Seating For A Dinner Party
Updated: Jun 3
When hosting a dinner party, the placement of guests is very important to the overall success. Presumably, your guest list is compiled with people that you feel will enjoy each other’s company and have something to contribute to the overall atmosphere and energy you are trying to create. But, even with a well thought out guest list, the placement of each person around the table is something that should not be thrown together at the last minute.
There are two ways to seat people, depending if the party is formal or more casual. Maybe a better way to say that is to ask yourself if your dinner is one that will follow official protocol, or one that is geared more toward matching people with similar likes and interests.
The most common approach, and often the most enjoyable for guests, is where you match people together that will enhance the conversation at the table, regardless of protocol.
Things to consider with your seating assignments:
1. Separate couples: When two people know each other well, it is too easy for them to spend their time at the dinner table just talking to each other. This can be a concern especially if one, or both, of them are not as social as the other guests. It will be too easy for them to huddle together and disengage from the group. You want to avoid this.
2. Alternate male and female: Why is this important? When women are grouped together at one end and men at the other, the natural instinct is to only talk to that group, thus ignoring the opposite end of the table. To have the full table engaged, it is best to alternate.
3. Match personalities: Think about your guests and how they interact with others. Do you have two people attending your dinner that are more reserved? If so, you probably do not want to seat them close together. Do you have several talkative guests that love to attend parties? If so, scattering them throughout the other guests would work well. They will help carry the conversation in their section of the dining table.
4. Match interests: If you know two individuals just returned from a fabulous trip to New Zealand, it might make sense to seat them together. They could spend the entire dinner just talking about their shared experiences. What about business interests? If several of your guests work in real estate, they will enjoy having this common topic to talk about over dinner.
5. Separate potential problems: If you have two guests attending that you know do not get along put them on opposite ends of the table.
6. One table or two? I prefer smaller dinner parties with 12 or fewer people. If possible, keep
everyone at the same table. The synergies of conversation are always much livelier, and there are more people for your guests to converse with. This also helps avoids those awkward silent moments that can occur more easily when you separate your guests into different tables and smaller groups. For a larger dinner party more tables are sometimes necessary. Just know that a smaller table of people that do not know each other means your ability to match your guests appropriately becomes even that much more important.
7. Hostess: As the hostess at the table, it is your job to instigate the conversation. If I see two
guests sitting quietly, I might say to them, “Suzy, Debbie and her family just moved to the
neighborhood, and her children will be entering our local elementary school where your
children attend. Do you have any tips for her that might help the transition go more smoothly?” The responsibility of the hostess to help with conversation is another reason I prefer not to separate my guests into different tables, because that means there is no hostess present to steer the dialogue. If I do need to have more than one table, then I choose one of the guests that I know well to serve as the hostess for that table. My other guests never know this, but I can rest comfortably knowing my chosen helper will ensure a quality time for the other people in her group.
8. A hostess needs easy access to the kitchen. Your goal is to be able to slip in and out of your chair with as few of your guests noticing as possible. Knowing this, your placement at the table is important. As hostess, you will be at one end of the table if it is a rectangle. Pick the end of the table that is closest to the kitchen. If it is a round table, pick the chair closest to the kitchen.
9. Table size: Round tables work best for conversation, but whatever you have is fine. I have a round table in my kitchen that can seat 6 and a rectangular table in my dining room that can seat 12. Both options work well, but a round table is preferable.
Observing official protocol:
Some dinner parties require a more formal protocol. For example, a military dinner will have strict guidelines as to where personnel will sit. If you are hosting a client dinner, you also might choose to go with a more formal arrangement. Even in a casual setting, you can choose to follow protocol in order to honor a special guest. The below description is based on a social engagement (vs. business), a rectangular table and includes both men and women:
1. Host: He will sit at the head of the table on one end.
2. Hostess: She will sit at the opposite head of the table. (This only works at tables not divisible by 4, See diagrams for further explanation.*)
3. Seated to the right of the hostess: This place is given to the male of highest rank. Highest rank might consist of political position, business position or ecclesiastical hierarchy. If the dinner is in honor of a friend’s birthday, then they would be the guest of honor that “ranks” the highest, so give them this seat.
4. Seated to the right of the host: This seat is given to the wife of the man being honored. If a male senator is placed to the right of the hostess, then his wife would be placed to the right of the host. If your honored male guest is not married, then the woman of highest rank would be placed to the right of the host. This allows you to stay with the alternating male/female seating.
5. Left of the hostess: The second highest ranking male sits to the left of the hostess.
6. Left of the host: The wife of the second highest ranking man sits to the left of the host.
7. Remaining seats: Fill in the rest of your seats based on your best matching ability which should be determined by the interests of your guests. For a military or political dinner, the remaining seats would continue to go in order of hierarchy, with the center of the table being the lowest rank (this is different in other countries).
*Below is a diagram where the host is on one end of the table and the hostess is on the other. The male guest of honor is to the right of the hostess and the female guest of honor is to the right of the host. As mentioned above, this only works on tables not divisible by four. Why? If you have a table for 12, for example, and you put the host at one end and the hostess at the other, then you will not be able to utilize your male/female alternating seating chart. As I have mentioned previously, alternating male/female usually works best for dinner parties.
If you have a dinner party where you can divide the total number of seats by 4, as in the example below, then the host will go at one end of the table, and the male guest of honor will go at the other end of the table. The hostess, instead of being at the end of the table as in the above diagram, just moves one seat to the left (thus still putting the male guest of honor to her right). This allows you to stay with the male/female alternating order.
In the end, do what you feel is best (unless official protocol is required). There are times I have hosted parties where the highest ranking and second highest ranking guests were both very quiet individuals and placing them directly across from each other would not have made for good conversation. In this case, since my events are all social in nature, I chose to match seating assignments based on personalities instead of position. In social settings, you get to decide who should be placed in the seat of honor. Maybe you determine this by age. We should always honor our seniors! If you are celebrating someone’s birthday, then they should receive the place of honor. Use your best judgement but, no matter what you decide, remember that the seating arrangement at your dinner party is important. Do not take it lightly, because it can make or break your event. Jennifer Gilbert, who is the CEO of the event planning company Save the Date, is quoted saying, “Arranged seating is the only decent thing to do. Every party is about the seating – period.”
Together with you,