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."

When Crewe grew up and started to give her own dinner parties, she found a piece of advice imparted to her by Daniel Salem, a former European chairman of Condé Nast, especially useful. She reports that Salem insisted, "You must think of a table plan in two dimensions, not one, and remember to consider not just who is next to whom but also who is opposite whom, across the table." Salem had another fixed rule, Crewe told me: "Always put husbands and wives out of each other's earshot; otherwise they keep correcting each other's stories. When they're too near each other, it also stops flirting, which is very important for the chemistry of a dinner party."

It is, of course, stuffy and pompous to want equal numbers of males and females. But, as I never tire of saying, even where it is highly unlikely that any romantic liaisons might spring up at your party, it is more fun if they are theoretically possible between those seated next to each other. Where the sexes are not evenly represented, gay people usually don't mind being seated between members of their own sex, and the same rules of flirting may apply.

Some people have the ambitious idea that they can maximize the networking potential of a dinner party by shuffling people around after the main course so that they sit between two new people for dessert and coffee. But this plan is fraught with pitfalls, because, like a law of physics, it is inevitable that one person will not turn up and the hosts will be forced to do yet more thankless, frantic rearranging than they'd otherwise need to.

Of course, seating everyone well is not the end of a host or hostess's obligations to the guests. The host will correctly kick off proceedings by talking to the woman on his right during the first course and the woman on his left during the second. His wife should do the reverse, and their guests should follow suit. Thus every woman turns first to her left and every man first to his right, rather like synchronized swimming. If, however, one person is unaware that this is the form, there can be a disruptive ripple effect around the table.

At royal dinners, so alert are the courtiers to the danger that someone may turn incorrectly that at the end of each course they shut off their conversation as though it were on tap, readying themselves to embark on fresh conversations with the people on their other sides. Lady Celestria Noel, the daughter of the Earl of Gainsborough, declares that because so many people are (as she is) "hopeless at knowing their left from their right," they should "watch the hostess—because she may get it wrong—before they start to talk, and then take their cue from her."

Should an elderly gentleman (elderly gentlemen are often the worst offenders) give his full attention to the pretty girl on his left and ignore the old woman on his right, the host or hostess must correct the balance by finding an excuse to stare beadily into his eyes and break up his unsuitable attachment. "Just interrupt Cyril," the hostess might call down the table. "He knew Person X; he can tell us what X would have said." This having been done, group orchestration ought to ensure that the old boy is brought to his senses.

Speaking as one currently straddling the divide between pretty girl and old woman, I might add that a foolproof way of reminding a man next to you of your presence is to wordlessly grip his thigh under the table. He cannot ignore you after that, and the other guests need be none the wiser.

All of this may sound like rather a lot of work, for everyone. And indeed, times have changed since the days when an invitation to a dinner party would conjure up innocent and happy visions of eating, drinking, being merry, and meeting new people in the full anticipation of compatibility. Today some people may enjoy being merry but want to eat and drink as little as possible, and they are saying "Please don't introduce us to new people—we haven't got time to process the friends we already have. If we are to meet new people, sorry to be ruthless, but we have come to harbor high expectations. The barriers between ambition and pleasure are becoming more and more blurred, so please may we sit next to someone who might be a likely marriage partner, someone famous, someone who will supply us with good anecdotal material that we can later recycle in our own conversational repertoires, or someone who will be of use to us in our careers?"

Well, that's it: the very-worst-case scenario. Party givers must of course be sensitive to the hopes and expectations of their increasingly demanding guests. Fortunately, though, there are still plenty of real people around who take the view that if someone is good enough to go to the trouble and expense of throwing a nice dinner party, then they will be rightly thankful for whatever they eat and whomever they meet.