By Galen Cranz
Sitting for long periods is bad for our health, resulting in obesity and heart conditions. Here are some cultural alternatives.
In 1852, an English colonialist working in India voiced his complaints about the local workmen. He was particularly irritated and offended that blacksmiths, carpenters, and Masons squatted to work, complaining indignantly, “All work with their knees nearly on a level with their chin: the left hand—when not used as the kangaroo uses his tail to form a tripod–grasps the left knee and binds the trunk to the doubled limbs.” This man was not the first, or the last, to liken people who sit on floors to animals. He was more explicit than many about why he found the posture inferior: it suggested “indolence and inefficiency… especially irritating to an Englishman,” but even more so to one who hires and pays such workmen.
The colonialist tried to force these men to work his way, so he ordered the anvils on which they worked to be bolted to the surfaces at table height. The next day, he was pleased to see them working off the floor, but not for long. He returned the following day to find the men squatting on top of stools in order to reach the anvils. He gave up reasoning that he could not get workmen to stand while working because of “a deficiency of muscular power in the lower limbs,” which he attributed to their not using chairs. Our amateur sociologist speculated that chairs or raised seats were” one of those natural steps toward a higher civilization.” He was wrong about that, but right in observing that we are apt to overlook the function of such artifacts until we imagine or experience life without them. Chairs have become second nature to us, virtually indivisible from us—and therefore invisible to us.
In the past century, we have come to appreciate, rather than condemn, the way people in other cultures do things. The attitude of the 19th-century English colonialist toward Indian workers now strikes us as stuffy and disrespectful. Nevertheless, our lingering ideas about “progress” still tempt us to look down on or misunderstand the habits of others, including how they sit. Take an extreme example: the excitement and disgust Western tourists experience on having to use a squat toilet, even a clean one, for a short time. though it is an ultimately efficient position for elimination, most visitors feel revulsion, superiority or some combination of both. Northern Europeans call such toilets “Italian,” and Italians call them “Turkish.” Either way this artifact comes from a more “primitive,” less developed place.
In the United States, an example of our confused feelings about cultural differences is as near as your local Japanese restaurant. Such restaurants may have tatami mats where diners sit on the floor, but this touch of authenticity can go only so far. Westerners do not generally sit crossed-legged or kneeling, so many of these floors have hidden wells under the tables for diners to sit in the classic right-angled posture we are used to. But do we accept this as a cultural difference created by lifetimes of sitting one way versus another? No, we kid ourselves otherwise, with vague references to some imagined anatomical difference. We still need anthropologists to remind us that almost everything—including how we hold our bodies—should be understood in its cultural context.
The American anthropologist Gordon Hewes has done that for posture. He documented the tremendous variety of recognized postures—over one thousand steady postures that human beings assume all over the world. The right-angle seated posture is just one example, utilized by only one-third to one-half of the people in the world. But, you might ask, how can a person rest, eat, or write a letter without a chair? A Chinese might squat to wait for the bus; a Japanese woman might kneel to eat: and an Arab might sit crossed-legged to write a letter. Are they forced to sit without chairs simply because they are too poor to own one?
People who can afford chairs throughout the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and Polynesia do not necessarily buy them: a common posture in Africa and Australia is what anthropologists call the “Neolithic” stance: the person stands on one leg and plants the soul of the other foot near the knee of the standing leg. As you will see, the reasons for sitting on the floor, on mats, on carpets, platforms, Chinese k‘ang, or stools, stem from cultural traditions rather than economic development.
Hewes emphasized that postural variations are culturally, not anatomically, determined. Sitting, like other postures, is regulated all around the world according to gender, age, and social status. Sitting on the floor with both legs straight out in front is generally a woman’s posture, wherever it is found. the cowboy squat—the one used by Indian workmen to the annoyance of British colonialists–is mostly a man’s, with one knee up.
A particularly common alternative posture is sitting Turkish style, what westerners call cross-legged, or sometimes tailor fashion. In Turkish homes traditional “divans,” from which we get one of our terms for couches, are deep, wide and firm enough to permit sitting in this way. The divans are low wooden platforms with pads and bolsters, built into a room called a “sofa,” for receiving visitors and enjoying oneself with family. From this we have derived another of our terms for couches.
In mosques, Turks sit and kneel on richly carpeted floors. Carpets are butted one against the other, even overlapping—but never displayed in a sea of gleaming hardwood. Muslim religious practices are refreshingly sensitive to bodily experience. Carpets do more than protect the knees: all who enter a mosque (or a home) take off their shoes, ostensibly so that no dirt is brought onto the carpets where people will put their hands and faces. But going barefoot stimulates the nerves of the soles, in turn refreshing the whole body. The bending and stretching ritually required five times a day is also good for the spine, a useful counterpoint to constant upright posture. The ritual use of water inside the mosque to cleanse the nose, neck, forearms, and ankles was initially practical in dry sandy climates but refreshes the skin in any climate.
