Strategic Seating: How To Elicit The Optimal Dinner Conversation

Designer Alex Cornell tells NPR's Rachel Martin where to sit at the dinner table. (This story orginally aired on Weekend Edition Sunday on March 24, 2013.)

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Alex Cornell does not like dinner parties or overly chatty commuters who insist upon talking to him on the bus. So, he created a new app called Tickle, which helps you escape awkward public situations. By simply touching the phone, you can generate a fake phone call, allowing you to politely excuse yourself. The app isn't out yet, but it reminded us of another one of Alex Cornell's attempts to avoid awkward conversations. We spoke to the San Francisco-based blogger and designer last year.

ALEX CORNELL: Sometimes you go to dinner with a lot of people you know, but then there's some friends from out of town and you end up sitting next to the, you know, the roommate of the friend who doesn't know anyone and, you know...

MARTIN: Who you're never going to see again.

CORNELL: Yeah, who you're never going to see again. And it's like you can have the, like, where do you live, where are you from, what do you do conversation. But it can get a little bit repetitive.

MARTIN: Cornell decided to tackle this problem head on. So, he posted a chart on his blog with the optimal strategy for each dinner table scenario: four chairs around a table - easy. Any chair is good; six people around a rectangle - tougher but go for the middle and you'll be safe; add one more person to that table, and things start to get complicated. Now, what's interesting to me about the seven-person rectangle, as you suggest, there is this extraneous seat and if you get stuck there, well, you're really committing to the conversation with the person right next to you.

CORNELL: Yeah. And I think if you're the one on the end actually, you can be a lone operator there and kind of lob conversation topics from the end. But if you're the one right next to them, you have to constantly be aware of the fact that if you lean forward you're going to be isolating them, so you can't do that. Everyone knows it's like, OK, they're on the end, you know, it's going to be tough for them. But if you're the other guy, nobody's thinking about that person, you know. So, I think that's a high level of difficulty.

MARTIN: And you say unequivocally the hardest situation is two tables of any kind.

CORNELL: Yes. No matter what you do, ironically, you'll always end up at a table that you think's going to be the good one - and, you know, when I say the good one, I mean the most interesting, maybe the most fun or - but you always end up at the table where the other one is - you can see them 'cause they're usually, like, right next to you - and they're the ones laughing, you know...

MARTIN: It's like the Murphy's Law of dinner parties.

CORNELL: Totally. And I think what I like to do is just go to the bathroom when people are sitting down, so I can come back, there's only one empty seat and I don't have to make the choice. It's just kind of determined for me, and that's usually the easiest way out.

MARTIN: One scenario I wonder if you've considered is the bar. I mean, have you thought of this in relation to how people stand around at a bar?

CORNELL: That kind of goes back to, like, high school dance, people standing in circles situation, you know, where these little pods of people will kind of congregate. In that case you're much more fluid, you know, you can move around. But you can still kind of get stuck.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Alex Cornell is a designer and filmmaker. He's based in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER PRESSURE")

QUEEN: (Singing) Pressure, pushing down on me, pushing down on you, no man ask for. Under pressure...

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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