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What’s going on in the back of our minds when we choose a certain seat?

Can we arrange that to make it better?

I’m sure you’re familiar with this scenario – you just arrived toa new, unfamiliar and crowded place and now is decision time – choose a place to ‘land’ yourself into. 

Well… how do you choose it?

Sometimes the answer is quite simple – you got a favorite seat or you just spotted someone you like and want to talk with, so you sit near him\her.

But even then, why did you choose your favorite spot specifically ‘there’?

What if it’s a new room full of strangers?

What a about a class or a lecture room, will you choose the front row or position yourself as far as possible to the back?

I imagine that these questions seem trivial, and you don’t truly plan your seating arrangement. In most cases you got a ‘default’ pattern of behavior to guide you, or some social codes that help you understand what’s an acceptable behavior, and what’s not (you won’t enter your boss’s office and seat on his chair, right?).

So, in this article, I want to dive a little deeper into the psychology behind such choices. I will also discuss how you can make use of seating arrangements in certain circumstances; such as making your guests feel at home or positioning yourself in the right spot in the audience to feel involved and attentive.

Why do People Sit at a Distance?

choose seat

I mentioned that we have a ‘default’ pattern when it comes to choosing a seat and it’s especially true when talking about unfamiliar circumstances.

What happens is that most people choose their seat by a very predictable way: they will usually pick a seat that allows them to have a lot of personal space; but in the same time, they won’t sit too far from other people, as if not to offend them by keeping too much distance.

For example, if there is a single row of chairs, and a stranger is already sitting in the last seat of that row, you’ll probably choose a seat somewhere in the middle of that row – it allows you to have your “own” space and it doesn’t look like as if you’re trying to keep away from the other person. The next guy\girl will probably choose the first seat for themselves – again, from the same reasons.

This rule does not apply to urinals in the men’s room – in that case the best option is to stand as far as you can from others until there is no option left but to stand adjacent to someone else (and then again, preferably adjacent only from one side).

What I want to emphasize here is simple – we like our space and will try to keep distance from strangers. But, in the same time, we like to have people around us and we will acknowledge their existence by sitting somewhere near.

A Sense of Security

Our sense of security grows mostly from our ability to control ourselves and our environment.  I said from the ability and not from the actual control, because we don’t have to exercise it in order to feel secure. For example – if you’re a really strong guy, and you feel certain about your physical strength, you won’t have the need to show everyone that you can lift 300 pounds just to reassure yourself about it. An insecure person on the other hand will often seek the approval and attention of others to reinforce his sense of security.

But why am I talking about it in the context of seating arrangements?

Because if you’re in charge, you can arrange the settings of your house or office to make someone feel more secure. It doesn’t mean that you need to provide your guests helmets and instruction manuals on how to defend themselves. It does mean creating an aura of safe and comfortable place to interact. Suppose you wish to get the cooperation or friendship of a certain person, how would you arrange your place to make him feel welcome and comfortable around you?

It’s simple – allow him a sense of control over his close environment.

To set the right stage:

  • Avoid being territorial, remove any signs of “intruders beware”, hide your scary dog and make your guest feel at home.
  • Give him enough free personal space, and allocate enough room of your table (if you use one) for his use, even if it’s only to rest his arms somewhere.
  • Seat your guest with his back to a wall or other solid element. Don’t seat him with his back to a door, window, or a passageway. People get nervous when there is a possibility that something will sneak on them from behind and attack them, on a subconscious level of course.
  • Set an equal footing for you both. If you wish to establish trust and empathy you need to cause the other party to feel equal and similar to you.  Seat your guest in a chair similar to yours, don’t elevate yourself above him. In addition, try to sit with him by the corner, or on the same side of the table. I’ll talk more about that on the next post about sitting positions around the table.

This seating arrangement can obviously be reversed if your aim is to make the other party feel insecure and edgy around you, you evil schemer…

Front Learning

Now let’s talk a bit about classrooms, lecture rooms or any other setting that consists of a stage and an audience. From a listener in the audience point of view, there is a big difference in the attention, motivation and retention of the lecture, depending on his\her sitting position in the room.

I want to emphasize that this is a 2 way street – our choice of seat is derived from our feelings of involvement and motivation, and during the lecture our position in the audience in reverse affects these feelings.

When planning seating arrangements, the front rows are usually reserved for higher status persona and VIP concerned in the presented activity. It’s the most exposed and “involved” row – so it’s consists mostly of people who are truly concerned with the subject and\or the person who speaks or performs. E.g. the dedicated students in school.

The participants in the middle are also a very attentive and involved group. This group will usually participate the most due to the added sense of security surrounded by others.

