Tables & Seating

Tables / Seating

Air Force Protocol
from 'Til Wheels are Up'

"A genius is someone who thinks exactly as you do."

Seating Assignments

Seating can be the key to the success or failure of even the best planned event. Some basic rules for seating have been established, but unfortunately it is impossible to cover all situations. As with most things military, rank precedence forms the basis for making seat assignments but common sense also plays a part. There will always be those "gray areas" where common sense and the comfort of your guests will need to be factored into the equation. Perhaps the best illustration would be a dinner with foreign guests. Language limitations may dictate a modified seating arrangement to facilitate conversation among the guests. As long as you have considered rank precedence and have a clear rationale for why certain seat assignments were made you should be in good shape.

Always make sure the host or hostess understands and agrees with the seat assignments and has approved them in advance - the last thing you want is to surprise him or her when they arrive at the function.

As mentioned earlier, there are some basic "rules of the road" to follow when making seat assignments:
  • The position of honor is always to the right of the hostess (or host at a stag event). This position is usually given to the most senior guest in terms of precedence but may not always be the case. For example, the guest of honor at a retirement dinner may be out-ranked by other guests but could still be seated in the position of honor (make sure the higher ranking guest(s) is/are aware if strict adherence to rank precedence will not be used and why - again, advance notification can usually resolve these problems). If this arrangement does prove problematic then have the more senior attendee serve as co-host or split the group into two or more tables, if possible, and designate hosts at each table to spread out the senior attendees.
  • Seat men and women alternately whenever possible. To avoid seating a woman at the end or outer edge of a table it may be necessary to seat two women next to each other. At informal gatherings it is acceptable to seat husbands and wives together but not so at formal functions.
  • Round tables are preferable to rectangular since they offer more potential positions of honor and facilitate conversation.
  • Seat speakers or anyone making introductions (including the Chaplain if an invocation is offered) as close to the podium as possible.
  • Consider the placement of the host and distinguished guest(s). Can the audience see them and more importantly, can they see the audience?
  • Strategically place interpreters when seating guests not fluent in English. Also, be sensitive to foreign customs and other unusual circumstances (armed bodyguards for instance). It is appropriate to seat the guest of honor with his back to a wall. We have provided several examples to illustrate these points.
Perhaps the most important rule to follow is: KNOW YOUR GUESTS! Precedence is the fundamental determining factor when making seat assignments but a good host or hostess will give equal weight to the comfort of all their guests and ensuring their function is interesting and enjoyable.

Following are examples (by no means all inclusive) that provide a good overview of how to make seat assignments with various numbers of guests and different types of tables. Included are examples for formal, social, and business functions.

Seating for Business Functions

Traditional Conference Table Seating

U-Shaped Table Seating

Auditorium-Style Seating with Center Aisle

Auditorium-Style Seating with no Center Aisle

Circular Table Seating for 10, Business Function with Interpreters

Circular Table Seating for 10, Business Function with Security

Rectangular Seating for 14, Business Function with Interpreters

Dais Seating Arrangement

Circular Table Seating for Meals and Social Functions

The following are several traditional and unusual seating arrangements for circular tables. Recommend circular table seating at all but the most formal functions if the room layout allows.

Mixed Circular Table for Eight - Equal Male and Female

Circular Tables for Eight - Host and Hostess at Separate Tables

Circular Table for Nine - Two Ladies, Seven Gentlemen

Circular Table for Nine - Three Ladies and Six Gentlemen

Circular Table for Nine - Four Ladies, Five Gentlemen

Circular Table for Ten - Three Ladies, Seven Gentlemen

Circular Table for Ten - Four Ladies, Six Gentlemen

Circular Table for Ten - Five Ladies, Five Gentlemen

Rectangular Table Seating Arrangements for Meals and Social Functions

Many formal functions require seating (as a minimum) the head table at rectangular tables. Also, many formal dining rooms only have rectangular tables so it is important to know the options available.

Head Banquet Table for Eight - Four Ladies, Four Gentlemen

Head Banquet Table for Twelve - Six Ladies, Six Gentlemen

U-Shaped Table - Mixed Seating

U-Shaped Table - Unaccompanied Seating

Mixed Seating for Fourteen - Host and Hostess at Ends of Table

Mixed Seating - Multiples of Four Guests

Mixed Seating for Eight - Host and Guest of Honor at End of Table

Mixed Seating - Multiples of Four Guests Including an Unmarried Couple

Table Seating for Eighteen - Host, CoHost, Staff Members, and Guests; Two Principle Guests of Equal Rank

Table Seating for Eighteen - Host with Staff Members and Guests

Table Seating for Eighteen - Host with Guests Only

Table Seating for Eighteen - Host with Staff Members Only

Table Seating for Twelve - Business Meal with Interpreters

Dining-In/Dining-Out Seating Arrangement

Place Cards

Place cards are useful at formal and informal occasions to facilitate seating and/or to ensure protocol is maintained. As a general rule cards are made from white or cream colored card stock and are approximately 1 1/2 by 3 inches (cards are either folded and free standing or placed in a holder). The flag of a general or admiral or the unit crest is embossed or printed on the card.

Traditionally, names are written on the cards in black or dark blue ink. With advances in computer capability it is also possible (and becoming increasingly popular) to produce high quality products from a desktop PC.

Cards are addressed with title or rank and last name only. The following examples should cover most situations:

"Brigadier General John D. Doe" is written as "General Doe".

"Rear Admiral Harry M. Jones" is written as "Rear Admiral Jones".
USN does not truncate the rank.

"Lieutenant Colonel Susan R. Smith" is written as "Colonel Smith".
If more than one "Colonel Smith" is present add their first initial to avoid any confusion.

