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Dating’s Greatest Quandary: To Sit Side-by-Side or Face-to-Face at Restaurants?

Side-by-side is all about romance. Face-to-face all about conversation. But which is the right way to break bread with your significant other?

My co-workers and I don’t know where to sit on dates. Especially first dates. Even more to the point, first dates that take place in restaurants and bars where we’ll inevitably be sharing a table with our date.

On one hand, some of us support sitting side-by-side, should-to-shoulder. “Dates where you sit next to someone are definitely better,” says U.K. editor Hussein Kesvani. To others, though, that sounds weird. “Always across from each other on the first date. You can’t break that touching threshold from across the table though. Always a dilemma,” video editor Ernest Crosby III contends.

To free us from this dilemma, I sought out a number of experts in a number of relevant fields to officially determine how new dates and old couples alike should sit together at restaurants. A little about each:

Here’s what they had to say…

Glickman: Let me begin by discussing the qualities of each seating arrangement. Sitting across from each other is good if you want eye contact, which can facilitate intimacy. However, that level of eye contact can also be too much for some folks (especially introverts), although you can titrate that by going from eye contact to looking away and then back. If you sit side-by-side, the feeling is definitely more cozy. It’s also practical if you have trouble hearing in a noisy restaurant, or if you want to whisper in each other’s ears (especially if you want to have some dirty talk fun). It also allows you more physical contact, which can be as sweet, sexy or dirty as you prefer (e.g., a hand on your partner’s leg, back or even under their clothes). This positioning does require you to twist a bit if you want to look at each other though, which can be uncomfortable.

Because side-by-side is a notch or two more intimate, though, it’s probably better to sit that way with an established partner, or at least someone you’ve gone out with a few times.

When discussing difficult topics, side-by-side is also sometimes better. Face-to-face can feel more confrontational, but side-by-side can feel more like you’re sharing the same perspective on the problem. Plus, lots of men engage better when sitting side-by-side, especially if there’s something to do or look at together. They open up more when they aren’t looking at the other person’s face because it feels safer. For example, I’ve had some really deep conversations with men when there was a TV to look at. We weren’t really watching it, but it gave them a reason not to look at my face, and they opened up way more.

Wood: Men do a lot of things side-by-side. They go to war side-by-side. They play sports side-by-side. They watch sports side-by-side. Overall, male friends who sit side-by-side are open to bonding. They feel closer to one another than they would face-to-face. In fact, studies show that men are more willing to self-disclose when seated side-by-side, as opposed to face-to-face with someone, which men often perceive as confrontational.

That’s why when consulting with the hotel industry, I recommended changing the check-in experience to make it feel less confrontational for male customers. Usually, the front desk blocks and protects the hotelier, whether that’s a front-desk attendant or the manager. When a male customer comes face-to-face with it, he perceives it as confrontational. I call the barrier there the “castle wall protection” because men feel like that desk is a barrier between them and their needs (i.e., their hotel room). As such, I recommended to get rid of the front desk, replacing it with a small table or offering alternative, intimate check-in experiences that make male customers feel relaxed and welcome.

Generally speaking, men feel the need to peacock when sitting across from someone. I noticed this the most with my most recent long-term relationship, which began with a man I’d already been friends with for some time. When we found ourselves sitting across from one another at a restaurant, he acted differently. He was peacocking. Since I already knew him so well, I was like, “Who is this?” I decided to change my position at the table and move to his side, which immediately changed the dynamic. By sitting side-by-side, he was able to remember we were friends. We were buddies, along with the new romantic piece. We decided to always sit side-by-side from that point on.

Men feel this need to compete and feel like the best while on display across from someone. Women aren’t like that. We begin developing a more sophisticated sense of body language as young as five, so we love to sit across from one another and have access to all of that information. Men don’t develop that need or realize the power of it as much. They think listening is enough. So one of the pieces of advice I give men most often is to simply look at the women in their life more while they talk.

Hinckley: When couples come into Bestia, which is a chef-driven, “foodie” restaurant, you’d think they’d be coming in for the food or the experience. Not true. A lot of couples can’t seem to stop touching each other at the table.

I get it. I’m so in love with my boyfriend that I could just eat him up, but I’m also conscious of where I am and why I’m there. Some people won’t move their hands that are being held on top of the table when the food comes. From my perspective as a server it’s like, “Bitch, here is your food. You ordered it. Now move your hands so you can eat it.”

In terms of which is better — face-to-face or side-by-side — I think sitting next to each other is cute. It’s intimate. I’m down with that seating arrangement depending on the location and my current vibe. I’d say if you’re sitting across from each other, you’re more engaged in conversation. When sitting next to each other, your body proximity is closer so romantic vibes are there. The disadvantage for me is the eye line. I need eye contact sometimes to feel validated, and to literally feel seen. I don’t dig a wandering eye on anyone.

Penney: Sitting next to each other too soon can be a little presumptuous, but sometimes it just happens that way. I’ve had early or first dates that ended up really beautiful because of that. You can skip some of the eye-contact intensity and some of the small talk and move more into a space of wondering about how you feel with that person. For example, “Do I want to touch this person?”

Similarly, I’ve had a lot of early or first dates that were walks or hikes where face-to-face isn’t really an option, but you also don’t wanna be looking to the side the whole time. That said, sometimes a hand-hold just happens so beautifully and organically in that position. I love a moment like that.

Personally, though, I do prefer face-to-face for people I want to talk to a lot and get to know, so I can actually observe them and feel seen by them. Then, depending on the layout of the table, when you make an overture for physical contact, it can be really specific and intentional (or masked as an accident). Sometimes even while out with someone I’ve known for a long time, I find that I notice new things about them while sitting across from them, especially in moments they might not realize I’m looking. Those are often really pivotal moments for me in relationships, seeing how someone inhabits their body and just the innate beauty that comes from that uniqueness.

People in general also don’t realize they’re not physically comfortable, although they might come off that way in conversation. I always try to position myself with my back to a wall so I can see the most, but also in a position where I can sit up straight with good posture, because I know as a yogi how much my posture affects my mood and almost everything going on within me, even moment to moment.

Karamyan: I’m very comfortable with physical contact, but I prefer sitting across from people on first dates to respect their boundaries and get a better sense of who they are by looking at them. Still, just because you start a date one way doesn’t mean you have to finish it that way. Last night I went on a first date with a guy I’d met before socially. We sat across from each other at first, but after we ordered our meals, I said, “You’re so far away.” They didn’t feel close enough. So they moved toward me, and we grazed legs until the main course arrived. That progression was natural and felt really good.

Johnson: I’m super touchy and sleep right next to you, if not on top of or below you, but I definitely prefer sitting across from one another while eating. I don’t feel comfortable eating side-by-side, bumping elbows and all that. That doesn’t mean I haven’t liked the times we’ve sat next to one another while eating, but I prefer having more space during the actual meal. I do like when you come next to me during desert. It’s different when we’re sharing sweets or just drinking coffee.

Finster: The way I sit next to my husband changes all the time, depending on my mood. Usually we sit across from one another so that we can talk. My husband is always busy with something around the house, so I appreciate the time we share while dining because it forces him to just sit and talk. I also get claustrophobic, especially if I’m feeling anxious or in a crowded space, so sitting across from each other is better for that. It’s fun when we do sit next to each other, but that’s more rare. I like holding hands. When I’m in a good mood and he’s not driving like an idiot, we hold hands while he drives, too.