You’re In My Space!

I went to a meeting today and noted that all the people from one organization sat on one side, and all the people from my organization sat on the other.  “We always seem to end us sitting on sides,” I noted.  Another person replied,  “That’s your chair – you always sit there when we meet and I always sit here.”

And it’s true. I hadn’t thought about it consciously, but I guess I do gravitate to the same seat.  In general, most people tend to go to the same places every time when they have a meeting or a class or a regular get-together.

Today’s interaction started a conversation about why we sat where we did.  For me, I sat in “my” seat because it both faces the window, so I can see outside, and is near the door so I can escape in an emergency.  The ability to look outside and proximity and view of the exit are often my deciding factors in choosing a seat.  On the other hand, my counterpart across from me said she sits in that particular seat because it’s closest to the outlet so she can charge her laptop if needed.

I was in another meeting recently where someone newer to the meeting sat down, and then someone else came in and said, “You’re in my seat, I always sit there.”  The latecomer went on to detail why she always sat in that spot. It created this awkward moment where the person who sat down first later said, “I think she really expected me to move for her.”

It reminded me of when I was a kid and someone would move from the prime spot on the couch.  Inevitably the first kid would return and say, “You’re in my seat” and the second kid would respond, “Well, you moved, so it’s mine now.”

All of this made me curious and sure enough, like every time I research a question I have, there’s been research on this.  Psychologists call this behavior “territoriality”.  Most of us are naturally inclined to stake out a territory and stick with it.  When everyone has their own space, there’s tacit agreement about seating arrangements, and this makes people feel more comfortable and safe.

Sitting in the same seat also reduces decision fatigue.  Just like having the same thing for breakfast every morning frees your brain up for other things and reduces stress, sitting in the same spot keeps you from wasting valuable brain power on seat selection.

Territoriality has been studied a lot in college settings. One study showed that the majority of colleges students will stake out a seat in a lecture hall and sit in that spot every time they have class. And if someone gets there first, they will sit close by their original seat, generally not using more than 2-3% of the total seating available in a given room the entire semester.

Your seating choice can also make a difference in how you are perceived and even impact your career, and there’s a whole field of study about positionality in meetings and what is means.  Studies on territorialism in the workplace demonstrated that there is a lot of subconscious messages sent by where you choose to sit.

Sheryl Sandberg noted in her book “Lean In” that women are more prone to sit along the side of the room in a meeting, rather than sitting at the table, and posited that this negatively impacts women in the workplace.

Research confirms that if people don’t sit at the table, or if they sit at the back of the table, far away from the leader, it creates the impression that people are not as engaged or committed as their counterparts. On the other hand, people sitting at the end of the table signifies that they’re in charge, or more important.

If the leader or highest ranking person in the meeting sits at the side of the table, it sends a message of teamwork and collaboration.  Regardless of where the leader sits, there are benefits to positioning yourself near that person.

It’s not just work where we engage in this subconscious marking of territory.  If you’ve ever taken a group exercise or yoga class you’ve seen the way most people go to the same spot every time.  When I go to yoga, I have my favorite spot.  And if someone beats me there, then I go to my back-up spot.  For the class regulars, we are almost always in the same spot every time.

What happens if you don’t get “your” spot, or you deliberately move?  Although some people might see this as breaking the unwritten “rules” of where everyone’s spots are, it can also be good for your brain.  If you sit in a different spot, you literally get a different perspective.  A different perspective can lead to increased creativity and productivity. It also turns off the autopilot in your brain and forces it to engage and catalog your new view.  Keeping your brain active leads to a host of cognitive benefits.

Choosing a different spot may also lead to meeting new people. In a work setting it can increase collaboration or interaction with people you don’t normally sit by, thereby improving relationships.

It’s something to think about when you’re deciding if you are willing to give up your view of outside, lose access to the outlets, and risk violating norms by choosing a new seat.  Shall we try it?

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