Subtle Signals of Seating

If you can't say anything good about someone, sit right here by me.
- Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth

It was a beautiful event. The guests were dressed in their newest and finest. The passed hors d'oeuvres were diverse and delicious. The energy in the room was festive. And then the hostess uttered the words that filled my heart with dread... "Please sit anywhere."

There was a quick silence followed by confusion as guests jockeyed to sit near someone they knew. It was the grown-up version of musical chairs, gone bad.

No one likes to feel left out or like the last one picked for a team at recess. This is the feeling created when seating is ignored. I have been to "open seating" events where the guest of honor has been bumped to a side table; events where guests have pulled chairs from one table to another leaving one table too full and another half empty; and business meetings where the clients were clustered and cramped in the back of the room. I am fond of saying etiquette is all about being strategic. By having reserved seats for your guests, you are saying that your guests are important. You are also saying that you expected them to attend and that you cared enough to think about where they would feel most comfortable. Additionally, in business situations, seating is even more important since it shows respect and is reflective of rank. Well planned seating arrangements can even impact on the outcome of the meeting. Where four or more are gathered together for a meeting or a meal, assigned seating is essential.

Site Selection ~ For some events you will need to create a guest list first, and then choose a venue that will fit your guests. For other events, you may choose the venue first, and then match your guest list to the venue. Either way, you should be aware that the size of the venue will have an impact on your gathering. Too big a space with too few people tends to drain the energy from the group. Too small a space with too many people leaves guests feeling crowded and uncomfortable.

Table Tops ~ You need not be a feng shui expert to appropriately plan the room layout and seating for your event. Based upon the type of event and the number of attendees you should choose a room arrangement that will enhance the program. If you are imparting large amounts of information, then classroom style will be best. However, if you are encouraging interaction, a hollow square would be a better choice. If you are having a meal, then board-of-directors or rounds would be best. Standard set-ups include: Dining/Board of Directors, Theater/Auditorium, U-Shape, Classroom, Rounds, Half-Moon Rounds and Hollow Square.

Seating Strategy ~ For less structured events, your primary goal is to seat guests with common interests together. In more formal events, you should consider the protocol of seating. Guests should be listed in order of rank. Beginning with the host, the highest ranking guest sits to the host's right. The second highest ranking guest sits to the host's left. Then the remaining guests are place alternating right and left around the table. You may vary this by having the third highest ranking guest sit directly across from the host. When there is a co-host, guest three is seated to the right of the co-host and guest four is to the left of the co-host.

Social Seating ~ Engaged and newlywed (before the 1st anniversary) couples are seated together at the table; married couples are separated. The understanding here is that married couples have already heard each others' stories and will be better entertained sitting next to someone new. In business situations, we are not concerned with gender. In business settings, seating is all about rank.

Seating for Meeting ~ When assigning seats for business meetings, there are a few additional considerations. In addition to rank, you will want to consider who is attending the meeting, what their role is, and the type of meeting. For staff meetings, seating can prevent distracting side conversations. For contentious issues, round tables prevent the "taking of sides." For presentations, decision makers should be given the seats with the best view of the action. For situations where two participants continually disagree, they should be seated a few chairs apart on the same side of the table so they can not easily make eye-contact. For brainstorming sessions, it is best to eliminate the tables and instead have chairs clustered around flip-charts.

Diplomatic Do's ~ If you are fortunate enough to be hosting an event with diplomats, dignitaries, royalty, VIP's, government representatives and military personnel, you will need to consult with the protocol handbooks to determine the official rank of those in attendance so that everyone is appropriately seated.

Assigned Seats ~ Once the seating has been decided, you can create place cards to set out before the guests arrive. For large events, with multiple tables, seating charts or place cards with table assignments is sufficient. For one or two tables, place cards should be set at the table and the host should assist in seating. Assigned seating makes your day-of job easier and allows the guests to know that they are expected and welcome.

While assigned seating is no guarantee of event success, it certainly is a critical component. As a host, you need to have a full understanding of both the gathering and those who have gathered. Deciding upon appropriate seating is time-consuming. It requires advance thought and planning. The bottom line is great seating is one part science, one part art and one part common sense.