Status as Space

In this post, I'd like to explore the relationship between social status and personal space. I’ll show that people often conceptualize status as space — more specifically, as territory — and that this helps explain a wide range of phenomena.

Please keep in mind that these are ideas about how the world actually works, rather than how it should work.

Status and personal (physical) space

In all human cultures, people of higher status are accorded more personal space than those of lower status.

Here are some examples to flesh this out.

  • When interacting with someone of higher status, you're more likely to stand back and give them space. When interacting with someone of lower status, you're 'allowed' to get a little closer. Cue image of boss walking around the office, slapping his subordinates on the back.
  • A lot of status-related body language is about space, and controlling more or less of it as appropriate.
    • “Kneeling, bowing, and prostrating are all ritualised low-status ways of shutting off your space.” (Keith Johnstone, Impro)
    • Opening one's arms in a meeting, to encompass other chairs, is a high-status posture.
    • Standing too close to someone (invading their personal space, their territory) is often seen as a threat. "Getting in someone's face" etc.
  • More institutional space is allocated to someone of higher status in an organization. Offices are usually a status symbol, and bigger is clearly better. Bigger houses, too, are a sign of higher social status. In fact, one of the best status symbols of all is conspicuously wasted space, showing that not only do you control a lot of space, but so much that you can afford to waste it.
  • It's not personal space per se, but in graphic design, more negative space implies higher status. Compare, for example, with Because of this association, brand guidelines usually specify that a logo shouldn’t appear within X pixels or Y inches of other elements on a page.
  • A central purpose of monumental architecture is to signal status through command of space. Visitors to an enormous monument are necessarily humbled in its presence, elevating the status of the man for whom it was built. "In a recent text Tiger echoes... a general observation of the 'shiver of awe' that monumental architecture can induce. In his account of the rise of ancient civilizations, Jaynes devotes several pages to the intimidatory effects of monumental architecture and sculpture in a number of societies. Again, the sheer size of structures is claimed to be the main stimulus producing this response." (Frank Salter, Emotions in Command)

The relationship between status and space is of course more nuanced than just “higher status equals more space.” Elevation, centrality, connectedness, and proximity to things of value can privilege a smaller space over a larger one. Case in point: cities are higher-status locations relative to rural or suburban areas — not because, but in spite of how crowded they are.

Interlude: Conceptual Metaphors

We'll get back to status in a minute, but first a brief digression.

In this post we've been talking about the metaphor that links social status and personal space. Metaphors like this are more than just literary devices — they are fundamental organs of human cognition. To distinguish them from literary metaphors, we call these conceptual metaphors.

A conceptual metaphor is a metaphor or mapping, embedded in our language and cognitive processes, which helps us understand an abstract target domain in terms of a concrete source domain. The source domain is more primary, primitive, and something we intuitively understand, which (along with an appropriate mapping between elements of each domain) helps us to reason about the more abstract, intangible target domain.

A canonical example is the metaphor that explains thoughts in terms of food. In this example, thought is the target domain and food is the source domain. By virtue of the metaphor, we develop a better understanding of the thought domain thanks to our intuitive, everyday facility with the food domain. For instance, we know certain foods to be healthful and others to be harmful, and by analogy we should be wary of what kind of thoughts we consume. Of course not all aspects of the source domain are relevant to the target domain, but the mapping is rich enough that it provides excellent heuristics.

The hallmark of a conceptual metaphor is that it embeds itself into our language in a variety of ways. In addition to the idiom “food for thought,” we also speak of chewing on an idea, of propositions being easy or hard to swallow, of being nourished by knowledge, of devouring a book, of putting an idea on the back burner, and of theories being half-baked. Our immediate and intuitive understanding of food, cooking, and digestion helps us to reason about the more intangible domain of ideas, thinking, and understanding.

It's important to note that we don't have to be aware of these metaphors for them to affect our minds and our actions. Through language, these metaphors become deeply embedded into our thought processes; they are great gifts given to us by our culture, whether we are conscious of them or not.

Status and metaphorical space

Now let’s look at three other conceptual metaphors, each of which explains a different target domain in terms of the same source domain — physical space. Then we’ll see how ideas about status bleed into each of those domains.

Time is Space. In this metaphor, we understand time as a line. Durations become intervals of a given length. We speak of things in the future (or past) being near or far, of durations as long or short, of time horizons, and of events approaching or looming.

Since time is understood as space, many of our status-related rules for space apply to the time domain as well. Higher status people are granted more time (and more control over their time), while lower status people are often cut short. Examples:

  • Giving someone time to make a decision is considered polite (i.e. deferential), whereas demanding a response in a short amount of time is threatening.
  • A higher status person is more readily allowed to interrupt a low status person in conversation, intruding upon the other’s command of a span of time. On the other hand, someone of low status shows deference to someone of high status by allowing him to finish speaking.
  • In interrogations, a common tactic is to barrage the suspect with questions. As soon as one question is answered (or even in the middle of an answer), the interrogator fires the next question. By showing command of the tempo and by restricting the suspect's time to think, the interrogator lowers the suspect's status. (This is usually combined with a variety of other tactics for lowering the suspect's status, of course.)

Ideas and Information are Territory. In this metaphor, ideas and information are understood as being owned or controlled by people. We talk of invading someone's privacy, of people being guarded, of ideological battlefields, and of something being his idea or her idea.

The relationship to status here is obvious. The greater the status, the more deference is paid to the information territory. Examples:

  • Higher status means more privacy, more control over one's personal information. You're less likely to inquire about a superior's reasons for something, or about your superior's personal life, for example.
  • You're more likely to give a superior the benefit of the doubt, and more likely to be skeptical of a subordinate. Here we speak of giving someone latitude or leeway to see something through.
  • Micromanagement is annoying because it's a threat to one's status, the same way getting in someone's face is a threat.
  • Transparency is traditionally seen as an insult to power because it's a violation of the (assumed) prerogative of leaders to keep more information to themselves.

Affiliation is Proximity. In this metaphor, we understand personal relationships in spatial terms. You can keep in touch (or lose touch) with someone. Friends and family are close, although some relatives are distant.

The interaction with status is two-fold. (1) People of higher status are accorded more social distance; and (2) physical distance is sometimes conflated with social distance, with status being modulated accordingly. Examples:

  • A superior is allowed to strike a familiar tone with her subordinates, but often not the other way around. This is because familiarity is a form of closeness, so initiating familiarity is akin to moving into someone's personal space (allowed in the high-low direction, but disallowed in the low-high direction).
  • Perhaps this is one of the reasons rejections letters are so formal (implying a greater social distance) while acceptance letters are more familiar (implying a smaller social distance). Encoding the desired relationship in the language reinforces the message.
  • Simply being in the same room as someone of very high status gives you 'contact status,' even if there is no personal relationship. In extreme cases, simply seeing the person (such as a celebrity) will cause you to feel elevated in status.


We understand social status in terms of personal space. The higher your social status, the more personal space you tend to control.

Further, because we also understand time, information, and relationships in spatial terms, our ideas about how status interacts with space bleed into those domains as well. We accord higher-status people more time, more control over their information, and more social distance than we accord people of lower status.

Originally published April 16, 2012.