'How Do I Deal with the Communal Table?'

Categories: Ask the Critic
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Suppenküche predated the trend by a decade.
This week's reader question comes from A.N., who confesses to feeling a little misanthropic when confronted with tablemates she didn't ask for:

How do you negotiate the communal table? Start a conversation? Avoid or end a conversation?
I don't always mind communal tables, perhaps because I've made my peace with the fact that they aren't going away. Okay, I do mind when I'm squashed between people I don't know and I find it hard to hear my friends. And yes, I have found myself at communal dinners, trapped next to with people who hijacked my party and would not let us talk to anyone else around us. But I have also ended up swapping pizza slices with strangers, which once helped out with a review I was working on, and just last week I dined with a friend I met four years ago across a communal table in a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle.

The fact is, as chatty as we San Franciscans can be once you get us going on bicycle lanes, Republican senators, or kinesthesiologists that have produced the most amazing results, we're a standoffish lot. And thank god for that. Eighty-three percent of the time, when seated at a communal table, we all silently acknowledge that we don't want anything to do with our neighbors, no matter how noble and neighborly the restaurant's owners claim their intentions are.

I take the same approach to the etiquette of communal tables that I do to airplanes: If I don't want to engage with my neighbors, I just hang the "do not disturb" sign on my shoulders.

By angling your shoulders away from the diners next to you, and speaking in a slightly lower voice, as if you and your friends are exchanging confidences, you're conveying a message that most strangers get. I've also found that explicit discussions about J-horror movie plots or ponyplay work like a conversational DEET, repelling most of the unwanted. And if you do talk to a neighbor for a few minutes and then decide you've had enough bonding, simply turn to your friends and start talking about mutual friends or other insider topics. Isn't that how it worked in the high school cafeteria?

Of course, if you do want to hit on the guy next to you engage in the now and here of this restaurant experience with your fellow beings, just ask him what he's ordered because it smells great. Everyone likes talking about what good taste they have.

E-mail your questions to Jonathan.Kauffman@SFWeekly.com.
Oh, and follow me on Twitter: @JonKauffman.

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