Dining Etiquette Series – Who Sits Next To Whom?

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They then started the two-by-two procession into the dining room, where the butler held the seating chart and footmen were present to push in chairs. ~ Description of dinner seating at Downton Abbey,  Providence Journal Blog

Although you might have your preferences of who you’d like to sit next to at a Downton Abbey dinner, the seating chart will be in the hands of the butler.  Arranged seating is the norm at very formal dinners, where you will find your name neatly written, often in calligraphy on a little card above the place setting.  At Downton Abbey, the White House or Buckingham Palace you should also expect to escort or be escorted into the dining room where dinner will be served elegantly by a wait staff dressed in formal attire. Nothing much has changed over the years.

At such elegant affairs, there are time-honored seating protocols to which the organizers of such formal dinners strictly adhere:

  • The man-woman seating pattern traditionally is the one used, whenever possible.
  • Married and engaged guests customarily are not seated together. This tradition stems from the experience that married/engaged couples are more interesting conversationalists when they are seated apart. Often when seated together, one partner dominates the conversation or the couple will make subtle references to private jokes or innuendo. Other couples may be seated apart or together at the discretion of the host.
  • Guests of honor are seated to the right of the hostess and host; usually, female guests are seated to the right of the host and male guests to the right of the hostess.  The spouse of the female guest usually sits to the left of the host and the spouse of the male guest sits to the left of the hostess. Other important guests are seated near the host or hostess. If there is only one guest of honor and the host has no spouse present, the guest of honor might then be seated at the opposite end of the table. When multiple tables are used, the host usually sits at one table and the hostess sits at another, with the same guest seating in mind.
  • During the procession into the dining room after the reception and receiving line, each man will escort a woman by offering her his arm, which she will then take with her hand.  A man will usually escort the woman who will be seated to his right.  When they arrive at their assigned seats, indicated by place cards, one of two things will occur: (A) All will remain standing until the hostess has been seated, then the men will hold the chair of the woman to his right as she takes her seat, and then seats himself, or (B) the men will hold the chair of the woman to his right as she is seated immediately and then remain standing themselves until the hostess has been seated, after which they will take their seats.
  • Once seated, no one should leave the table until the host has signaled that the meal is over and rises. Thus, before proceeding into the dining room and being seated, it’s wise to ensure that all toilet necessities have been taken care of, noses have been powdered, hair has been patted, clothing adjustments have been made, calls have been made and cell phones turned off or muted, etc. If it becomes urgent to leave the table briefly, excuse yourself politely and do keep it brief.
  • When a woman must leave the table, the men on either side of her should rise to pull out her chair, and then rise again to help her upon her return. Under some circumstances, it’s okay to stand up halfway to acknowledge her departure and return, especially if standing up fully would cause a disruption. If you are a woman, it is polite to give the men permission to remain seated by saying graciously and with a smile, “thank you, gentlemen, but please do remain seated.” This is a formal dinner ritual that must be observed in order to avoid looking like a dolt.
  • Place cards are usually found at each place setting to indicate to the guests where they are to sit. The cards may rest on the napkin in the middle of the place setting or be placed in a holder above the place setting. The name may appear in calligraphy or bold, plain lettering and show either the guests first and last names or their titles (Ms. Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.). It is considered very bad form to switch your place card with someone else’s–with or without permission.

Note: With official state or royal dinners, there are additional protocols, often based on military protocol, which must be adhered to very strictly. Upon receiving such an invitation, guests are usually briefed in advance as to the protocol they can expect.

For less formal social affairs, such as luncheons, black-tie corporate–sponsored charity dinners, some weddings, rehearsal dinners or a home-based dinner party, the seating can be slightly more relaxed:

  • Guests may be seated in the woman-man pattern, but not necessarily.  It depends on the number of men and women to be seated and the wishes of the hosts.
  • You and your guest might be given a table assignment where you may then select your own seats, or sit wherever there are seats available if others have arrived first. Men should still stand and hold a woman’s seat before seating themselves, and when a women leaves or returns to the table, especially if it the hostess.
  • At a private dinner party where there are no place cards and the hostess asks everyone to sit where they would like, the men should offer the women seats first, and then seat themselves. Married, engaged and dating couples should sit apart and mix in with the other guests.

At business functions, the rules shift yet again because in the workplace women and men are considered equals:

  • When seating is assigned, it is based on business or professional relationships.
  • Business place cards are usually in the form of tent cards with the name of the guest lettered on both sides for networking purposes.
  • Both men and women seat themselves; however, it is good manners for either gender to assist each other when necessary.

When dining casually:

Observe proper table manners (coming up in future posts), whether you are dining with a date as a casual restaurant, sliding into a booth at a coffee shop with the family, or at a picnic table with friends.

Dining etiquette and good table manners aren’t just for formal occasions; they’re for all times, all places.

Some additional notes on seating:

  • President Obama’s State Dinners do not necessarily seat dinner guests with men and women alternating. Each President and First Lady put their own stamp on White House entertaining, and this is one of their variations. That aside, all table manners and other protocols are intact.
  • The etiquette is still evolving concerning same-sex couples; generally, however – as indicated above – while the alternate woman-man seating is still observed in formal settings whenever possible, it is becoming more relaxed. Remember, though, that same-sex couples, just like straight couples, are usually seated apart at formal affairs and the larger private dinner parties.

The important thing to remember with seating, whether assigned or informal, is that it should provide an enjoyable environment for conversing, socializing, celebrating and networking.

Until next time,

Jeanne

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