If you are really looking for control, spread your notebooks, pens, manuals, and anything else you brought along over as broad an area as possible--without bursting anyone else's [territorial] bubble. This will give you further claim to the territory. --Susan Bixler (The Professional Image, p. 236)
Consumer product. 1. A flat, smooth piece of furniture designed as a stage to dramatize face-to-face meetings. 2. A corporate "level playing field" upon which speakers may address colleagues on matters of business. 3. A horizontal flatland, or territory, in which to send defensive and offensive messages with the eyes, face, hands, andshoulders.
Usage: Nonverbally, conference tables showcase the upper body's signs, signals, and cues. The table's shape, size, and seating plan a. influence group dynamics, and b. may also affect the emotional tone and outcome of discussions. (N.B.: Because torso height varies less than standing height, people seated around conference tables appear to be roughly the same size; thus, conference tables neutralize physical advantages of stature [see LOOM].) Meanwhile, the lower body's features are securely masked below the tabletop, and do not compete for notice with heads, hands, or eyes. A conference table may symbolize corporate status and power in business, politics, and military affairs.
Observation. The conference table is a nonverbal battlefield. 1. To promote key points, speakers should lean forward over the table and use palm-down gestures. (N.B.: Leaning backward, away from the table and palm-up gestures may suggest submissiveness, i.e., lack of conviction.) 2. Cuffs, bracelets, and wristwatches add visibility to hand gestures. 3. Nonverbal impacts of angular distance, arm wear, business suits, cut-off, hairstyles, and neckwear are exaggerated by close-quarters interaction at the conference table.
RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. Dominant individuals choose central seats and do most of the talking (Hare and Bales 1973). 2. Leadership and "central" seating positions (i.e., "opposite the most others") "go hand in hand" (Burgoon et al. 1989:389). 3. Competence across a boardroom table shows in a well-moderated voice tone, rapid speech, few verbal disfluencies or hesitations, fluid gestures, and eye contact. Listeners respond negatively to dominance cues, on the other hand, such as a loud voice, eyebrow-lowering, staring, postures stiff with muscle tension, and pointing (Driskell and Salas 1993).
See also STEINZOR EFFECT.
Drawing of "Showing My Nonverbal Side" by my son Aaron Huffman (copyright 2012 by Aaron M. Huffman)