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."