If we were seated together I could usually assist with the conversation, but if we were separated it was difficult. I'll never forget the one wedding we went to where we were seated apart - at one point I looked down the table and saw him: his face was so distraught that it was heartbreaking. After that night, we just made a point of not going to gatherings where the seating was assigned or asking if couples were split-up for seatings.

      All of that being said, I do understand the desire behind arranged seating and I can see where it sometimes helps with fostering conversation and making new connections (and reconnecting with old friends), but I tend to think that people will sort that out on their own and, unless they're completely oblivious, will go out of their way to make newcomers feel welcome.

      Is there going to be a pre-dining gathering/cocktails in the bar area? That might give people a chance to mingle and reunite with old friends and then I think that the seating will kind of flow from that.

      I like Sherri's idea of kind of scattering the gregarious people down the length of the table - you can approach them before hand and ask them to help with that and I'm sure that they'd be glad to be called upon.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ElsieDee

        You're not in the minority. I've got to say I would be none to happy to be split from my spouse where I didn't know anyone. It's not that I don't enjoy talking to new people but I enjoy it much more when I can share in a conversation that includes my husband. Especially that age group when people have so many new life experiences ie. marriage, jobs, kids... most couples like to share their stories together. I've never experienced couples seated within a group that only conversed with each other.
        Also, there's always late comers, you may experience guests sitting next to empty seats.

        1. re: ElsieDee

          I also would not like to be split from my wife at a function like this. I actaully have never heard of this practice being done.

          For families where both husband & wife work, and have a child, a gathering such as this is sometimes the one of the only times where they can enjoy each others company, and the company of others.

          I do find he concept of having tables with couples and single folks mixed interesting. However the single folks might get bored with the talk of kids, and married life that may come over and over.

          1. re: swsidejim

            I had a law school graduation dinner for about that many people in a restaurant and did assigned seating and it worked very well, even though it was a very disparate group - some law school friends who were all younger than I, the mother of one of them (a former nun, BTW), work colleagues who were in their early 50s, my parents and siblings, a couple in their late 70s who ran an antique print shop that I frequented, my brother in law and his wife and some people I'm probably not remembering at this point. The group included Americans, Dominicans and Brazilians - married, widowed, divorced, single, with kids, without kids etc., Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Agnostic. Few if any of the guests knew anyone outside the "group from which they came" - ie, school, work, my family, etc. - and yet everyone had a wonderful time and chatted up a storm. I think the idea of having a mingling period before being seated is a good one. I think I did split up the couples that were there - there weren't too many of them.

            In the Dominican Republic, where my husband is from, that is standard practice at dinner parties and it is considered it a bit gauche there apparently to seat couples at the same table. For me it has sometimes been awkward as I often have had little in common with others there and also, even though I speak some Spanish and most of the guests at the parties do speak English, the norm is for the conversation to fall into Spanish until someone remembers that I don't understand it that well! But that doesn't stop me from mixing it up a bit when seating couples, and if I know that someone who is coming is shy etc., I'd seat them next to someone like my Mom who is friendly but not gregarious or overwhelming etc.

            Edit - actually, I think it was more like 24 or so - three round tables of 8 - round tables do make conversation much easier I think, and you are not limited to conversing to the people just on either side of you and across from you - ie, the whole table can have a discussion.

            1. re: MMRuth


              I guess it may be more common that I thought to spilt up couples. I still wouldnt like it but different strokes for different folks.

              I enjoy going to weddings, and other events from different cultures. My wife is from the Phillipines, and every gathering seems to tunrn into a karyoke event. With the old timers trying to sing Sinatra, and the kids doing songs from boybands. I get a good laugh, and have a good time.

        2. I'm assuming you don't mean splitting couples up, which would be very awkward, but that you mean you wouldn't have all the couples bunched together and the singles all seated together. I agree with that. I have friends that are still single and they hate it when they are at "the singles' table."

          I know that for my wedding, I am seating folks according to their people skills and interests. For example, two couples won't know anyone else there but both are very into music. So I'll seat them with some of our outgoing friends who are in the music industry. That mutual interest will foster conversation and the rest will take care of itself.

          4 Replies
          1. re: mojoeater

            In the good old days of Emily Post, couples were always split, so that they didn't just talk to each other. Fortunately those days seem to be behind us. But assigned seating does tend to diminish the situation where people who know each other all sit together, and the "outsiders" are left alone in a dark corner.

            1. re: KaimukiMan

              interesting. my husband and I do not sit together when out to dinner with friends- I enjoy his company, and worry about appearing exclusively interested in each other. Plus, if we split up during the evening, we can share all the juicy gossip and funny stories later on- I didn't realize that some people felt quite uncomfortable splitting up to eat- we and our friends have just always done it-

              1. re: nummanumma

                I think there are a lot of couples who will split up to go out with friends and the spouse/significant other is probably not going to be that familiar with the group in that sort of situation. It can be a really uncomfortable situation for the spouse if the friends are sitting there talking about work or their school days.

            2. re: mojoeater

              I think you have a great plan, but I am not sure how feasible that is with a group as small as 20 people, many of whom are new to the group and may not have their interests known as much as some of the more seasoned people. I do think it's important to make sure the couples don't clump on one end and the singles end up clumped on another.

              I wouldn't split up couples since a lot of people are not really that outgoing and tend to get uncomfortable when they're around all these new people. Plus, people who know each other already tend to reminisce about old times and that will make the newbies feel even less comfortable. At least if they're near a spouse, the spouse can make sure they're included.

