Have you ever arrived first at a restaurant for a group dinner and jumped at the opportunity of having the choice to pick a seat? May be there isn’t so much to be joyful about. Being a first mover while playing tick tack toe does offer you an advantage of deciding your strategy but it isn’t a sufficient condition for you to win. Most often, people tend to strategically place themselves at the centre of the long rectangular hoping they can be at the centre of things giving them access to everyone. On one hand, you do have higher option value than most others but you seldom get most value out of these options simply because you are always just in the middle of things and not able to engage deeply with any of them. People usually pair up with the person beside them due to convenience of being able to hear them and eat your food at the same time, unlike if you have to talk to someone 3-4 seats away/ across.
Now you may however argue that the person sitting opposite you is available for a conversation but unfortunately, it’s a similar personality type that managed to get the other centre position to increase option value and hence, is on a constant pursuit of getting the neighbour’s attention. So, you know you don’t have much luck there simply because there is no interference of bouts of engagement of either of the centre pieces. What could potentially have been an opportunity to pick a position strategically for better networking doesn’t quite turn out to be so useful after all. Besides networking, the food (shared plates) is placed between groups of 4 at the either ends (Assuming there are 10 on a table) and you have to basically struggle not only to strike an engaging conversation but also struggle to eat well.
Having spoken about rectangular tables, I must also mention that this is quite tricky in round tables as well. Here I have mixed observations and analysis depending on whether it is a formal dinner or an informal dinner with friends. If it’s a formal setting with one centre of attraction ( professor, potential recruiter, etc), sitting at 90 degrees to them is a safe position since you don’t have to turn your neck awkwardly towards them, which would have been the case if you were sitting beside them or scream loudly, that too with food in your mouth just to be heard from across the table. Choosing between 60 and 90 degrees was a tough one for me since there have been times when I have been seated beside someone who sits at the edge of their seat blocking your view of this centre of attraction requiring you to make awkward maneuverers while they duck up and down eating their meal.
In case of an informal meal with friends, sit wherever, really, except maybe not next to someone who is drunk beyond wits and is attention seeking. In order to avoid such situations, you have to plan the seating well in advance to make sure that while you walk towards the table, you place yourself conveniently between two people you would potentially like to sit in between so you don’t leave either of the ends open to someone you don’t want to be seated beside. It’s also a good idea to divide the table based on food and drinking habits prior to sitting for the convenience of sharing and respect for people who may not enjoy the sight of bones while eating.
Obviously, in the real world, these things happen really fast and we don’t have an opportunity to analyse to such depth before seating ourselves down for a meal and we end up at suboptimal positions giving us an opportunity to think about and reflect about where else we could have potentially sat in order to derive the most value from this dinner. This is probably when the idea of having place cards with names on them came around and I think it is a brilliant idea since it allows you to just focus on the wining (not whining) and dining!