To understand seating blunders, we need to turn our heads to the medieval times. Back then, your seat at the table defined your nobility. Arguments over who belonged where often developed into swordfights, which is why many formal dinners today use place tags (a fun fact you can share at the next wedding you attend).
At business meetings, we are usually free to pick the seat we want. However, even though we have no reason to fear a swordfight any longer, our physical position in the room still sends a signal to the people around us. Are you the boss? The competitor? See below for “the secret seating rules”, so you won’t be left out clueless.
Seat 1: The Boss
If you choose the seat furthest from the door at the head of the table, you are declaring yourself “The Boss”. Often the manager or chairperson will take this seat to facilitate the flow in the meeting.
Seat no. 2: “The Competitor”
If you sit opposite the boss you are sending the message (often unconsciously) that you have a different agenda from the boss and intend to negotiate according to that agenda. The position is often called the "competitive" or "defensive" position.
In social situations, such as a couple sitting in a restaurant, the position is seen as conversational and it allows good eye contact. In a work environment, however, the position is often a sign of competition or a reprimand of the other. Furthermore, studies show that people in the competitive position speak in shorter sentences, can recall less of what was said and are more likely to argue.
Seat 3 and 4: The Boss's allies
If you sit next to the boss you are declaring yourself their ally. To be more exact, you assist the boss and can influence the flow of the meeting. Corner positions like this allow for friendly conversations, good eye contact and many gestures without being too confronting.
Research shows that sitting on the boss's right side (seat 3) will often make you more cooperative than the person sitting on the left side (seat 4).
Once again, we find the explanation in medieval times, where the person on the right was less likely to be able to successfully stab you with their left hand. Therefore, the "right-hand-man" (also referred to as the second in command) is more favored, and today people subconsciously credit the person on the right side with having more power than the one on the left.
Seat 5 and 6: The Competitor's Allies
If you work for the boss, taking either of those seats next to the "competitor" is putting yourself in opposition to your boss by implicitly supporting the competitor.
Seat 7, 8 and 9: Nonparticipants
When you sit along the wall, you’re expected to keep silent and take no participation. Seat 7 (behind the boss) is often the boss's admin or note taker, while seat 8 is the competitor's admin or note taker. If you choose seat 9, you are part of the "peanut gallery", which means that you're not going to be contributing to the meeting but will be present throughout.
Seat 10: Exit row
If you need to leave early, choose the "Exit Row" seat. This way you can depart without making a big deal about it.
Seat 11 and 12: The neutral
If you choose to sit in the middle you don't make any particular statement – unless the meeting is for working issues, in which case sitting at no. 11 puts you in implicit opposition to whoever is sitting at no. 12.
In the middle position, you are out of sight to many at the table (only the heads of the table can see everyone). At this position, you are being talked over and around. Therefore, it is a good place to sit if you are unfamiliar with the group and you’d like to quietly size up the situation.
However, you may want to sit in the middle next to individuals with opposing viewpoints to soften or mitigate their opposition.
What if the meeting table is round?
The round table is generally better at creating an atmosphere of relaxed informality and is ideal for social discussions.
However, the same rules apply for a round table as for a classic rectangular table. King Arthur used the round table as an attempt to give each of his knights an equal amount of authority and status. However, King Arthur was unaware that the knights seated on either side of him were silently granted the highest amount of power (the one on the right having a bit more power than the one on his left). The power then diminished relative to the distance that each knight was seated away from the king. The knight seated directly opposite King Arthur was in the competitive position and was likely to be the one to give the most trouble.
The behavior is part of our history and the same unwritten rules still exist today. Just remember, meetings are very context dependent, which means that you can't count on these seating rules for every situation. However, research shows that your physical position in the room are important factors for the outcome of the meeting.
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