Manner Matters: In Praise of Place Cards

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How to seat guests at your next dinner party. [Photograph: Shutterstock]

Dear Molly, Is there a correct way to seat guests at a dinner party? Do you keep couples together or break them up? Do you try to mix things up, gender-wise? Guests at dinner parties always seems to ask 'where you want us?' and I never know what's best! Yours, Seat Yourself

Dear Seat,

Tradition dictates that couples are separated, so as to encourage lively conversation among guests (and, if we're being honest, to give those with dull spouses an evening's respite). The exception to this rule is newlyweds, traditionally defined as people in their first year of marriage. Why do they get a pass? Because one imagines that they are so besotted with one another that they are useless in terms of entertaining anyone else.

Tradition would also like to see guests seated man-woman (or what is more commonly called boy-girl). Having an even number of men and women at any given dinner party used to be seen as something of a commandment. An extra of either was fretted over. Hands were wrung. Seating plans upended.

That's all pretty old-school, though, and, quite frankly, easily seen as both heteronormative and sexist.

More modern sensibilities allow you to seat your guests as you think would ensure that everyone enjoys the evening. A particularly shy person may benefit from being near their partner, for example, even if you decide, as I usually do, to mostly split up couples.

In general, mixing things up is the name of the game. People who know each other well tend to gravitate towards each other, for example, and it can be better to split them up, too, and encourage them to chat with others at the table. Ditto goes for those in the same field, or people with a shared alma mater. Depending on your crowd, those of the same gender may have so much else in common that splitting them up may strike you as a good idea, then again, it may not.

You know your guests best, however, so such decisions are yours. That's why they turn to you and ask: "Where do you want us?"

On that note, I'd like to voice my desire to see place cards revived for dinner parties, rather than being relegated to wedding receptions. They allow the host to consider where each guest should sit and offer a clear guide that doesn't have to be figured out last-minute. Plus, it shows your guests that you've put some thought into the event, and that's always a nice touch.

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