Volume 84 | Issue 5
September/October 2016

Green Light, Red Light: Creating Community, One Conversation at a Time

DJ Whitmer and Bob Mindrum

Read the print version [pdf] of this article.

A few years ago during a meeting of the Student Union Board at Purdue University, there was a discussion about the difficulty of finding a space to eat lunch in the Union Commons area. Inevitably, this led to an observation that one individual will often monopolize an entire table by spreading books and other belongings on the tabletop. Years prior, the Purdue Memorial Union had eliminated most of the large, six- to eight-person tables for this reason, but the same behavior was still prevalent at the four-top tables.

The union’s retail dining manager happened to be present at this particular Purdue Student Union Board (PSUB) meeting, and he observed that lack of seating was not only an inconvenience to other diners, but also had a significant effect on revenue and profitability. He mentioned that in some restaurants, particularly in more rural areas, there is often a large, common table where anyone can sit. Someone else made the observation that in parts of Europe, it’s not uncommon for a restaurant to seat different parties at the same table. This led to an extended conversation about community-building, and how such a table might encourage interactions that could build community. What resulted was a pilot program aimed to do just that.

Communal Dining

The idea of “communal dining” is not a recent phenomenon. According to Pizza Today: “During the French Revolution a popular dining style was ‘table d’hote,’ where patrons sit at a large table to enjoy a fixed-price and set menu, with multiple courses. In 18th century England, public houses were known as gathering places for shared meals.”

More recently, communal dining has become a trend with mixed reviews. “Restaurateurs like the tables because they’re an efficient use of space and don’t require reservations,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. However, restaurant consultant Clark Wolf was quoted as saying: “For 20 years we watched community tables start and fizzle. … People would go to Italy and eat at the trattorias and want to bring that experience home. But Americans don’t share space well. So it took a little time to get used to them.” In the article, Wolf said he “credits the soaring popularity of communal tables to two things: the small plate phenomenon and a craving for human contact.”

Questions definitely remain. In its feature about the communal dining trend, The Atlantic asked, “Are we so starved for social interaction that we welcome being forced to sit with strangers? … Jay Miranda, a principal at Chipman Design Architecture, says yes. ‘People clamor for more interaction in their daily lives. When you go out, the purpose is to enjoy yourself. You want to eat and be a part of a bigger community.’ But the social experiment doesn’t always work. Google ‘communal table,’ and you will come across screeds denouncing the trend of eating so close to random people. Though some enjoy the sense of kinship, others could do without overhearing their obnoxious neighbor’s conversation.”

To that latter point, in Jason Kessler’s blog “The Nitpicker” on, he opined: “If I had my choice, I’d never talk to anyone I didn’t want to. I’d have rows on airplanes all to myself. I’d skip all events labeled ‘orientation’ or ‘mixer.’ I’d make it through doctors’ waiting rooms without hearing about any old lady’s bunions. But I don’t have a choice. Dealing with people is a fact of life, even for curmudgeons like me. Dealing with weirdos when you go out to eat, however, shouldn’t be part of the experience, and that’s why I hate communal dining.”

Would It Work in the Union?

At the aforementioned PSUB meeting, the idea of a communal dining program did not immediately take root. However, it did linger in the students’ collective consciousness until this past year, when a PSUB member again brought up the idea. This time, there was a much more detailed suggestion: “Why not start a ‘red light, green light’ program where we put little signs on the tables? A red sign would indicate the need for privacy, but a green sign would welcome other individuals to share the table.”

The staff response was predictable as they learned of this proposal: “Students will steal the signs,” “People will vandalize and write horrid things on them,” “It will be difficult to clean around the signs,” “If we do this, every organization on campus will want to put signs on our tables.” These concerns notwithstanding, the decision was made to move ahead with the proposal on an experimental basis.

First, there was a need to determine who would own this project, since it involved multiple areas of the union (PSUB, retail dining, facilities, etc.). It was then agreed that it would be a partnership between PSUB and the Purdue Memorial Union at large, with PSUB being the face of the project and various Memorial Union staff assisting with some of the logistics. There were clearly two separate objectives—create community and increase seating capacity for retail operations—and while both objectives would benefit patrons, the former put the project in a more altruistic and positive light. Similarly, the name “Green Light, Red Light” was chosen over the proposed “Red Light, Green Light” to stress the positive outcomes they hoped to achieve.