Clearly, on the other side of the spectrum you can find the people who are either too shy or uninterested to be in the front or the middle – hiding in the back or to the sides. E.g. the “tired” students in school.  

studying body language

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From my experience, I found out that people tend to fill the last and middle rows before they enter the front rows when they are not familiar with the lecturer or the place. The reasoning behind this is understandable – The first row feels an exposed and vulnerable position -people who sit behind you can watch you while you can’t see them.  When it’s a familiar setting however, people feel more comfortable with the speaker and the subject so they will allow themselves to sit closer to feel more involved.

So where is best to sit? If you wish to learn the most and feel included– choose the front or the middle of the hall. If you wish to get a good nap – I’m sure you’ll find your hiding spot. If you’re not sure, I still recommend sitting in a central position because otherwise you might feel like missing the show.

Round table

In this second article about sitting positions I want to discuss tables – the shapely things we sit around.

There is much hidden psychological subtext in different seating arrangements around tables, so we’ll explore that from 2 perspectives:

First, we’ll talk about the shape of the table and how it sets the atmosphere for our interaction: be it a cooperative, confrontational, relaxed, casual or short and to-the-point theme.

Next, I will focus on the relation between sitters according to their choice of seat. So even though you usually can’t do much about the shape of the available table – you can always aim to sit in a specific position to suit your goals or mood.

Power Plays

Different shapes of tables affect the mood and attitude of the participants sitting around it. This means that given the option – you can set the right ‘stage’ for your needs if you choose the right table. Additionally, every table ‘shapes’ the distribution of power among the sitters differently.

What do I mean by ‘distribution of power’?

Let me explain through an example:

In the medieval times, when kings sat on their throne with their retinue around them – everyone knew their status by their position. It was reflected in their relative proximity to the king, and on which side did they sit. Actually, one of the explanations for the term “right hand man” is based on the fact that the advisor of the king\emperor\tsar\ was always close at hand to help the king rule, just like his right hand (unless he was a left hander, I guess :P).

We don’t use thrones anymore (not as we used to, anyway), but we still regard some seats to be more prestigious, and automatically reserve them for influential people. These seats are traditionally central and dominant positions – they often allow the sitter to have a vantage point over the other participants\environment or just being close to the action.

I said that usually a high status or influential people will occupy these central sits, but even a low status person in a central position can feel (and be regarded) more confident and involved in the conversation.

Remember, body language shape is not only a manifestation of your personality and mood, but also a tool you can use to shape yourself. So if you want to be more influential – try to positions yourself in a central position, even if it’s not your norm. By changing your habits you eventually change the image you project for others, and perhaps more importantly – the way you perceive yourself.

Now let’s dive in for sepcifics – the shapes themselves:

Table Shapes

The Round Table

The round  table King Arthur

The most famous example for this table is the Round Table of King Arthur. Every knight who sat around the round table was considered equal to his peers in honor and title, and there was no central powerful position.

It’s a great table for peaceful and cooperative discussions – everyone feels equally involved. It’s also a great seating arrangement for brainstorming, because it encourages a free flow of ideas by everyone.

There is one tiny problem yet: while this table is the symbol of equality, if there is a higher status personality in the table (like King Arthur himself) he’ll still be considered the source of influence in that scenario. It doesn’t really matter where you sit if you wear a crown. His ‘lieutenants’, his most trusted and loyal, will sit right next to him – and therefore the next ones in line by “chain of command”. On the opposite side of the table you’ll find the opposition, naturally.

Rectangular Table

This is the traditional table – 2 short and 2 long ends. On the short ends of the table you’ll find the most influential people. If it’s a meeting between 2 rival camps –you will most likely find the leaders of each camp in opposite sides, with their supporters near them.

There is a general mood of competition and confrontation present in this type of table since most people will sit opposite to each other with the table as a barrier between them.It’s often very hard to achieve cooperation and team spirit in such setting, but it functions well in the business cooperative world, where one dominant individual (aka the boss) controls the flow of the meeting and everyone is  looking up to him to make the final decisions.

The more powerful of the short ends is the one opposite to the entrance – it gets a vantage point over the access point and on whomever enters\exits it.

Square Table

These tables usually reserved for relaxed, comfortable and informal conversations, you will often see this kind of tables in dining rooms, cafeterias, coffee shops and restaurants.

These tables can be used for serious to-the-point meetings in the business world. There isn’t a significant one power position in this table, but pay attention to who sits in front of whom, because they will find the least common ground.

Sitting Positions

Now I want to explain the sitting positions themselves. How is it best to sit with someone for casual\competitive\romantic\collaborative\serious\”don’t disturb” purposes?

Before we actually begin, I want to clarify some points:

1) What’s I’m going to discuss here is mainly relevant to standard rectangular or square tables. It’s not a manual by table shapes, so derive your own conclusions on special shapes and sizes.

