Seating Arrangements in Nonverbal Communication
Part 1

Homepage Proxemics – Seating Arrangements and Positions Part 1 | Part 2

In this article I'm going to talk about seating arrangements: what's going on in the back of our mind 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 to a 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.

Napoleon's throne

I think I'll just choose the throne if nobody's mind..

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Keep Your Distance, Politely.

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.

Keep Away!

Hide Spooky when guests are coming

*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

Image Source

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.

So far I was talking generally about choices in seating arrangement and their effects on our psychology, in the next article I wish to discuss seating arrangements around tables: their shapes, different positions and power plays. Seating Arrangements - Part 2

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