Seating plans and the exercise of power

Seating plans do matter.

Matt Yglesias laughs at the Obama press staff releasing this seating plan:


Let’s hand the mike over to Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban, Lord Chancellor of England, counsellor to two monarchs, advocate for the scientific revolution, and all-round smartest guy in the room:

A long table and a square table, or seats about the walls, seem things of form, but are things of substance; for at a long table a few at the upper end, in effect, sway all the business; but in the other form, there is more use of the counsellors’ opinions, that sit lower.

In an earlier life I organised a lot of international meetings, small and large. You soon learn that the room layout, seating plan, sight lines for interpreters and the like are critical to success. Bacon was right – and he was a much more successful politician than Macchiavelli, in a similarly harsh Renaissance milieu.

What can we learn from Obama’s layout? By chairing from the centre not the end, he is, as Bacon says, declaring a democratic intention to make “more use of the counsellors’ opinions, that sit lower.” This is worth knowing.

The layout shown corresponds to formal French dinner-party practice, rather than English in which the host and hostess sit at the ends. The disadvantage is that the chair can’t easily see the people sitting to his or her side. The ideal is I think an oval (i.e. elliptical, not racetrack-shaped) table, chaired from the centre of one side on the short axis.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web