Communal Tables

By Leslie Morgenson, Good Work News, September 2013

In 1985, I went to New York City for the first time. I was 26 years old. And though we ventured to many of the typical tourist sites, the place that stands out the most for me that first trip was eating at the Carnegie Deli.  Carnegie Deli was my first experience with communal tables. I can’t remember if we purposely went there or if we simply stumbled upon it, but in the tale I tell we came upon it accidently because that’s the beauty of New York City: something exciting is waiting around every corner.

The restaurant was loud and a man, maybe the owner, was yelling directions to us, telling us where to sit, and where he wanted us to sit was beside strangers. I clearly remember standing in one spot for a moment longer than usual deciding if I really was up to sitting with strangers. But I did.

It was close and there was no avoiding touching the person on my left. This was the family dinner table in all its glory, elbow to elbow, staking out your territory and sharing space all in the same breath. In the middle of the table sat a bowl of pickles for everyone to dig into. There was no being shy at this table.

In Europe sharing a table is commonplace given that space is at a premium, something we rarely consider here in Canada. On a trip to Russia in 1991 on the cusp of the collapse of the Soviet Union we visited the Hermitage, an art gallery housed in the Tsar’s Winter Palace. In the cellar we found a small cafe with a constant line waiting for seating and therefore people treated each table as a communal table to be shared. However, despite the fact that the queue persisted and we waved a welcome for strangers to share our table communally, no one would sit with the two Westerners. The power of conversing over the communal table was clear in a country where suspicion still had a stronghold regardless of a change of guard.

Making the decision to sit at a communal table requires some psychological self-negotiation. The stranger next to you is not only touching your elbow but has entered your personal space and is potentially rubbing up against your intimate space, that first circle around your being reserved for pets, lovers and family. In 1966, anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed the idea of proximity zones that we establish around ourselves. Strangers would typically be kept within the zone of ‘social distance’ or even further away in ‘public space’. Having someone enter that close space can be uncomfortable. It’s a risk but I know I don’t want a risk free life. However what I’m willing to risk can change by the day.

In a recent letter in the Metropolitan Diary of the New York Times Matthew Cline wrote about squeezing between two people into a seat on a subway and how he likes to feel the warmth of human contact, the ‘body heat’ of others, the collective energy of a city full of people; he observes and envies lovers who sway with the train in their tangle; humanity on a subway and the endless possibility of connecting in ways spoken and unspoken.

Over time I have periodically danced that dance with myself as I think about sharing space at a communal table or decide who I’m going to sit beside on the bus.  I have been amenable to communal tables and other encounters of proximity with strangers but I am not consistently open to dialogue with strangers and would not always be receptive to a communal table given the situation or my mood. In fact I am someone who also enjoys eating alone. But I am aware that by avoiding the opportunity to speak to a stranger I am potentially missing out on something.  Riding a bus, walking, or sitting at a communal table offer the possibility of something which can’t even be named here because we don’t know what it might be until it happens.

There are now websites devoted to communal table etiquette which hold that it is probably not the best choice for a romantic first date, but I wonder if in fact it might not be the perfect date restaurant. Instead of looking vapidly into each other’s eyes and engaging in narcissistic, uninspiring monologues, maybe it would be better to witness how your date interacts with strangers, how they respond to shared space and maybe because of the proximity to others, the dialogue might be more interesting, more focused on ideas instead of egos.

At St. John's Kitchen and the Queen Street Commons Café people have always created their own communal tables asking if they can sit with someone. It happens daily which seems appropriate for a community kitchen.  Some are just looking for a place to eat; others make it their habit to visit all of the tables, wandering through the dining room alighting at each table to greet.

 It seems to be an idea that is catching on, certainly in cafés, but it also is a growing trend in restaurants.  And maybe communal tables will become so common that someday we might just call them tables.

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