It starts when we’re kids entering the cafeteria on the first day of school, lunch tray a little shaky, heart beating a little fast, wondering to yourself, Who am I going to sit with? The social anxiety and potential pitfalls of sharing a meal seems rather disproportionate to the act of breaking bread, but even as children we realize that the seemingly innocuous act of picking a table at which to sit can have lasting effects on our lives.
While our time in cafeterias decreases significantly as adults, we are still often faced with the Table Dilemma. I’ve noticed it most often takes place in two very different ways at two very different types of events: Weddings and business functions.
After attending countless weddings and professional events, I still can’t decide which is better: Assigned seating or an unassigned free-for-all. The biggest parallel between weddings and business functions is “The Singles Table.” At weddings, the Singles Table is usually where guests are put, even if they have a date, if they are not easily sorted into the hierarchies of high school friends, college buddies, or relatives.
At business functions, the prime seating is reserved for companies that buy a table for their contacts and prospects. If you’re attending alone, you’re often relegated to a few tables in the back of the room with other solo attendees. While this can be intimidating, it also presents the greatest opportunity. After all, if you’re sitting with colleagues and clients you already know, how can you foster a new connection with a potential client, future employer or a new friend?
Maximizing the opportunities at the professional Singles Table requires a bit of preparation. I always have my business card holder stocked, as well as a line or two about my most interesting projects and my elevator pitch at the ready. Having had jobs in the past that can invite a lot of questions (being an Israeli diplomat or the spokesperson for the MBTA has that effect!), I try to listen more than I talk and ask lots of questions. If I’ve struck up conversation with a tablemate, I think about why they would be interested in the event and relate my questions back to his or her industry. Also, I keep my ears open to familiar names that can turn a passing connection into a lasting one by reinforcing relationships my tablemates and I may share.
Choosing to eat with someone provides an automatic introduction and an audience. As adults, it’s wise to be ready to swallow our nerves and take advantage of the opportunity.