One of my favorite things to do is go out to eat. Couple this with getting a bunch of friends together, and I am in heaven. But not all dinner parties are created equal.
I went to two separate dinner gatherings over the past week, and they both could have been improved. It wasn’t because of the company (which was wonderful and engaging) or the food (which was delicious), but it had everything to do with the shape of the table we were sitting at!
At each dinner party, we were placed at a long, rectangular table. Rectangular seating is the most common form of seating in our culture (I can count on one hand the number of family dining rooms I’ve walked into that do NOT have a rectangular table), but it is a difficult configuration that is fraught with potential problems.
Rectangles represent growth, so a rectangular table is a very dynamic shape that invites activity, change, and tension, and is probably perfect for your “Murder Theater”-themed get-together. But for a casual dinner party, the rectangular shape often provokes the opposite effect of what we’re looking to achieve. Rectangular tables invite disunity and promote the individual over the group. Why? Because each seat at the table represents a different feeling or “position”:
The Power Position: This is the person sitting at the head of the table, and everyone’s eyes and ears instinctively turn towards them. They command the table, so it’s normal for the host (or Mom or Dad) to sit here.
The Awkward Seatmate: With this shape, it’s rare that people sitting next to each other on the long side of the table will talk much. Why? Because you have to turn your whole body to look at them, which is pretty uncomfortable, so we tend to avoid doing it and don’t really engage with the people sitting next to us.
The Adversarial Position: At a rectangular table, you’re confronted head-on with the people seated directly across from you, which means you’ll probably talk with them the most, but it’s also hard to get away from them if you’re tired or bored with what they have to say.
The Lost Ones: People who are seated farthest away from where the action is (often where the power is) feel less important and actually seem less important with this configuration.
See all the different issues a seemingly simple table can bring up?
The Ideal Dinner Party Table
For groups larger than four people, the ideal table shape is a circle. Circles encourage conversation, intimacy, and equality. Power is spread out among all the members of the group because a circle doesn’t have a clear edge. This shape also forces the eyes to keep moving around the table, so everyone feels comfortable talking with each other. Because people don’t face each other straight on across a round table, this shape isn’t as adversarial or aggressive. I always feel more relaxed sitting at a round table with a larger group.
The next time you’re planning a dinner party, don’t forget to pay attention to the shape of the table you’re sitting at! It can make the difference between a night everyone’s talking about and a night when no one talks.