2) Your sitting position reflects your status and association with the rest of the group and in the same time affects it. It means that you have a ‘natural’ spot that is most suited for your status, but you can always choose another seat to manipulate the interaction your way.

3) No matter how hard you try, you have no true power over the feelings and thoughts of others. So while you can try to position yourself in a way that you think serves you best – sometimes people won’t cooperate with you –this will be reflected by their body language and their choice of seat in relation to you. Don’t sweat it, you cannot control everything… just do your best.

Now that this is out of the way, let’s begin:

Sitting by the Corner

This position is most comfortable for relaxed and informal conversations.

It allows each person to have a free room in front of him to roam with his eyes which relieves a lot of pressure from the interaction. It gives you the option to alternate your gaze from the other party (when you’re listening intently) to gaze forward (to gather your thoughts).

Plus the corner of the table serves as a subtle barrier between the sitters, to maintain some comfort zone and still allow plenty of room for gesturing.I like this seating arrangement because it’s very comfy – especially when meeting new people.  It has an advantage over having a confrontational ‘face to face’ setting, which can be perceived as too direct and aggressive – not the best qualities you wish to establish when meeting someone new.

Sitting Side by Side

Sitting side by side in the table adds a cooperative spirit to the conversation. Both sides are working together, from the same position.This is an ideal sitting position for collaboration. For example, when a team is working on the same project from the same side of the table- It automatically creates a feeling of mutual interest and effort. In a sense, you look at things from the same perspective as your partner, and it helps establish a more intimate bond.

If it’s so great, what’s the catch?

Well, first – it needs to suit your needs. Your goal may not be to cooperate with, but rather to confront or to question the other party. In that case, this is not the best position to do so, because it’s much less formal than a confrontational setting – it’s not ‘talking serious business’.

Another thing is the fact that it requires some trust and intimacy to exist before it can be effectively used. It’s not a magic trick, it’s not as if you sit next to somebody you suddenly become his BFF, it only means that it can help smooth things out if you work on the same issue together.

Maybe you remember a time when you were in school and you were placed right next to someone you didn’t really like… What did you do to avoid him? You told him to keep on “his side” and maybe even draw a line to mark the border. While adults probably won’t revert to such measures, don’t try to force your presence on people who don’t like you.

This is also right when talking about complete strangers. They will not feel very secure if you suddenly sit right next to them without any warning.  So if the goal is to get cooperation from stranger, I recommend starting from a rather neutral position (sitting by the corner, or side by side but not very close) and shift yourself right next to them when the ‘ice breaks’ and they are ready to work together.

Face to Face

In this sitting position the table serves as a barrier and shield for each person on each side. It’s like 2 rivalry bases with the middle of the table as the border between them. Great for playing chess and an absolute must in “Battleships”.

In business context we use this position for ‘serious talk’. If a boss wants to reprimand his worker he will invite him to his office and seat him in front of him to square things away. The table serves here to create ’emotional distance’.This is also the sitting position you will assume at a job interview or when dealing with service providers or shopkeepers. This sitting position tends to make meetings short and efficient – it’s all about business, not the place or time to discuss philosophical questions.

In social settings the subtext is different – it’s very common for people to sit that way on casual settings, especially in restaurants. It allows each side to have its own private space for his meal and still converse face to face.I do, however, encourage you to try sitting in a side by side or corner position next time you’re in a restaurant if that’s possible. See if that improves the mood and flow of the interaction.

Sitting Diagonally

Sitting diagonally sends one clear message – “I’ll just keep to myself, don’t bother me.”

This sitting position doesn’t allow a very comfortable way for communication: there is a lot of distance, and an uneasy angle to maintain eye contact. That’s why this position projects (and interpreted as) indifference, lack of interest or hostility towards others around.

It’s common in libraries, where socialization isn’t the most welcome thing.  People came to read and to keep to themselves, so they will assume diagonal positions in relation to others to signal they don’t wish to be disturbed.

Takeaways

Finding the right spot can be a tricky thing, but being aware of the different effects each sitting positions has sets you ahead of anybody else who’s oblivious to it.

I know that choosing the right seat doesn’t seem like a big issue in the big picture of nonverbal communication – it’s only a seat after all… but getting this step right means setting the right conditions to your purpose from the start. Plus, remember that good body language is about the small details: the subtle little cues distinguish the expert from the amateurs.

Another thing I recommend you to do is to be more aware about how different sitting positions influence your daily interactions, even with people you know for a long time. For example, I found out that when I sit with my friends around a rectangular table, I find more common ground with friends who sit by my side than with the ones who sit on the opposite.

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