            3. It has always been the host's prerogative to assign seating.

              1. I think careful assigned seating is an excellent idea. As a guest, it's always a relief to me if I don't have to scramble to make sure I get a seat near people I know. If seats are assigned, I'm happy to sit near folks I don't know because then I understand that the goal is to meet new people.

                When my mother has small dinner parties, she assigns seats and splits up each couple, but everyone is still very close together around our dining room table. For a bigger event, I imagine couples might like to be together, but I could go either way on this. This is just my impression and not based on etiquette or research, so take it for what it's worth.

                By the way, if it's not too contrived, you could have the bday person sit in one spot for dinner, and then trade with someone at the other end of the table (or at another table) for dessert.

                1. I am not a fan of forced coupling or de-coupling. And that is what you do when you assign seats as to how you feel people fit. 20 is a very small number to mico-manage. If you have a "social hour" stand and mingle time before dinner, people can start to sort themselves out into groups to seat at tables, especially if they know how many are at a table. And as hostess, during this time you can sorta see who is not mingling as well as others and help things along.

                  I also agree with the CH who posted about her ex. MY Ex bf was delighted to join me and meet people at parties, but was so miserable if placed alone amongst strangers.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Quine

                    I am not opposed to assigned seating but I do think that when seating happens organically people tend to have a better time as they are seated near people they get on with and ultimately enjoy themselves more.

                    one idea you may be able to execute is have guests change seats for the dessert course - they will have had a few drinks and may be more willing at that point to meet and mingle.

                  2. I think assigned seating is great for a really large group, but unnecessary for 20 or so people. I think you will spend a lot of time and effort thinking about the ideal seating, but it may not be preferable to what would naturally occur. I tend to be a micromanager myself, but this is one I would restrain myself from planning out. Besides, when a couple of people inevitably don't show up it will mess up your whole seating plan.

                    1. I think 20 *is* sufficiently large to require assigned seating. To do it successfully though, you really need the personalities well. I have two friends who always seat couples seperately and it has mixed results. On some occasions I've had the time of my life - being seated next to a chatter box world traveler - on others been close to suicide seated next to two non-talkers. Good luck!

                      1. Assigned seating for that many people; maybe put couples across from each other. HAPPY BIRTHDAY

                        1. Thanks everyone for your input. I greatly appreciate it. I still haven't decided on what I'm going to do, the first poster had me convinced w/ the 'scattering of gregarious soul's but I also can understand everyone's point esp if you have a person or two who is less social (pretty sure there aren't any like that in this crowd, but you never know). I like 'Howchow''s organic thinking so may end up going with that. We'll see....it will also depend on how organized I can get in the next 24 hours.
                          Thanks again, there were def some points brought up I'd not considered!

                          1. If you mean by hosting that you are paying, you may indeed arrange seating and it would be thoughtful to do so. I normally do so for any dinner over 4 persons, and my guests regularly express appreciation for it.

                            I separate people who tend to antagonize each other, the people who need special access (left-handed, large, small, et cet.), and of course couples (who should know better than to seat next to another in the first place* - that does not mean they cannot sit somewhat across from each other, though, and I often do that where a shy partner is involved - it's actually *better* than sitting next to each other, folks).

                            * Until it seems very recently...it was considered good form for couples automatically to avoid sitting next to each other, without needing any arranging by a host. There are no new situations of intimacy and shyness that have arisen in the intervening years that I am aware of.

                            7 Replies
                            1. re: Karl S

                              YOu arrange seating for 5 people?

                              Oh well, I guess in my old age of 55, (next week!) I better start to learn better. :)

                              1. re: Quine

                                Well, I should say 6 or more - generally, I've worked in even numbers. But yes for 6.

                                1. re: Karl S

                                  The worst seating situation I've encountered was at a wedding where my SO was the best man. He had to sit at the head table, and I got seated with some of their high school friends. He and I had been dating less than a year at that time, and I hadn't met his friends before.

                                  I'm very outgoing, but the conversation was all reminiscing about the past and I was excluded entirely (they weren't being rude, just excited about seeing eachother again). Plus I was seated behind a big pillar and couldn't even see the head table or the dance floor.

                                  Afterwards, my SO told me how much he hated sitting at the head table, too. Didn't like being on display and there was nobody to talk to, since the groom was obviously occupied.

                                  1. re: mojoeater

                                    Yeah - that head table business can be horrible - up on a dais at a long table, everyone on one side - ugh.

                                    1. re: MMRuth

                                      true, but on that day it's not about the guests... its all about the mother-of-the-bride....LOL

                                    2. re: mojoeater

                                      It seems like the pendulum is swinging the other way now. Most weddings I've been to in the past 5 or so years did not have a head table. Instead, the bride and groom had their own seating area, and the rest of the wedding party was either scattered throughout with their SOs or seated at one table with their SOs (depending on how many people are in the wedding party).

                                      In a wedding I went to last month, the best man was seated next to my hubby and me in a table filled with mutual friends.

                                      1. re: gloriousfood

                                        i guess people are realizing that the most important thing is that your guests are happy and comfortable!

                              2. aussie, for me it would come down to how well you know your guests. If I'm attending a party with my dh, I'm assuming we are sitting together unless the host(s) have mentioned some other arrangements ahead of time. Dh and I have attended parties where we were together and apart. Depending on the friendliness of the other guests assigned seats can be fun or dull (truly).

                                However, when hosts offer a children's table, I'm a happy camper! Recently we attended an 75th b-day party and the younger people had their own tables. It was great to have an uninterrupted conversation with fellow adults!

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: HillJ

                                  I appreciate having arranged seating so there is no awkward shuffling. DH and I don't mind being separated and expect it at a formal dinner party. L