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Table plan politics: just how do you decide who sits where?

I’d only lived in the UK for a few months when I attended my first British wedding – a countryside classic with a village church ceremony, giant Jenga on the lawn and free-flowing Pimm’s. As an East Coast American used to hotel ballroom celebrations with ‘black-tie optional’ dress codes and over-the-top ice displays, I loved the chic simplicity of it all… not to mention the creative headwear and morning suits worthy of Mr Darcy. But when it came time to check the table plan, things took a turn for the awkward.

“None of us are seated together,” I whispered to my then-boyfriend (now husband) when I saw that the 10 people I knew at the event had been scattered to the four corners of the room. Even more panic-inducing, my other half and I were assigned places at opposite poles of a massive round table. Cue three courses of friendly but forced chit-chat with perfect strangers. (“Isn’t this elderflower jelly delicious?” “Mmm, yes, very!”)

OK, so I exaggerate. In truth, the table was full of cool people our age, and our hosts had clearly gone to great pains to engineer a layout conducive to mingling. But I like to think I’d have been just as chatty (and seriously more relaxed) surrounded by the social support system I’d arrived with – or at the very least my partner. Instead, the frantic scramble to bond gave me college-dining-hall flashbacks.

My takeaway from the whole experience was this: a table plan has the power to strike fear into the hearts of your guests – especially those flying solo or who aren’t members of a dominant group – and should be tackled with their comfort in mind. I vowed that when my time came, I’d do better. No split couples. No dismantled friend groups. No assigned seats once you reached your table. Bring on the Nobel Prize for Wedding Logistics!

Here’s the thing, though. Finding flaws with other people’s table plans is kinda like backseat driving: good fun until it’s your turn behind the wheel. As a mere guest, blissfully ignorant to the family politics and friend dynamics underlying every decision, I had the freedom to focus on tweaks that would have improved my experience. But when I sat down to craft our own charts 18 months later, I had 140 individuals to slot into place. Needless to say, the whole thing got way more complicated. Take what should’ve been the simple task of seating a certain group of family friends. There were 10 of them, so 10 to a table, done. Until my dad passed on a message one had emailed to him. “Julia’s not putting me with Joe, is she?” he moaned. “I can’t stand that guy!” And there were some of our own mates who couldn’t bear to be within a three-table radius of each other. So much for my rule against dividing up groups.

If these dilemmas weren’t enough, my fiancé reminded me of another quagmire: the singles table. “You know it’s our duty to help people pull?” he asked as we sat staring at the stickers bearing each guest’s name. Would Ava go for Chris, or maybe Tim? Or was Tim better with Sarah? Suddenly the table plan had morphed into a high-stakes game of sexual Tetris.

We spent weeks shuffling those stickers around, and when the adhesive finally called it quits, we decided we should too. Because, best intentions aside, I realised it was impossible to please everyone. And let’s be honest: your seat is just the place where you kill time before the real party begins.

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