"Ambassador John L. Murphy" is written as "Ambassador Murphy".
Reference "Protocol" by McCaffree for more details in this area.

"Mrs Gloria C. Smith" is written "Mrs. Smith".
If more than one "Mrs. Smith" is present add their first initial to avoid any confusion.

Which card to use is determined by who is hosting the event. If a flag officer (general or admiral) is the host use the card that corresponds to their rank (1, 2, 3, or 4 stars) regardless of whether a more senior officer is attending. If the host is not a general officer use the card with the unit crest. Again, even if a general officer is attending you would not use a flag card. When the spouse of a general/flag officer hosts a function where the military member is not present they should not use "star" place cards.

Placement of the cards will vary depending upon the table setting but they are typically centered approximately six inches above the plate.

Sample Place Card - USAF General Host

Sample Place Card - USAF Colonel Host

Table Numbers/"You Are Seated At" (YASA) Board

To expedite the seating of guests at a large function it is helpful to number the tables and create a YASA board. This is especially true at functions where there are no place cards except at the head table. Display the YASA board (or boards if necessary) in a central location but consider the impact of congestion as people crowd around the board to find their seats. Table numbers should be prominently displayed on all tables, usually with an approximately 3-inch square card placed in a tall (approximately 6 inches) holder and centered on the table. Keep the table numbers in place until all guests are seated (staff should then promptly remove them).

One type of YASA board has an alphabetical list of all guests with their table number beside their name and a diagram of the table layout to provide an orientation to the room. The YASA board or boards should be large enough to comfortably display the names of all guests with their corresponding table number (history has taught that larger print is better than small).

Another form of YASA board has a diagram of the table layout (with table numbers) and "slots" containing an envelope with the name of the guest (or guests in the case of a husband and wife seated at the same table) on the outside. Inside the envelope is a card indicating where the individual or individuals are seated. Two separate boards may be used.

Sample YASA Card

Table Settings

Table settings are usually the concern of the establishment (Officers' Club or restaurant) where a luncheon or dinner is to be held. There are, however, occasions where you may be called upon to provide assistance in this area. When these occasions arise consult Service Etiquette for a detailed explanation of the appropriate table setting to use for various types of functions. The following general information should, however, cover most situations:
  • Avoid overcrowding. Allow at least 24 inches of table space for each person.
  • Silverware should be placed on the table in the order of its use, starting from the outside and working toward the plate.
  • The silverware, napkin, and plate are lined-up approximately one inch from the edge of the table.
  • Forks are placed at the left of the plate, except the cocktail/seafood fork which is placed at the right of the spoon, tines up.
  • Knives and spoons are at the right of the plate with the blade of the knife facing toward the plate.
  • Dessert spoons and/or forks are usually preset above the dinner plate.
  • An iced beverage spoon may be placed on the table to the right of the soup spoon or it may be laid above the plate with handle to the right.
  • The individual butter knife is usually placed across the top of the butter plate parallel with the edge of the table.
  • If you use a water glass, place it slightly above the tip of the knife nearest the plate and in front of the wine glasses. Fill it two-thirds full before the guests are seated and pour wine at appropriate time during the meal (if toasts are to be proposed right after the invocation, make sure wine glasses are "charged" before guests take their seats).
  • For an example of a typical place setting, see Chapter 10 - TABLE SEATING AND ARRANGEMENTS in "Til Wheels Are Up!", page 37.
Menu Cards

Menu cards are occasionally used at official dinners and in the home. As a general rule cards are made from white or cream colored heavy card stock and are approximately 4 by 5 1/2 inches with a gold or silver border. The flag of a general or admiral or an organizational crest is embossed or printed on the card. It is usually placed in a stand or can be laid on the table. The table setting will dictate exact location but they are usually centered approximately six inches above the plate. Menu cards can either be produced locally or the "Air Force emblem" cards are available through normal Air Force supply channels. For more details on menu cards see Service Etiquette.

Sample Menu Card

Dining Etiquette

The first published rules of dining etiquette were compiled by an Italian monk in 1920. Entitled "50 Courtesies of the Table" it contained many useful dining tips -- among them was this pearl of wisdom:

"He who eats or is served must not blow his nose through his fingers."

Mr. Bob Frye, Chief of Protocol at AT&T, provided not only that interesting piece of information but also some other rules of dining etiquette that are hopefully more applicable:
  • Help seat female guests
  • Host will signal beginning of meal
  • Make menu selection quickly
  • Use serving dish utensils, not yours
  • Sip from spoon
  • Mouth is to be sound proof
  • Elbows at side
  • Stroke not saw food
  • If it drops, leave it
  • Blot before drinking
  • Salt and pepper are a team
  • Don't mash or stir food
  • Don't dip bread
  • Waiter removes plate
  • Drink conservatively
  • Toast - 1 minute maximum
  • Hold coffee cup by handle
  • Finished - Don't move plate
  • Host will signal end of meal
  • Fold napkin
  • Toothpicks are for private use only
In addition to Western rules of dining etiquette there are many other customs as well. The American custom is to hold the dinner fork in the left hand to pin down the food for cutting, then transfer the fork, tines up, to the right hand when eating. The European custom is to keep the fork in the left hand and the knife in the right when eating. In most Middle Eastern nations (although many Western dining customs have been adopted) it is acceptable to eat with the fingers -- but only using the right hand. Most conversation is typically reserved for before and especially following the meal.

The point to all of this is customs vary widely around the world. When hosting foreign visitors it is important to know something about their dining customs -- mostly to avoid unknowingly offending them.

One source of information is the "CULTURGRAM" series published by Brigham Young University. Culturgrams are available for over 110 areas of the world and provide plenty of useful information. They may be reached by calling 1-800-528-6279