November 19, 2012

Guess who's coming to dinner

Your primitive self, apparently, since your choice of where to sit at Thanksgiving is driven by instinct and personality.

By Ray Routhier rrouthier@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

click image to enlarge

Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher

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 position themselves where they do every day -- at work, in an elevator, in a movie theater -- can be fascinating to explore.

PICKING THE RIGHT SPOT

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 or stand. For some, like 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 his or her growing sense of personal identity.

(Continued on page 2)

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