There’s a near consensus, it seems, that one task you’ll face when planning your wedding is dreaded beyond all others: creating the seating chart. Whether you’re consulting books, magazines, websites, or friends and family, they all seem to agree that this part of the process is the worst.
I may be an outlier, but my experience was great. It was fun, a little challenging, and rewarding. Why the disconnect? I think it’s because I was working with a different set of guidelines than people traditionally do. To explain, lets start with the traditional rules of seating charts:
- Make sure every guest knows at least one other person at their table
- Avoid conflicts by separating exes and feuding family members
- Keep immediate family members together
- Seat people together who have common interests and political views
- Keep tables within the same general age range
- Put older guests further away from the dance floor
- Have a kid’s table to quarantine those noisy/messy little buggers
The first two are definitely worth keeping in mind, but I generally avoided the rest. Instead of grouping people by age and interest, I focused on blending tables more to encourage each guest to meet people and have conversations they might not otherwise have. The cocktail hour is where people will inevitably clump together in familiar ways and catch up with their favorite cousin—why not break things up a little more for dinner?
It’s tempting to just leave people in their comfort zones and avoid conflict, but consider that you might actually be making things worse by doing this. A table full of politically-aligned attendees are more likely to get riled up talking about the current or former president. If they sense that their views might not necessarily be shared, however, they’ll avoid those topics and stick to lighter fare. And, as a bonus, they might just get a chance to hear perspectives beyond their bubbles. Weddings are about families coming together, after all.
So here are my rules instead (in addition to the first two from above):
- Group people by interests
- Feature compatible (but not identical) philosophies or experiences
- Avoid placing people with the same or similar first names together
- Preserve couples but split up family members to encourage mixing
- Ditch the kids’ and grandparents’ tables. They’re guests, not baggage.
Whichever approach you take, the actual work of arranging these names can be tricky. The first step is to figure out what your general layout will be. Where will you sit? Will you have a head table with your wedding party, or a sweetheart’s table for just you and your newly minted spouse? Will parents, grandparents, or siblings get a spot at the head table or sit nearby?
Once you know how many people will be at your table, you can get a sense for how many people you’ll need at every other table. You might end up with a perfect multiple of 8, but don’t count on it, so avoid just putting the remainders at the back of the hall. Thin out a few of the other tables so you end up with a mix of tables with 8 guests and others with 7 (especially nice for guests who needs a little more room thanks to a wheelchair or infant).
I started by creating a spreadsheet of everyone’s names on a separate line. Then, I cut them out leaving couples attached to each other. With these names on strips of paper, I could place them into groups and rearrange them easily until I felt like I had some good combinations. This is really where the majority of the work happened.
For me, with around 80 guests, the first pass took all of twenty minutes and the end result was fairly similar. So expect the worst, but don’t be surprised if things go a little better than some wedding planners would have you believe.
One final bonus tip: mark guests who shouldn’t sit near each other with some sort of symbol—mine was a frowny face. I don’t know all of my husband’s family very well, so some of the names started to blend in with each other (especially for parent-daughter feuds where the daughter has married and taken a different last name). This gives you a quick, easy way to tell if you’ve accidentally put two people together who need to be apart.
Once your guests are grouped, you’ll need to arrange them so that you can get specific about who sits next to who around the table. Cut those couples apart—they’ll still be next to each other, but you may want them to swap places so Grandpa doesn’t get too fresh with your best friend’s girlfriend.
I created a page layout document with a set of polygons to represent my tables, some with seven sides and some with eight. I placed text boxes all around them and, for extra neediness and organization I created several preset styles representing each guest’s meal choice: a cow, a fish, a carrot for the vegetarians, and a juice box for kid’s meals. With a little work up front, I was able to quickly switch things around and avoid too much copying and pasting.
With all of that work done, only one important task remains: figuring out where each table will be in relation to the others, and which guests will sit back-to-back from other guests. They won’t necessarily get an opportunity to mingle beyond their own table, but it can at least be a good way to avoid uncomfortable closeness between rivals.
For this part of the process, I whipped out my craft scissors once more and cut the tables out from a printed copy of my plan. That way, I could rearrange them and spin them around until things looked good.
In the end, it was a fun process and I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would. Maybe that’s because my expectations were set so low going into it (in which case, I’m sorry—it’ll be terrible, don’t listen to me!) but I think the most important part is to have some loose guidelines from the start. Beyond that, just remember that it’s your day, not theirs, and they can put aside their discomfort for a night.
And, if all goes well, you’ll keep hearing about how much fun it was to meet that sweet couple from Montana or how your personal trainer really spiced things up at your cousin’s table. It won’t be perfect, so at least make it memorable.