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
Staff Writer

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Staff Photo Illustration/Michael Fisher

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, like 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, like 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-foot-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.

Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at:


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