Next, there was a search for a product that would convey the spirit of this proposal in a compact, easy-to-use, and easy-to-clean way. The group settled on laminated green and red cards held in place by a plastic stand, which could be easily “flipped” to green or red. Since the cards would be seen from multiple directions, there are actually four cards in each holder, such that there are either two green cards or two red cards showing at any given time.

#FlipToGreen, "Take a Seat"   Red, "Table Unavailable"

In addition to the cards, signage was needed to announce and explain the project. With the help of the divisional marketing team, the group quickly settled on a three-dimensional, foam-board stoplight that would hang from the ceiling in the center of the Commons. Since the wording on the stoplight can be difficult to read from a distance, several large signs were placed in key areas that also explained the project. For the entire week when the project first rolled out, PSUB volunteers were present at a table at the entrance to the Commons with samples of the card holders, engaging with patrons, handing out brochures, and explaining the project. Each of the volunteers was trained to do the following:

  • Emphasize the community-building aspect of the project but also mention that it will increase seating capacity.
  • Have a card holder at the table for demonstration purposes.
  • Occasionally walk around the Commons to ensure that people are using the system correctly (both cards showing should be the same color) and answering any questions.
  • If asked about the project sponsor, say it is a joint project between PSUB and the Purdue Memorial Union: “While we are known for our programming around campus, we also serve as the voice of students in the management of the union. Projects like this are an example of that cooperative management partnership.”
  • Encourage people to submit any feedback to a designated email address.
  • Encourage comments on social media using #FlipToGreen @PSUBEVENTS and @PurdueUnion.

A week prior to the rollout of the project, a news release was sent to the campus newspaper, the local newspaper, local radio stations, and major student organizations (student government, residence hall association, etc.). There was also quite a bit of positive exposure on social media.


Clearly, some patrons are more comfortable with this “communal interaction” than others. On a typical day, the majority of tables showed “Green Light,” but there were always some that showed “Red Light” as well. Often these seemed to be group meetings, someone working hard to complete a project, or potentially people who didn’t understand or were not comfortable with the etiquette associated with communal tables. According to columnist Helena Echlin on Chowhound, “When you are seated at a communal table, the etiquette is similar to when you sit next to someone on an airplane. Any time you’ll be close enough to confuse your drinks, you should acknowledge the other person with a nod or greeting when you sit down. But you shouldn’t assume that person is interested in talking to you. If you’re not feeling the communal vibe, you can easily indicate that to other diners. Just avoid eye contact and turn your body away. Finally, even if you are itching to make new friends, I suggest you follow the rule I stick to on planes: don’t make conversation until you are at least halfway done, because if the other party turns out to be a bore, he’ll only bore you for half the time."


Green Light, Red Light feedback

Today, only a few months after the rollout, both PSUB and the Purdue Memorial Union are pleased with the project and the public response. And while they cannot easily quantify any seating capacity improvements, they feel intuitively that there have been at least some minor gains. In fact, the PSUB president was recently invited to discuss this project with Purdue’s director of dining services, for possible implementation at residence hall dining courts, where both community-building and seating capacity are hot topics.

Most importantly, all involved in “Green Light, Red Light” are convinced that this project helped to underscore the union’s primary mission of community-building and served as a visible example of how the student voice can positively manifest itself in a union operation.



DJ WhitmerDJ Whitmer,
DJ Whitmer is a senior studying political science. He joined the Purdue Student Union Board in 2013 and served two years on the Board of Directors before being selected to serve as the organization’s president. Whitmer has a passion for engaging with many kinds of students, for providing the campus with diverse programming experiences, and for creating opportunities for community interaction.


Bob MindrumBob Mindrum,
Bob Mindrum has served as director of the Purdue Memorial Union since 1995. He also worked for 15 years at the Illini Union at the University of Illinois. Mindrum has been active in ACUI for many years, serving in a variety of leadership roles including president of the Association in 2006. He loves working with students and finding new ways to build community in the college union.