Monday, February 03, 2014

A New Dining Custom

A couple of days ago I joined Robin Hanson, briefly in town, and about twenty of his other friends for dinner at a restaurant. We were seated at a long table, with the result that my conversation was limited to those at my end of it. That struck me as a pity, since Robin tends to have interesting friends.

I proposed a solution and Robin's wife proceeded to implement it. Every five minutes, everybody shifts one seat to his right.  The displacement is small enough so that no conversations are immediately interrupted, but, as those you were talking with move gradually farther away, you can taper off one conversation and start another with those now coming into range. In the course of less than an hour you have an opportunity to meet and converse with everyone.


Power Child said...

Works well for a long narrow table, so you maintain conversation partners on either side but the ones across from you keep shifting.

Rohan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Simon said...


I remember some prominent French politician remarking, on the topic of lifelong monogamy, that the monogamy thing made sense when the average lifespan was 40 years or so, but the increasing (healthy) lifespan changes everything.

Does it make sense to connect the table-companion topic and the life-companion topic or am I just too drunk?

Karl said...

Not quite the Mad Tea Party. "Move down! Move down!"

Tibor said...

I encountered a similar problem at our institute's Christmas dinner. There were about 30 people present and I only got to talk to four of them while I would have appreciated being able to get to know everyone better as I only arrived there two months before that dinner and there are not that many natural opportunities during worktime.

However, I cannot really picture myself moving places every 5 least not while I am eating. Maybe 10 minutes would be better as I would not feel like Alice in Wonderland all the time.

Power Child said...


Yes, you're too drunk.

Though human lifespans have increased, we still have children, and those children still do best when both parents are around to raise them together. Even if we normalized divorce only after children were out of the house, it would still have a negative impact on the way marriage is perceived generally, essentially cheapening it and reducing it to a procedure of utility.

If something has value, protect it. If you protect it, people will see it has value.

Ted Levy said...

Let me get this straight: Every 5 minutes over the course of an hour, every single person picked up their plates, all their utensils, and their glassware and moved it one space to the right...Wow!

I'm sure the waitstaff really loved that. :-)

David Friedman said...


By the time I made the suggestion, people had pretty much finished eating and were talking. And the restaurant was one where you went up front and got your food, not one where a waiter brought it to you.

But I don't see that it wouldn't work even if people were still eating--moving your plate and glass one place to the right isn't that hard. If the process started at the beginning of the dinner and people expected to spend an hour and a half or more, it would make sense to do it at ten minute intervals instead of five.

paul scott said...

yes but if everyone move to the right, you still get the same person on either side of you.
I suppose we tend to talk to a person across the table from us.

Power Child said...


Shifting seats during after-dinner conversation seems practical, since you likely only have a little dessert plate or a drink to take with you.

But during dinner there are potentially a lot of accessories to have to tote along--a lot more than just a plate and a glass:

-Plate & glass
-Fork, knife, spoon
-Maybe a salad fork, a soup spoon, and a steak knife
-A salad bowl
-A soup bowl
-A smaller second plate for a side item (or maybe several of these, depending on the cuisine)
-A second glass for a second beverage (if I'm at a restaurant and order anything besides water, I almost always also get a glass of water)
-A napkin

Plus you inherit whatever little mess the former occupant of your place setting left for you: bits of food, maybe a stain from a spilled drink, etc.

You could mitigate some of this by using trays, but it's still tough to balance all that stuff on a tray without spilling anything, even if you're only sliding it.

The final unresolved factor is many people's natural tendency to territorialism, which I think gets enlarged while eating, and especially while eating around lots of other people, and especially in men.

I tend to hunch over my food and am much less tolerant of invasions into my personal space while eating. I don't even like to put down a burger or sandwich halfway. In restaurants I always try to have my back to a wall. I certainly don't like to get up from my seat if there's still food on my plate, and if I do, the hair on the back of my neck stands up if someone is sitting in my seat when I get back, even if it's someone I know and they are clearly not interested in my food. Maybe all this is an artifact of having grown up poor with several hungry brothers? But I think it's probably just a result of evolution.

Power Child said...

Two more issues I forgot:

- I don't mind sharing a bowl of salsa with 3 or 4 tablemates, but if that same bowl was subjected to the dipped nachos of 20 rotating people, some of whom I may not even know or some of whom seem unhealthy or unhygienic, the remaining salsa would very quickly become unappealing.

- Once someone sits down for a meal, it's annoying and unpleasant to have to get up again.

Robin Hanson said...

I'm honored to have helped set the context for this idea. I'd think moving every ten minutes would be sufficient. And it works better at a cafeteria style place where all of your stuff is on a tray you can move as a whole. We were at Harry Hofbrau's.

David Friedman said...


I think it's relevant that the context is not a small number of hungry people at the restaurant to eat but a larger number at the restaurant to talk, with dinner a convenient context.

gwern said...

> I remember some prominent French politician remarking, on the topic of lifelong monogamy, that the monogamy thing made sense when the average lifespan was 40 years or so, but the increasing (healthy) lifespan changes everything.

More problematically, the 40 years figure is from birth; life expectancy as an adult (say, at the point where one is about to get married) has changed far less; and I believe the average age of first marriage has gone up for a lot of countries, which soaks up part of the gains.

Xerographica said...

My comment ended up being a bit silly, racy and I posted it on my blog...Let's Embrace David Friedman's New Dining Custom

Anonymous said...

Huh? If Everyone shifts one seat to their right, the seating arrangement doesn't change, just the seat. EVERYONE moves together.
I assume you have something else in mind. Describe it better

gwern said...

Anonymou: on a *circular* table, everyone shifting one left or right doesn't change any relative positions, you're right. But as OP specifies, this is a long narrow table.

Imagine B is seated at the very end of the table, sticking out, and to his left is A and to his right is C. A faces C, B faces no one. Then they shift one right, A->B->C: now A sticks out facing no one, B is facing the replacement for A, and C is facing someone else entirely.

Anonymous said...

@David. what about this

it says that the old english criminal system was really bad and one could get the death penalty for everything and in the end prisons and police created a much less cruel society.

does this not go against what you said which was something along the lines of the bloody code ( being a good criminal system.

David Friedman said...

For my account of the 18th century legal system, see:

Essentially all serious felonies were capital, but most people charged with such felonies did not actually end up being hanged.

Anonymous said...

yes the BBC programme did mention that
1) in the period there was a tendency for juries not to convict people because they did not think that the death penalty was appropriate for the crime

2)out of 30000 or so death penalties give out only 10% or so were actually carried out

but does this not point to an inefficiency in the system: punishments were disproportionate when actually given out, a guilty criminal who committed a minor offence was likely to go free thereby he faced a reduced incentive not to commit a crime????

i hope to read ur essay at some point and c if u have answered by criticisms. there doesnt seem to be any vigorous models or data work in the link u have provided which makes it impossible for an economist to judge the contents of ur paper (economists always turn to "The Model" section of the paper first).

i hope this topic makes it into ur book on legal systems different from ours.

Suzanne Leavitt said...

Taking your idea one step further...what about tables/benches designed to slowly rotate to the right throughout the meal/evening? No need to get up and down. Makes for a smoother experience, but sounds expensive to make.