If you peer down to the head of your Thanksgiving dinner table on Thursday and think “There’s Grandpa, in his proper seat because he’s the head of the family,” then you’re not thinking deeply enough.
And it’s not just that his father probably sat at the head of the table, as did his father before him.
Where people sit or stand in different situations can say a lot about them. Where we sit in life is dictated by a myriad of biological and historic facts, including our collective past as hunter-gatherers and the principles of proxemics — the science of spatial relationships.
As if telling folks where to sit at the Thanksgiving table wasn’t complicated enough, right? Now you find out there’s science and ancient history all wrapped up in it, too.
“There’s been a lot of research about why the dominant person in the group usually sits at one end of the table — the end where they can see the entrance to the room — and it has a lot to do with patterns of human spatial behavior that date back to the days when we were bushmen living on the savanna,” said Sally Augustin, a Chicago-based environmental psychologist who consults businesses and designers on personal space issues.
“People didn’t have all the tools to protect themselves like we do now, so the dominant male had to sit in a position where his back was protected and where he could see anyone who might attack the group.”
Depending on how well your family gets along at Thanksgiving, this ancient history lesson might have some relevance today.
So does all this science and history explain why anyone takes any particular seat at the table? Can we point to the third seat down on the left and say, “Aha! That guy is a Mets fan”?
Probably not, Augustin and other psychologists say.
Still, the complexities of why people sit where they do every day — at work, in an elevator, in a movie theater — can be fascinating to explore.
A regular, orderly comfort
Brett Wickard of Cumberland has finally come to realize — after 20 years or more — that he always chooses a seat as far to the right side of a room as he can, so he can always see to the left. It doesn’t matter what’s on the left; he needs to look there.
“I think my kids first pointed it out to me. For instance, if I’m at a restaurant, I always pick the seat where my right arm can hang into the aisle so I’m able to look left and see everyone at the table,” said Wickard, founder and president of the Maine-based Bull Moose Music stores.
Wickard didn’t notice this about himself until others spotted it. After thinking about it for a while, the only possible reason he can come up with has to do with the first Bull Moose music store he opened, in Brunswick. The counter in that store was on the far right, and Wickard spent a lot of time there.
“Pretty much 11 hours a day, seven days a week for years, I was greeting people by looking to my left,” said Wickard. “Is that it? I don’t know.”
Psychologists say the human instinct to be territorial has a lot to do with where people choose to sit. For some, such as Wickard, the brain may become programmed by years of routine to choose a certain spot.
If you have children, think about how territorial they are with their seats at the dinner table, says Bill Thornton, a professor of social psychology at the University of Southern Maine. That’s because picking a seat — or choosing any personal space — is an important part of a child’s development, of their growing sense of personal identity.
A child starts by labeling personal objects as “mine” such as a shoe or a shirt. But as children grow, it’s important that they identify with common areas as well, so that they have “my” seat at the table or “my” chair in the living room.
Caroline Remley, a Portland mother who is working toward degrees in psychology and social work at USM, said she’s heard kids over the years say they choose the same seat at the table each night at dinner because it feels good. She agrees and views it as a source of regular comfort that she can rely on at the end of a hectic day.
“It’s nice to have some order. No matter what happens during the day, you know where you are going to sit for dinner,” said Remley.
As people mature, they might still want their same seats at the table, but they will begin to understand they can share that seat, such as when grandma comes to visit, Thornton said.
So if you’ve got family members who won’t give up their regular seats for anyone at Thanksgiving, you might want to take a closer look at what other immaturity issues they might have.
People’s personalities have a lot to do with everyday seating choices. And we’re not just talking about the simple facts that leaders and people who crave attention might pick the head of your Thanksgiving table, while people who want to blend in choose the middle or far end. Or even that brown-noser who wants to suck up to the boss by choosing a seat next to him or her.
It might also depend where you are when you pick your seat — such as at your house or someone else’s. If you pick the head of the table at someone else’s house, for example, that’s probably going to be seen as pushy, said Thornton.
Jessica Brida, a Fryeburg native now living in Los Angeles, notes that when she’s home for Thanksgiving in Maine, her parents still sit at either end of the table because they are the heads of that household. If she had Thanksgiving in Los Angeles, she’d get to sit on the end.
Still, because of our hunter-gatherer past, usually the mother of a household where a father is also present will sit on the end where her back is to the room’s entrance, not facing it.
That’s because, Augustin says, the dominant female in a group had to be in a position where she could make eye contact with and take cues from the dominant male.
Brida, however, has also noticed over the years that she’s developed a seating quirk about riding in cars, and it has roots in both the practical and the emotional.
She usually picks a seat on the right side of the car and in the back — though not necessarily all the way in the back, because she gets car sick. She says she picks the right back seat because when she was in high school, a friend was killed in a fatal car crash. There were other people in the car, too, and the one who “fared best” in the crash was in the back seat on the right-hand side.
“I know intellectually that it probably doesn’t matter where you sit,” Brida said, “but I always tend to think that I’ll be safest if I’m sitting on the right-hand side.”
Respecting personal space rings
Augustin says personal space needs and seating habits often start with whether a person is an extrovert or introvert, in psychological terms. It’s important to remember, she says, that being extroverted is not about being friendly and talkative and being introverted doesn’t necessarily mean you’re shy and retiring.
An extroverted person thrives on sensory experiences — textures, bright colors, interesting visuals, loud sounds — while an introverted person is quicker to experience sensory overload and thrives more on internal experiences, Augustin said.
An extrovert will sit closer to that flashing electric cornucopia centerpiece on your Thanksgiving table and closer to other extroverts, Augustin said. So if you don’t want all the talking to come at one end of your Thanksgiving table, Augustin suggests spacing out the folks who also like bright and shiny stuff.
When it comes to personal space, psychologists talk about people having “personal space rings” that determine their personal contact with anyone.
A typical person may have a ring of about 18 inches in diameter reserved only for people they know very well, such as a spouse and children, said Augustin. Thus, those are the only people they feel comfortable having 18 inches or so away from them.
But for an extrovert, the circle would be smaller. For a taller person, fittingly, the circle would be bigger.
Then the next personal space ring for the person might be 2 to 4 feet in diameter and reserved for work associates or others they know, but maybe not well.
A personal space ring for public settings where the person knows no one, such as in a movie theater or on an elevator, might be a little more than 4 feet, said Augustin.
Then there’s a “formal zone” of 12 feet or more that most people reserve for things like giving a talk or speech to others.
While an extrovert might have smaller personal space rings, a taller person usually has wider ones. Augustin considers herself an extrovert, but she’s about 6-feet-2.
“So those factors in me probably cross each other out, and my rings are pretty normal-sized,” she said.
Personal space rings would help explain why some folks will pick a chair at the table this Thanksgiving that’s bunched with other chairs, while other folks will go out of their way to pick the lone chair on one side of the table.
Personal space rings also help explain why most people who enter a movie theater by themselves usually don’t sit right next to three friends who obviously know each other if there are plenty of other seats.
People don’t just instinctively follow the laws of their own personal space rings.
But as a culture, we all respect the rings of others.
“There’s some social expectation you’ll pick a seat (among other empty seats) if you’re by yourself,” said Thornton.
“The interesting thing is, if you violate those norms, the others near you will become uncomfortable. They’ll know you’re violating a norm, and they might think you’re weird.”
So maybe this Thanksgiving, you should sit close to someone you don’t know. Or take the patriarch’s seat at the head of the table.
It might give folks something to talk about besides football and Aunt Gertie’s stuffing recipe.