When I was first starting my career as a young lawyer, my wife and I, then newlyweds, were invited to our first business dinner. It was a large firm-wide black tie dinner hosted by the partners. After the cocktail hour we made our way to our assigned table ahead of the other guests. Uninitiated in the etiquette of such affairs, we were surprised that we were not seated next to each other. As none of the others were yet there, we quickly rectified the situation and rearranged the seating cards. The other guests arrived and found their places. Finally, the senior partner who was hosting our table arrived with his wife. She was quite surprised and not very happy to learn that she was sitting next to her husband. Once she figured out I was sitting with my wife, she knew the culprit.
We have since learned that seating plan etiquette apparently requires married couples be separated. Sometimes they are not even seated at the same table. I have often wondered how this rule came about. It seems virtually certain that it wasn’t created by a husband. I can just imagine if I was the first one to come up with the idea and said to my wife “darling, I am going to sit next to two attractive wives of my colleagues and you are going to sit across the table between their boring husbands”. I don’t think so. Most likely, this custom was created in France or Italy, where other people’s spouses are featured as one of the dinner courses.
I hate this rule of etiquette. I struggle with what to talk about. Certain subjects, such as mid-life crisis or enlarged prostates, are clearly off limits. Talking about work is mind-numbing for both parties. Sports would be great, but rarely am I lucky enough to be seated next to a Chelsea or Yankee fan. If I do get a sports fan, it is inevitably an Arsenal or Red Sox fan, which turns talking sports into a tough ice-breaker. One might think that children would be a safe subject, but even that is not without its risks. If you’ve only got one and she has six, this can be a very tiresome conversation. Another pitfall is running into superstar kids. I recently sat next to a woman with one son on the international professional surfing tour and another son who is a professional tennis player. I have a Most Improved Cheerleader and a Most Improved Junior Varsity Tennis Player. Unfortunately, the apples didn’t fall far from the tree.
Then there is the challenge of talking to the women on each side equally so neither feels slighted. If you get too advanced with one, you then have to repeat everything to the other. Or worse, if you spend way too much time talking to only one, your wife will think you are flirting (which, after all, is probably the whole raison d’etre of this seating plan rule to begin with). On the other hand, it is really bad form to ignore the women completely and try to hold a conversation with the man sitting on the other side, in which case everyone will think you are a misogynist.
So, I find seating plan etiquette very stressful. Personally, I prefer the social conventions of grammar school. Boys on one side; girls on the other. This also avoids cooties.