Seating arrangements is one of the things we infrequently draw to conscious attention but at some level always understand its importance. In this chapter we looked at what seems on the outset to be a complicated matter, but in reality is fairly straight forward and like all body language, once it is know, common sense. We found that seating positions can indicate our reason for meeting, be it ‘affiliation’ – to build group cohesion, ‘achievement’ – to get things done, or ‘power’ – to emphasis control. We found that the meeting organizer typically dictates how meetings will transpire.
We learned that Sommer first began researching seating ecology and that patterns emerged based on the shape of the table and the proximity speakers had to one-another. We found that a casual corner position where speakers meet across the corners of a rectangular or square table preserve closeness between people, but still offers the security of a partial barrier. We found that when seated side-by-side cooperation is fostered, when facing across from one-another but not head-on, independent though is fostered, and when facing directly, competition. We found that leadership studies show us what we intuitively already know, that leaders take up the head position, that those at his or her flank receive trickle down leadership and that when seating is pre-determined, leadership is assigned to the head of the table. We found that square tables includes both competitive and cooperative seating positions, that circular tables had similar affects despite what King Arthur thought, and that strategically we can sway our “object” by taking up competitive and affiliative positions.
Next we looking at how to set up an office and found that desk placement and office artifacts are crucial and that chairs can make people uncomfortable or powerful depending on their height and location. We then looked at seating arrangements in larger auditoriums and saw that the center of lecture halls tended to be overlooked, and also how to use this to our advantage, and finally we concluded the chapter by pointing out that seating location affects participation; those in front participating most, but that it did not related to test scores.
We often take for granted our office layout which is understandable, but another nonverbal channel also exists, and that is the artifacts it contains. While we might not personally pay particular attention to these objects, visitors will use the information to make decisions about your personality and traits. Diplomas, certificates and awards on walls all provide clues to the office owner. Excessive accolades spells out to others an outward looking individual seeking to dominant and dazzle others by their achievements (usually attributed to them by the opinions of others). Pay particular attention to awards that might be less than prestigious as this might mean they are poorly accomplished, but trying to play it up. Usually someone that is more subtle will only hold their highest award rather than all awards leading up to it. For example, I know of one particular aesthetician who has ten neatly framed awards on her salon walls for miniscule achievements during her one year study. In this sense, small accolades detract from a persons perceived status and shows insecurity instead.
Tidiness is another factor. A cluttered office shows busyness and importance, but only up to a certain limit. When hygiene becomes a factor, it’s time to clean up! An overly tidy office can show obsessive tendencies negating any positive feelings. Thus, a mixture of clutter and tidiness is likely best as it conveys busyness and importance but avoids the negative feelings of an overly sanitized office. Also consider richness of furnishings such as desks and chairs, the view (or having windows at all), the size and location, the type and level of lighting, degree of privacy, having plants and so forth. What research that does exist on lighting shows that brightness has a more positive affect on friendliness than does more subdued lighting. Also consider the ability or lack of ability to personalize a particular space. Lower ranking workers are often not permitted this luxury.
Personal items, like family or pet photographs shows a strong family orientation whereas artwork can provide clues to interests. For example, fishing or nature photographs for people interested in the outdoors and adventure, city backdrops to someone with a metropolitan interest, or beaches for those interested in leisure. Paying particular attention to these variations can provide clues to someone’s interests, and when building rapport quickly is required, it can spell the difference between success and failure.
Where we sit at a table or how we arrange our guests can influence the ability to form bonds and share information. Sometimes arriving to a table early helps, other times we end up at a disadvantage because those we wish to communicate with most end up sitting in locations that make them less accessible. Arriving midway through represents the best case scenario, but if you aren’t aware of the propensity to which people speak to one another, this will give you no advantage at all since you won’t know where to sit.
The most powerful people will almost always prefer to sit facing the entry because it allows them to see first hand who is entering and prevents them from sneaking up from behind. Likewise, we find that sitting on the inside at a restaurant allows us the best vantage because it puts everyone else in front of us and inhibits interruptions from those passing in isles. In this chapter we will learn that it’s best to avoid sitting side by side if possible, especially when trying to form a good impression or when trying to assess someone. Reading people is best done face-to-face but this raises a competitive head to head arrangement, as we shall see. We will also learn that our reasons for meeting will tell us how we should sit because, and what affect seating has on the outcome.
In this chapter we will cover seating arrangements and their effect. We will learn that how we sit indicates our reason for meeting, how rectangular tables and circular tables have trickle down leadership effects, how square tables can set up cooperation or confrontation, how leaders always choose to sit at the head of the table or will lose their status to he who does, and how we can change minds by boxing in our “object” with the right associates. Next we cover how offices should be set up, how artifacts aren’t just for decoration and how high-chairs aren’t for babies. We then learn about where to sit in an auditorium to be completely forgotten and where the keeners sit in class.
