On Spatial Configuration and Social Interaction

Spencer Yen
5 min readAug 28, 2021

written may 2020 for a sociology class

I’m fascinated by how spatial configuration influences social interaction. My interest was sparked from eating at restaurants, where I started to take note of how different table configurations affected conversations. It’s not just a question of who takes which seat; there’s the size and shape of the table, comfort of the chair, distance between guests, and table lighting.

Here’s an example: let’s say you’re going out to dinner with a group of friends. You’re deciding between Italian and Chinese, cuisines that tend to have different table arrangements. Your typical West Village Italian spot is likely to have a long row of 2-seat rectangular tables that can be pushed together to accommodate larger groups. Now picture a banquet-style Chinese establishment with its large round tables.

If your group size is more than four people, round tables offer a better spatial configuration for group conversation. Less than four, and you might want the intimacy of a table that can barely fit your plates. While each guest is equidistant around a round table, a long rectangular table creates invisible barriers between guests on the corners. Round tables are conducive to group conversations, whereas rectangular tables lead to conversations between the person next to and across from you.

An added bonus: the time it takes to eat a meal often acts as a timer for the length of social interaction. Eating a family-style meal will usually take longer than individually ordered meals — Korean BBQ is a much longer minimum time commitment than burgers.

I Sodi in West Village and Golden Unicorn in Chinatown

I recently learned about “Jeffersonian Dinners”: dinner parties hosted by Thomas Jefferson that took place around one round table so that there would be no one at its head, contrary to the long rectangular tables emblematic of European monarchies. Like Jefferson, I too am a fan of round tables.

It’s now been more than two months since I last dined at a restaurant. Along with everyone else in the world spending more time than ever in their homes, I’ve had to rethink my relationship with the spaces I occupy.

COVID’s Spatial Collapse

The term “third place” refers to places where we spend time outside of our home and work (the first and second place, respectively). Third places are coffee shops, restaurants, bars, libraries, churches, and parks. For most of us, the current pandemic has collapsed the second and third places into the first place. Home is where we work, eat, drink, exercise, worship, and socialize.

Within my family, we’ve gradually figured out the boundaries and routines of four people living in all aspects of life in one home. In the graphic above, I visualized the main spaces currently in my life. Outside of my home, I really only go to two places: my neighborhood where I take walks and go on runs, and the grocery stores. I used emojis to represent all the different activities that my family does around the house. I spend the most time in my bedroom, where my desk is my portal to school, work, and (a gradually diminishing) social life. When my door is closed, my family knows not to bother me, and when it’s open, sometimes my sister comes and hangs out. The same goes for my sister in her room, dad in his office, and mom in her office. In this sense, the door plays a unique sociological role in signaling when social interaction is appropriate. All the family time we spend together is in one of two communal zones: the kitchen and family room. We’re in the kitchen before, during, and after meals, and typically in the family room on weekend evenings talking, playing a game, or watching TV. I recognize that I am very privileged for each person in my family to have their own adequate personal space. But physical proximity breeds social interaction, and I think that my family would be spending more time together if we had fewer rooms. The modern open kitchen layout is a great example of how blending cooking/dining space with leisure space leads to more social interaction.

Something new I’ve been doing during quarantine is trying to mentally transition myself from one “space” to another, even if I’m not actually moving places. In a similar way to how showing up at the gym puts me in a workout mindset, rolling out my yoga mat in the hallway gets me in the mood to do an at-home workout. Making myself a coffee and putting on over-ear headphones can mentally transport me to a cafe or library for when serious work is needed.

It’s also worth considering how the user interfaces that make up digital space influence social interaction: the video conferencing platform Zoom has become our reliable digital second and third place. On Zoom, we participated in classes, worked on group projects, called into work meetings, played board games, and hung out with friends. But along the way we’ve discovered how unnatural Zoom’s interface can be for social interaction. The 2D grid of faces on Zoom doesn’t come close to reflecting the sense of 3D space and sound when talking face to face. Zoom meetings with more than a few participants quickly become asymmetrical, where a host often emerges to forcefully move a conversation along. Zoom etiquette emerged, and we learned to stay muted unless you wanted to speak. The consequence of this was difficulty in getting audience feedback — now you had people who would unmute themselves for a few seconds to laugh in support of the speaker.

Post-COVID Spaces

Essential businesses that are open today have been forced to rearrange layouts for more space to follow physical distancing guidelines, and it’s certain that this will continue for some time. The question is, how will this affect social interactions in public places? Will the increased physical distance make society feel less connected than before? Offices will surely change to add more space between workers. Will this decrease socialization or collaboration in the workplace? Will we ever return back to our pre-COVID conventions of social interaction?

--

--

Spencer Yen

small stories, writings, and uninformed opinions from my life