Shared Table Etiquette: How to Eat With StrangersMay 11, 2017
Maybe it’s because of the fast-growing food culture of Manila, with the demand and impatience for seats have begun to overwhelm establishments. Maybe it’s because of a simple lack of space that is becoming characteristic of Metro Manila, as can be observed by our traffic both on the road and within malls.Are we taking a cue from crowded cities like Tokyo, where shared tables have long been common practice? Whatever the reason, communal tables in dining establishments have officially become a thing. And it’s not just in Manila, but in cities all over.
Some may argue that it is tied to a desire for community, and whether this is the case or not, the new dining trend is welcomed by restauranteurs. It offers more convenience to both the restaurant and customers as restaurants are able to maximize the space, allowing for the restaurants to seat more people, and thus for customers to more quickly have a seat at a table. But while table sharing is not for everyone (we’ve seen groups of people turn to leave after seeing they’d have to share tables with strangers), for those that do not mind the company, here are some tips on the communal table etiquette.
WHILE BEING SEATED
We would best liken the experience to be somewhat similar to being on an airplane. Though some people are willing or open to engage in conversation, it is perfectly acceptable to sit down without speaking to the person next to you. A nod of acknowledgement is polite if they look your way, but if you’re not interested in making conversation, keep your hellos to yourself unless they say it first (and even then, just say hi to be polite and don’t make extended eye contact—if it’s not an event, you don’t assume people are seated there to make friends).
If it is a place like a café (where you seat yourself instead of being seated by one of the staff on the floor), don’t be afraid to ask anyone seated at the table if it is all right for you to occupy the shared space. Cafés are the most common establishments where you will find shared tables, likely with a number of electrical outlets either at the center of the table or just below them. Since these tables with outlets are mostly used by students, freelancers, or similar who would be working on their laptops, it’s understood that you keep to yourself and keep conversations low (if you have company).
DURING THE MEAL
The new phenomenon of shared tables is unlike what has been going on in fast food joints or cafés for years, where non-communication between seatmates is understood. Instead, they have entered into our dining spaces, in restaurants like Mendokoro and Your Local, where you sit through a whole meal, instead of just breezing through a fast food lunch or posting up with a cup of coffee. This is where the game has changed.
Have you often seen leftovers from someone else’s plate and thought ‘Sayang! I’d totally eat that.’ Sharing a table is not your cue to to make this dream a reality. Not unless you actually become friends or just so happen to already be friends with your seatmates (and since Manila is a bubble, that’s not entirely impossible)—even then, only when offered. Sorry to disappoint.
More often than not, the rules are the same as that with any café: keep to yourself. But if it seems you and another party are keen on talking, make sure you aren’t disturbing other diners in the process (for example, speaking across a group or solo diner seated between you, or invading a lone diner’s quiet dinner because you assume they want the company—some diners like the solitude).
One major functioning difference between day or café dining, and dinners at shared table is the presence of social lubricants (read: alcohol) that make ignoring your seatmate seem more difficult if not cold. If your enjoying some drinks, feeling social, and sense that the party next to you are on the same level, by all means, strike up a conversation. But talking to strangers in a restaurant (especially as opposed to a bar, where people are more open to meeting others) requires a certain finesse, and relies heavily on intuition before you first say hello. More often than not, people are likely more interested in focusing in conversation with the people they are dining with. And as tempting as it can be, don’t eavesdrop.
DON’T TALK TO ME
Universal signs for solo diners who have every intention of being left alone: they have their nose in a book, they are on their laptop, or most importantly, they have their headphones or earphones on. You can tap them to ask them to have a seat but they are probably not interested in pursuing a conversation since they are otherwise preoccupied.
Though this does not mean that if these 3 indicators are absent, they are looking for conversation—nor do we want to paint a picture that no one wants to talk to a stranger in a restaurant at all—but let’s call it a rule of thumb.
SO AM I NOT SUPPOSED TO MAKE FRIENDS HERE?
Don’t get us wrong—people can make and have made friends through shared tables. We’re not saying that you are automatically rude for bothering someone who is reading a book next to you. If you feel so compelled to say, “Sorry to bother you but I read that book last week and I loved it!” and they engage, it could be the start of a beautiful friendship. If they don’t (read the signs), just tell them to enjoy the rest of it and have a nice day. In the end there are no hard and fast rules (besides picking off a stranger’s plate—hard no) and certain café or bar establishments with dedicated regulars often end up getting to know one another. In the end, as long as you have a good drink or meal, and enjoy the dining experience, you can go home physically and mentally satiated.