We can tell if our boss autocratic if they are attached to the status artifacts around them. Their desk will be used as a barrier protecting them from intruders, they will have cleaver title markings on their desk or door, and usually have trophies or accolades on their walls. Their dress will be formal and expensive and their posture will be rigid and straight. Friendliness is the foe of the autocratic boss so he will keep you at arms length, keep conversations on task and hold expressionless faces. If you get out of line, he will use his body language to put you back in your place with harsh voice tones and eye contact. Often autocratic bosses are seen as unloving, unfriendly or inhumane. To get along with him, use body language that doesn’t undermine his status, allow him to maintain his power, never enter his personal space or move to his side of the desk without permission, don’t interrupt him, smile pleasantly, and keep conversations brief so as not to waste his time.
The “luncheon test” is a fun territorial game. To play it, simply advance restaurant artifacts from your side to the other piece-by-piece over the course of a meal. Start with the condiments (salt, pepper, ketchup, etc.) then move onto your own personal items such as your drink, an empty salad bowl, use napkins and so forth. Watch how your guest response. Do they push the items back to reclaim land, or do they ease back in their chair and let you have the extra space you seem to require?
As a species, we have clear definitions and rules protecting ownership of our possessions for the purpose of maintaining order and reducing conflict. Territoriality describes the set of rules that govern the space around our bodies with emphasis on how we communicate ownership. A territory is defined as the space or area around a person that is claimed as their own, to the exclusion, or inclusion, of all others as they see fit. Territoriality is a key part of the human condition even though it is rarely thought about. The land our houses sit upon is owned by us and we prove this to others by way of a deed and unfortunately by the taxes we pay for the right to keep it. Most of the things inside our houses are also ours and we prove this through shear possession, unless we save our purchase receipts. There are also things we own but that occupy space that is shared by our communities, or that neighbouring communities. Our cars are owned by us, yet move about the territories of others.
Fences around our homes have become commonplace showing a greater need for us to protect what little space we own, in a rapidly expanding population, that finds itself in a shrinking community. Apartment style housing and condominiums however, prove that as land availability shrinks, our tolerance for density is increasing. As we shall see, habitation density controls personal space tolerances, that is, it controls how much empty space we require around our bodies when near other people. However we look at property and personal space, one thing is true, everyone fights to defend it.
We see this battle amongst children who fight for the front passenger seat in an automobile or among college students for the best seat on the sofa. We can also see it with office employees who fight for the best seats at the conference table, or even the best offices (usually the biggest or with the brightest window or best view). Once a territory is claimed, ownership is marked. We can mark our territory by leaving personal artifacts such as a jacket across the back of a chair or a book on a seat to reserve it. We sometimes even go so far as hiring friends as guards to hold and protect our territories when space is limited, or hold our cue in line. Status in a hierarchy alone can serve to protect territories. For example, no one would contest the boss’s or Dad’s seat at the head of the table. Curiously even habit can reserve a territory. Seating in large auditoriums (several hundred seats) in university settings is rarely assigned, yet habit says that students sit in the same general areas class after class, while most sit in the very same seat each lecture. Being usurped of a seat that has been reserved through this repeated claim can be upsetting even though no written rules exist.
As spaces become more crowded our natural response is to guard our territories with even more fervor. Cues and lines are a prime example. The longer the line and greater the wait, the more aggression people will hold against those that jump cue. Disney world has a strict no cue jumping policy for this reason. Cues are an interesting way of defining territory if you really think about it. Cues are eternally moving, and changing, yet we guard our relation to others and our nearness to our goal, whatever it might be. It has been shown that particularly violence-prone individuals such as criminals tend to have much wider personal space requirements than regular people. What seems like miles to us, might seem like inches to them. This is why respecting nonverbal body language that indicates aggression related to space invasion is vitally important so we don’t cause what is called “intrusion panic.” Incidentally, babies also suffer from panic when strangers get to close so respecting personal space goes across all people (animals too), and even while driving – hence the term “road rage.” Setting someone off who has tendencies to react physically can be disastrous and we never really know what type of person we are interacting with at a given occasion since we deal with so many strangers on a daily basis.
By examining a crowded beach area we can see rules that create territories. Our friends and family will ban together with towels and other beach artifacts to ward off others. The efficiency of the group due to its common interest allows it to expand by creating space amongst and between its members producing even more space for itself, a luxury not experienced by a single person or even a couple. Banding with others creates strength and when interests align we tend to clump and form pairs, clans, gangs, groups and so forth. If a new or better stake of land becomes available we quickly motion our troops to action, we pull up stake, and move quickly. In high stakes environments we might even send a brave individual from our clan to put up the first claim. Usually we follow first come takes claim because it is found to be a fair enough rule to abide by. Because we live in a civilized society and we jostle over generally trivial stakes our rules prohibit physical altercations.