Dr. Mark Harvey
Dr. Mark Harvey is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. An environmental psychologist, he conducts research on the design of informal learning environments and also studies the psychological aspects of environmental problems.
How does a person's physical environment affect his or her social life?
The physical environment -- buildings, streets, rooms, even doorways and furnishings -- all have a profound influence on meeting and getting to know other people. People's opportunities for contact are influenced by the basic design of the buildings in which they live or work. For example, if your workplace doesn't offer some sort of lounge or snack room or other public gathering place, it will be hard to get to know other coworkers. You might talk about work topics at the coffee maker, or smile at people in the hallways, but how will you really get to know people, or talk about yourselves? People need places or those interactions don't happen.
Do residential spaces -- homes and neighborhoods -- have similar design challenges?
Residential designs have challenges of their own. Ours is a highly mobile society: Americans like to relocate. We keep looking for that better apartment, that dream home. It's become difficult to know our neighbors at all, much less form relationships. So our sense of community is weakened. This makes our personal lives a bit lonelier and makes our society more fragmented.
One example of design's role in these problems is "car-centrism." Americans spend so much time commuting, they buy vehicles that are huge, inefficient "homes away from home." The car has become central to commuters' lives, accessing it, protecting their investment in it. So suburban homes and neighborhoods have become "car-centric." A prominent feature of new homes is the automated two-car, front-facing garage, connected to the street by a wide driveway. This is what we see when we look at each other's homes: not the doorways or decorations, but the garage doors. Homeowners drive straight into and out of the dwelling, without walking outdoors or seeing their neighbors.
It gets worse. Car-centric houses don't have traditional front porches, since residents go right from garage to family room or kitchen -- as if the place where the people live were an afterthought, attached to the structure's main function of being a place for the car to live. And these neighborhoods don't have sidewalks, as if walking itself were a dangerous or time-wasting activity. The house is supposed to make home-dwellers feel protected but the real effect of these home designs is to isolate people. The housing development may be too new to have older, leafy trees, which would at least offer some privacy, comfort and beauty. The result of all these accommodations to commuter living is that individuals are less likely to venture outdoors at all. It's not easy to make friends under these conditions.
These design drawbacks aren't a secret, though, are they? Surely people realize what they're missing out on when their work and living spaces don't help meet even modest social needs. So why don't we redesign our physical environments to give us the social stimulation and access we need to be healthy and happy?
That's a good question. I believe there are two answers: first, lack of resources and second, the power of social norms.
First, the people who work in the isolating offices or housing developments are the "users," not the designers, bosses or investors. Users lack the resources and power to make change. A few employees might ask upper management to create a shared space, arguing it would improve morale. But managers resist change, especially if consumes expensive square footage. And once you've bought a car-centric home in an unwalkable neighborhood, whose responsibility is it to "fix" these structures? Developers and designers would respond that, if homeowners want to meet their neighbors, they're free to do so -- and they have a point.
But then we come up against the second obstacle to environmental change: the power of social norms. People won't even move furniture around in lobbies, and even in living rooms, because they fear they are violating a norm. So people at dinner parties end up shouting at each other across the room because the couches and chairs are arranged in unfriendly angles and distances.
And strangers seated in waiting rooms and foyers don't say anything to each other at all, not making small talk, not even asking for help or information, because the furniture seems to push them away from each other. They don't "own" the space, they don't have the right to move things into a more efficient arrangement. If someone does move a chair across the room, say, the other people might glare or shift away, nonverbally expressing disapproval.
Most of us would rather be physically uncomfortable than disliked by others -- so we leave the furnishings alone. It's an ironic situation: instead of the furniture serving our purposes, it's working against us-and we're getting used to it.
Are there any ways in which our environments can improve our social lives? Even if we can't change some environments, how could we use our environments to improve our social lives?
We know from research that couples go through stages of nonverbal flirtation when they first meet. If the physical environment disrupts this process, there is less likelihood of a relationship forming. Couples require relative freedom of movement in order to communicate their interest to each other and proceed through the stages comfortably.
On first meeting, two people typically do not face each other. Facing slightly different directions gives them the option of choosing when to make eye contact, when to smile and so on. If the furniture you're occupying or the location of your seat forces you into a face-to-face orientation, you and your partner will likely be too anxious to interact, look away, control your part of the conversation and so forth. So one lesson to apply is to avoid booth seating in restaurants, for example, where you'd be forced into this uncomfortable face-to-face orientation with each other.
Another lesson concerns interpersonal distancing. Every culture in the world has slightly different definitions of how close is "too" close to stand or sit to other people in certain situations. In our culture, the norm for such "personal space" during a friendly conversation is to be about 18-24 inches apart. You need to be able to get that close, but not be forced to be even closer.
So sharing a sofa is not a good option when you're first meeting someone: it forces you to be too close together. If you were standing, you could back up a little to restore some distance. But on a sofa you would have to scoot away rather obviously -- and if you ran into the arm of the couch, you'd have nowhere left to move. At the other extreme, if you sit on chairs that are a bit too far apart, it will be hard for you to get close enough to talk comfortably.
So when meeting someone you want to know better, choose your spaces carefully! Think in terms of control, choice and comfort, and you'll make your environment work for your social life.