It’s never entirely clear what the code is when standing in line in a crowded cafe. Is it okay to claim a table before you have ordered and paid? Yes, if the cafe isn’t full. Is it fair to grab the last spare seat ahead of the person in front of you? Probably not. If I can’t find a place to sit and eat the food I just ordered, I wouldn’t have ordered it.
I was debating about whether I would put my shopping down on an empty table before I was served. There were a couple of spare tables dotted around so I didn’t feel I would be jumping the queue if I did that, and the desire to claim a table was more about relieving myself of the burden of my shopping than about ensuring a seat. But I decided not to, and having paid for my coffee and scone I moved to a table to deposit my bags when someone from behind me in the queue grabbed a chair from the table I was about to sit at, to add to a neighbouring table. I said to take it as I only needed one chair, but then she rather pointedly said “are you sitting here?” to which I replied I was, and she said they were going to put the two tables together.
There was a brief pause. I was being asked to give up my table because a group wanted to put two tables together. The implication was that sitting at the table I had chosen was being selfish because others, plural, wanted to sit there. But was this not equally selfish of them?
I spotted a spare table with only one chair so I said I would move there. I did this rather ungraciously. I moved to a table stuck awkwardly in the busy traffic area. The queue of people formed beside me and the wait staff squeezed past. I had wanted to enjoy a quiet break, and instead I felt like I’d been given a hurry-up to drink up and make way for people who counted.
I could have insisted on staying where I originally was. It’s unlikely anyone would have made a scene. But social pressure is palpable, and I didn’t want to sit there debating whether I’d been selfish or had stood up for myself.
But clearly I did debate it. I don’t know which it was. What bothers me is not that I should give up a table for a group – I have done this voluntarily before – but at the expectation that I should because “it’s only me”.