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body language: territory and status

August 18, 2010

The status of a person is often reflected by the size of his or her “territory” and personal space. The more territory someone owns, the more powerful he or she is. A big car, a big house, and a big office show high status, while a tiny one-bedroom apartment, a small car, and a cubicle aren’t very prestigious.

Here’s a link to a commercial in which two men are trying to outdo each other with the size of their houses, cars, and boats. It’s in German, but you’ll understand what’s going on nonetheless.

People with high status take up — and others give them — a lot of space. They might spread their papers over half of the table at meetings. Also, a person of high status is allowed to encroach on another person’s territory. The boss might enter his assistant’s office without knocking, while his subordinates will wait until he gives them permission to enter his office.

Some studies have found that the person of higher status also often initiates physical contact.

That will be the topic of my next blog post — interpersonal touch.

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5 comments

  1. I can’t tell you how I look forward to your comments. They have provided me with so many A-HA moments, things that I knew with out realizing. Your descriptions, comments, observations, have made me look at things differently. Thank you.


  2. As a novice wanna-be writer, I have often found your blog entries interesting and helpful. This one is something to think about, but pertinent to my work…so thanks.


  3. Thanks for your comments. I’m glad you find the blog helpful and interesting.


  4. Jae,

    What a great entry! You’ll notice that people with more power/prestige also take up more physical space. They may sit, especially men, so that they take up more room – arms and legs spread. They may sit closer to other colleagues, forcing them to back away, or scrunch up because the “boss” has taken the head of the conference table.

    Look at how people gesture. There are certainly differences in gender, but also in power and rank associated with this – and how much room you take up helps you understand the “tone” or subteties of gestures like hand waving and more.


    • Absolutely correct.

      Territory can also be nicely observed if you drive in a car with three kids in the backseat. I remember when my sisters and I were kids. “Hey, your knee is on my side of the car!” 🙂



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