Entertaining May 2001

Putting Guests in Their Place

Never mind the food. The essence of a good dinner party lies in seating everyone properly

Illustration by Paul Cox

I am not a boastful person. In fact, self-deprecation is generally judged to be one of my most winning attributes. I am always ready to discuss my personal defects—irritability, untidiness, permanent panel of blubber between bust and waist which can't be exercised away. But I am going to be boastful now as a social service.

The English magazine The Spectator employs me as "Dear Mary," a so-called agony aunt, in which capacity I have over the years gained considerable expertise in various areas of etiquette; I like to think I have solved many nearly intractable social quandaries for readers. Furthermore, in my own social circle I have been told that there is one area of life enhancement at which I excel, and that it is only right for me to pass on my skills in this department to others.

Organizing the seating at lunch and dinner parties is what, I frankly agree, I am good at. And this happens to be the biggest strategic difficulty faced by a host or hostess today: not what to cook or whether to use a caterer but—now that we're all so spoiled that good food isn't the treat it once was, and we want good social intercourse thrown in as well—how to use the seating plan to maximize everyone's enjoyment.

As a provincial Northern Irishwoman from a medical background catapulted, through marriage, into English and Scottish high society in the 1980s, I have been in a unique position to observe a range of quaint but effective customs surrounding the perennial social problem of placement, or place à table, as the grand French call it. I have viewed these customs with the clarity of observation and genuine interest that perhaps no one but an outsider could bring to the study of them. Incidentally, the English are a snobbish race, but only toward other Englishmen, of ranks different—both higher and lower—from their own. Everyone else they welcome with open minds, and so I was able to infiltrate.

It was very soon after I had been inducted into high society that I found I could marry my intuition and skill at gossip extraction to the centuries-old rules of seating. Not only could I assemble my own largish parties very effectively, but elsewhere my hostesses would often invite me to do it for them. I had some excellent opportunities to learn during five years of twenty-strong house parties held by the daughters of the Thane of Cawdor on the Drynachan estate, in Scotland. I saw how important it was to arrange seating bossily in advance. With spontaneous placement, people may find themselves opting to sit next to someone they feel guilty about. More likely it will be the person they were talking to when dinner was announced—someone with whom they have already exhausted all possible conversational topics. I extracted other useful tips, as well, from the world of the Scottish clan chieftains and the English dukes, who down the ages have needed to manipulate large numbers of people in civilized settings. Their experience can be of benefit to us all.

There are those who say that for the purpose of stimulating the best conversation, the ideal number of guests is six or eight and the table should be round. Naturally, one may wish to bring together more people than that, and the table in one's dining room may be of a different shape. In any case, the English custom—like the custom on the international diplomatic stage—is that the male host should sit in the chair farthest from the dining-room door, with the most "important" female guest on his right, and the hostess should sit opposite her husband. This tradition has its downside, as a duke's daughter once lamented to me. Her rank invariably decrees that she be placed "at the top of the table on the right-hand side of the host, while all the interesting writers and artists are halfway down the table." She could escape the consequences of overprivilege, I suggested to her, simply by making a request in advance: "I may be slightly late, so please put me someplace where I can slip in without too much fuss."

But specifically who should sit next to whom? There is no question of seating a married couple next to each other in sophisticated circles. The glamorous and grand Susan Crewe, the editor of the British House & Garden magazine, who was raised in a stately home, put this rule in perspective by telling me, "We have a lovely family tradition that we observe on Christmas Day at my brother's house. There are usually thirty-four of us sitting down to lunch, and we always sit next to our husbands or wives, because that is the only time of the year that we ever get the chance to do so." There is even an old upper-class joke: "I had to marry her. It was the only way I could avoid having to sit next to her at dinner."

Susan Crewe had to eat in her nursery until she was thirteen. Then her mother allowed her to join the grown-ups in the dining room, under pain of being banished back to the nursery if she was caught not chatting first to the gentleman on her left and then, during the next course, to the gentleman on her right. "If you run out of things to say, ask them if they have a dog," her mother advised. "Whether the answer is yes or no, that's always good for at least five minutes' conversation."

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