We went out to dinner with some couples I didn't know, with the mandate to make one of the spouses love California so her husband will move here. Being the oldest woman and naturally bossy (I'm from a large family), I told everyone where to sit.
"That'll be fun!" said one of the men enthusiastically.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Well, usually everyone just sits next to their husband or wife!"
"They do?" I said, astounded.
How boring would that be? Luckily among most of my friends, the French rule applies. In France, it is unheard-of to sit next to your spouse at a dinner, unless you're newlyweds. You are presumed to know your spouse fairly well already.
The host and hostess sit opposite each other at the center of the table, if it's rectangular-- not at the ends like the anglo-saxons. This means that there is a distinct sense of hierarchy at the table-- the most important man is seated to the hostess's right (or else), and the most important woman to the host's right. (The anglo-saxon habit is kinder, as people who aren't in the important seats at least get to sit at the middle of the table, not exiled to Thule.) If you are off at the end of the table, you are far from the action. Believe me, everyone notices.
"We all make jokes about it, but we really do care," said my friend Frédéric. "We have a saying, marrying for love is not worth a lifetime at the end of the table."