RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here's a scenario you have probably faced.
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...
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. And that usually takes like an hour, but that can get a little bit repetitive.
MARTIN: That's Alex Cornell, a blogger and designer from San Francisco. 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, 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. You can't really have a conversation to your left or across 'cause then you feel like you're, you know...
MARTIN: You're reaching too much.
CORNELL: Yeah, exactly.
MARTIN: Like physically, literally reaching too far.
CORNELL: Yeah. So, it can be kind of a stressful, I think the more stressful of the two seats. 'Cause if you're on the end, 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. And this is just from experience. But, you know, 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 - but you always end up at the table where the other one - 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: So, 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: No. And, you know, that kind of goes back to, like, high school dance, people standing in circles kind of 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 talking to people and feel like a more interesting situation is happening just a few feet away or whatever it happens to be.
MARTIN: Maybe that'll be your next post.
MARTIN: Alex Cornell is a designer and musician and the creative director at Uber Conference. He joined us on the road from his family vacation. Hey, Alex. Thanks for taking time to talk with us.
CORNELL: Absolutely. Been a pleasure.
MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.