Every time I go to the theater and I find myself having to enter a row where there are people already seated, I experience the same moment of indecision: "How do I navigate this? Which way do I go in -- facing the stage or facing the people?" Most people I know go in with their backs to the others, but this always seems wrong to me. Especially if my row-mates remain seated as I am squeezing in, I am acutely aware of my butt having to travel by embarrassingly close to their faces. And if I should happen to step on someone's toes or bump their knees in the process, it is difficult to apologize over my shoulder.
However, after researching various "official" opinions as well as conducting an informal canvass of all my theater-going friends, it is clear that although European custom requires the theater or movie-going patron to enter the row while facing the back of the theater, the accepted practice in the United States is to go in facing the stage. In fact, both Emily Post (in her Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, 1922) and Amy Vanderbilt (in Amy Vanderbilt's New Complete Book of Etiquette, 1963) declared this back-to-face sliding-by operation to be absolutely the proper etiquette.
But even among Americans there are varying opinions, many of them adamant. One etiquette expert I came across professed the proper form to be that men go in facing the back of the theater, while women go in the opposite way -- a piece of etiquette-ology I find fairly bizarre. I mean, since gentlemen's feet are generally bigger than ladies', and ladies' rears are generally bigger than gentlemen's, if you were going to make a gender differentiation I would think it would be the gentleman going in facing front, and the lady facing the back of the theater. But either way it would look like some kind of weird line dance.
The argument for facing the stage is that it is more efficacious, because you can bend forward a little and slide in while pressing as far as possible into the seats in front of you. This way you are less likely to step on anyone's feet, and also you can preserve the illusion that you are not inches away from people, as you can't see them. Moreover, most people feel the close proximity makes it too embarrassing to pass by front-to-front. It's like facing someone in an elevator. "It's too intimate," etiquette maven Letitia Baldridge once wrote. "It looks like they are going to kiss."
I don't know about kissing but I almost always vote for conversational contact. (They don't call me "Miss Mingle" for nothing.) The rationale for facing people while making your way to your seat is just that--that you are able to interact with the people whom you are incommoding. It is considered good manners to thank people (or apologize, if you are coming in on the late side) as you inch by them, and it is much harder to thank people if you go by backwards; you cannot make eye contact easily. And of course there is the avoidance of the aforementioned butt-in-the-face issue (which I admittedly may be overly sensitive about, as I happen to have a particularly protrusive posterior.) Sometimes your course of action will depend on whether or not the row stands up for you (which if they are well-bred they will do). In that case, you can even go in slightly sideways.
Every decision regarding proper etiquette is made up of one part not discomforting others, and one part not looking like an idiot. What the theater seating question really comes down to is a choice between two variations of feeling awkward. I think for me, the point at which I started gravitating towards the face-to-face method happened a few years ago when, going in backwards along with the others in my party who were doing the same, I stumbled over someone's umbrella lying on the floor and ended up sitting in the lap of a rather portly man.
This was bad enough; but unfortunately, in my surprise and embarrassment, instead of saying, "I'm so sorry," I said "Thank you" -- which were the words that were on the tip of my tongue, since I had been murmuring them to everyone else in the row I was passing.
"Oh, no, thank you," the man laughed in response.
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