In medieval times, where you sat at the table defined your relative importance and nobility. Arguments over who belonged where often erupted into swordfights, which is why formal dinners even today use place tags.
Business meetings sometimes have place tags, but more often it's up to the participants to sort out where to sit. What ensues is a competition for status in which the clueless get left out.
Where you sit in a conference room is body language writ large. Your physical position influences how you're perceived by everyone else and to a certain extent predetermines the role you'll play in the meeting.
With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to review the unspoken rules of conference-room seating, based on my observations in thousands of business meetings.
To make the rules understandable, here's a simplified diagram. As you can see, the head of the table is the shortest dimension of the table that's farthest from the door. The foot of the table is the side opposite the head.
- The boss takes seat No. 1. Often this seat has a higher back or more padding than the other chairs (in other words, a throne). If you occupy seat No. 1, you are declaring yourself the boss.
- The "opposing" visitor takes seat No. 2. Occupying this seat communicates that you have a different agenda from the boss and intend to negotiate according to that agenda.
- The boss's allies take seats No. 3 and No. 4. Taking one of those seats is declaring yourself to be closely tied to the boss or whoever has identified him- or herself as the boss by taking seat No. 1.
- The visitor's allies take seats No. 5 and No. 6. If you work for the boss, taking either of those seats is putting yourself in opposition to your boss by implicitly supporting the visitor.
- Nonparticipants sit along the wall. When you sit along the wall, you literally don't have "a seat at the table" and are therefore expected to keep silent. Seat No. 7 is for the boss's admin or note taker. Seat No. 8 is for the visitor's admin or note taker.
- Seat No. 11 and those nearby are the "exit row." Sit here if you know you're going to be leaving the meeting early and want to depart without making a big deal about it.
- Seats No. 9 and No. 10 (and those alongside) are neutral. Sitting here doesn't make any particular statement, unless the meeting is for working on departmental issues, in which case sitting at No. 9 puts you in implicit opposition to whoever is sitting at No. 10.
- Seat No. 12 and those nearby are the "peanut gallery." Sit along this wall if you know you're not going to be contributing to the meeting but will be present throughout.
- Timing. As a general rule, arrive early for a meeting of any importance. That way you can occupy the seat that most closely reflects the role you intend to play in the meeting. Also, you won't get stuck in the peanut gallery.
- Proximity. Conference rooms close to the boss's office are more subject to seating politics than conference rooms that are centrally located and equally close to bosses of the same level.
- Meeting size. If the number of people in the meeting is much smaller than the number of seats, everyone typically clusters around the head of the table. Your specific position at the table is not important, but avoid seat No. 1 unless you're the boss.
- Ousting. Seats No. 3 and No. 4 are subject to ousting, which is when another person comes into the room and demands a seat that's already taken. For example, if you're a fairly junior person and take seat No. 3, somebody who considers him- or herself more important (like a direct report to the boss) may demand that you remove yourself so that he or she can sit there. If this happens, you lose face, so don't sit at No. 3 or No. 4 unless you're confident enough to hold your ground.
- Authority. If you aren't the boss, taking seat No. 1 will be seen as a direct challenge to the boss's authority. If the real boss arrives, you will be ousted. If the real boss doesn't arrive, everyone in the meeting will think you're arrogant and pushy.
- Presentations. Typically, the presentation screen (or electronic whiteboard) is on the wall at the foot of the table. In this case, the presenter occupies seat No. 5 or No. 6. Presenters should probably avoid seat No. 2, because it implies opposition to the boss's agenda.
- Allies. If it's a departmental meeting and you're working your own agenda, have an ally sit next to each potential enemy, but only if you've got enough allies to "capture" the consensus. If you're outnumbered, cluster yourself and your allies close to the boss so that if conflict breaks out, the boss subconsciously feels as if he or she is on your side.
- Daggers. While it's no longer appropriate to draw daggers and fight over seating arrangements, it's perfectly OK to stare daggers at somebody who's sitting where you believe that you should be sitting. Just don't be too obvious about it.