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Earlier this week, my research group (~6 students) was having a catered, buffet-style dinner with our faculty leader, who I'm close with (we'll call him Professor Bob), and a professor from a nearby college (Professor Alice), who is a well-known in the field of research. The latter professor had just given a talk at our college, and this was a combination of a question-and-answer session and a social event.

We were having dinner in a seminar room, at a rectangular table. I was the second student to arrive, and I put my coat on a chair on one side of the table, opposite another student. As I was going to get food, Professor Alice sat down in the chair next to mine. Other people filtered in, and eventually Professor Bob sat on the other side of me. The final arrangement had the three of us on one side, and three students on the other.

It was a little awkward for me. Partly, this was because Alice and Bob did most of the talking for the first half of the dinner (with students joining in for the second half), and so I was directly in between. Additionally, I felt singled out from my peers. I'm planning to do a project with both professors next semester, so I do want to get to know Professor Alice, but this was a bit awkward.

I wanted to switch seats; there was an open one on the side I could have taken. However, I thought that would be a combination of impolite and awkward.

Is there a way I could have changed my seat without offending anyone involved? What could I have said to get out of the situation?

  • Well, the easiest way to avoid sitting between any two people is to choose a seat at the end, or if you are not the first, next to someone who isn't a professor (in this case) – Maxim Feb 23 '18 at 22:50
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To not offend anyone, tell them that you are changing seats for their benefit. Before they started to talk or once they paused, say

If you don't mind, I will sit down over there, so that you can talk with each other directly (or eye to eye) without me in between.

or

If you don't mind, I will sit down over there, so we all sit face to face to you for the discussion.

and

smile friendly

You are not asking them, so they need not reply. And you give a practical reason for doing so, making it clear that it's for their (or even everyone's) best interest. It's also polite, since it's sensible in each case. I'm sure the professors will be understanding of your action. After all, you avoid an awkward situation for them also.

You will probably find an even better way of phrasing. This is just a suggestion of what information to convey.

Thanks to Jarko Dubbeldam for the suggestion "Maybe changing it to "I'm going to sit down over there" would be even better. It's a bit less curt and to the point that way"

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Is there a way I could have changed my seat without offending anyone involved?

I think, since it was a buffet style dinner, that it would have been perfectly fine to go get some more food, a dessert or a second helping and switch your seat afterward. I've seen it happening on multiple work-related dinners, and have always considered a good form of networking. Some things to consider though:

  • Don't fill up your plate too much from the start, you might get some weird looks if you do.
  • Once you've switched seats, make sure to start a conversation with the person you're switching too. You might even try to start the conversation in between passing by them and going to sit down by saying "hello, how are you" or something like that.
  • Don't stand up to get food and switch seats if you were already in the middle of a conversation with somebody. That's a weird way to end a conversation, and could leave the other person wondering if they said something wrong.
  • As AnneDaunted pointed out, don't take your coat with you. It's perfectly fine to leave it hanging on the chair, you can collect it once the dinner is over, or offer to remove it from the chair if you see another person wants to take the seat. It also gives the suggestion of your move being a temporary thing.

I for one wouldn't be offended if I see you join in another conversation and sit down somewhere else since you have a plate full of food you want to eat and a conversation you seem to like.

What could I have said to get out of the situation?

I really think your best bet here would be non-verbal language. If you don't want to go and get more food, you can try to lean in, so both professors can see you're trying your best to follow the conversation the students are having. Then, after a while, silently stand up and move.

You could apologize to your professors by saying something light-hearted and a little self-deprecating like

I'm sorry, but what you're talking about now will take a few more years of study for me to understand... I'll go sit in the kids' section.

But I say don't mention it until asked/confronted/getting weird looks. If this was a dinner meant as a social event, it is perfectly fine at a social event to want to talk to other people and to mingle around.

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    I like this tactic. I would be inclined to frame my change of seat as temporary, even, in case I wanted to move back later for some reason. I think this idea does that. – HDE 226868 Nov 3 '17 at 15:01
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The situation may have less to do with the power structure and social dynamics of professors versus students, and more to do with the disruption of conversational flow. That is, I am not dismissing the social hierarchies present, but I'd like to generalize my answer to:

How can I reposition myself when caught in the crossfire of conversation?

Standing in a group: Why address this scenario? It's simpler to handle, but fundamentally presents the same issues as when seated. When standing in groups of four or more, you may find yourself turning your head and body in order to follow the conversation of individuals on your sides. It's typically not a desirable position for all parties: it may disrupt your listening and perception, it makes it more difficult for the speaker to simultaneously engage all audiences, and it inadvertently places you near the spotlight, which can distract the remaining listeners.

This scenario has a simple fix. Since our interpersonal space is much more fluid when standing than when seated, a simple "Let me stand here, for conversation's sake" while walking to your new location is all that is needed. Standing individuals will naturally reposition themselves to accommodate for personal space, and attention will quickly resume on the conversation. A "thanks" directed at the parties you move past ends the interaction politely.

I often use an open palm gesture towards my new location to facilitate this transition. You can put your palms up beforehand, and perhaps say "pardon" if you need to briefly halt the conversation to move.

Seated in a group: Really, the same dynamics are going on, but the scenario often feels like more mental work. In reality, though, you can use the same phrases and gestures. Be direct about it. IMO, there is no need to get up, walk around, and dally with addressing this - you're constructing a more conducive social scenario. This could be win-win for everyone, and not viewed as an imposition.

The nag here is that once seated, we often feel as though a certain space has been claimed. So if you can, address the need sooner than later. This may especially help if you're wedged between two professors on either side! That would involve displacing more bodies, so in this case, a bit more deference in your request can be appreciated.

As Anne Daunted mentioned, providing a reason (using "so" or "because") makes for a request that any normal individual ought to understand and likely accommodate.

And as a final note, these ideas also work if you're the one who's looking to engage in conversation! Why talk across a table, when you can sit side by side?

0

This way you could completely avoid the whole awkwardness of the situation.. ..Quietly get up by making some excuse like "Excuse me but I need to use the washroom " or something like that then go away for a second and at the exact moment they start talking ,quitely going over to one of my friends and start chatting with them and sit beside them as if nothing happened. So this way you did not purposely change your seat.. And even if one of them notices you could say something like .."No..Its Okay.. you don't need to get up , I'll just sit there over by that side". But its most likely that this way they wont even notice that you'd changed your seat and you could just avoid the whole awkwardness of the situation.

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