In India today, especially rural India, many of the activities Westerners would pursue in chairs, from sewing to university physics seminars, Indians perform while seated on the floor. Ergonomics researchers have attempted to measure the physiological effects of performing tasks this way. For example, the impact on the heart rate of making chapatis while squatting on the floor. Surprisingly, the effect is aerobic—so I no longer worry so much about lack of exercise for those women confined to family courtyards.
Posture is regulated symbolically worldwide, whether on the floor, on a stool or in a chair. In Africa, initiates use tools and special ceremonies to rest, eat, or watch dances. Stools are viewed as extremely personal so that one would not even use a relative’s in the same household. They were associated with leadership. When a king died his stool was preserved in order to preserve the prosperity of the kingdom. When the European style chair was first introduced to Africa by the Portuguese in 1481, the Africans quickly recognized it as a signifier of prestige and power. All around the world the chair and chair sitting has become a symbol—and sometimes direct evidence—of Westernization. An American traveler gave this account of his visit to a remote mountain valley in Afghanistan in the late 1960s:
I had a good look at my first coffee Kafiristani as he passed. H e was fair skinned with grey or blue eyes, very Western looking indeed. “Looks like a farangi,” I said to Sarkal, forgetting that I was a “Frank” myself. “Yes, many of them do. People say that they are descended from the people of Alexander, but I don’t know. They sit on chairs, like the Franks, though.”
In turn, Westernization has become a symbol of modernization and progress. Hence journalists equate Japan’s economic miracle with its rise from the floor to chairs. Chrome kitchenette sets crowd Japanese apartments—sometimes unused by the inhabitants who continued to sit on the floor, but powerful symbols nonetheless. Conversely when Gandhi wanted to make a point about the importance of retaining traditional culture, he chose to sit cross-legged on the floor, self-consciously rejecting a chair and the modernism that goes with it.
In cultures outside the West, the specific connotations of chairs are different, but the chair is still used to communicate status differences. When it was introduced to China in the 2nd century, the Chinese called it the “barbarian (their word for anything foreign) bed.” It connoted informal use because of its years of association with military camps, temporary travel furniture and garden use. It was more like a cot, and for years it was never used indoors. People sat on it tailor-fashion, showing contempt, indifference or extreme confidence. Nine hundred years later a new seating type evolved: a folding chair with a back. This chair then became acceptable and was used by all, but the language of dignity and honor retained the use of the term “mat” rather than “chair.“
The Chinese are noteworthy for having integrated the chair into their lives without letting it dominate. In contemporary mainland China, people sit mostly on backless stools in schools, most workplaces and the home–including dining. One interesting exception is that on a parent’s 60th birthday he or she is accorded the special honor of being asked to dine in a chair.
By and large Westerners scientists and humanists alike have generated few alternatives to the chair and table culture. We are in a sense locked into it, after all even our architecture is shaped by chairs. The height of window openings, for example, is determined by our sitting about 18 inches off the floor. Furthermore, chair imagery pervades our symbolic life. University professors hold chairs—positions funded especially for research and teaching in a designated subject. Departments everywhere have chairmen chairwomen or better yet chairpersons. When a person has to choose between two jobs, say acting and dancing—we sometimes say he cannot sit between two chairs. County seats, district seats, embassy seats, a private seat, seats on the Stock Exchange, are all metaphors for position, social role, and power, but the concrete object from which the metaphors have evolved is a chair. A hot seat is never a sofa, might possibly be a stool, but it’s most likely a chair. Sigmund Freud was famous for his couch; but today the reflection and conversation of therapy is more closely associated with chairs. On Christian religious communities, an empty chair represents Christ, who may be understood to be present in the person of an unexpected guest; this convention has dual purposes, one symbolic and the other practical, if an unexpected guest arrives.
Can we really change the practice of sitting in chairs? It is embedded so deeply in our culture that it seems natural, meaning virtually biological and therefore not susceptible to change. But rather than being natural, chair sitting exemplifies what the anthropologist Edward Hall calls ”formal knowledge” that we learn at our mothers knee, primarily through observation of behavior without even knowing that we know it. This is, in fact, unconscious knowledge which is harder to change than either the rational technical knowledge we learn in schools or the informal knowledge that people tell us in the process of living. The difficulty of changing an unconscious practice like chair sitting includes resistance to the subject by dismissing it as absurd or trivial. Nevertheless, even formal knowledge can and does change. Bringing a subject into conscious awareness is a first step; after that, new ways of thinking and acting can be instituted in law and codes, in professional guidelines and standards, and by the influence of social movements education and art.
A professor of architecture as U.C. Berkeley, Galen Cranz concludes that we tend to blame the body for failures in chair design—yet the body was here first. After studying the Alexander technique, she went on to revolutionize the way we think about sitting in our daily lives.
Cranz is one of the founding members of the Association for Body Conscious Design. One of her own lounge chairs, entered in a design competition in San Francisco, worked so well, and fit the body so naturally, it was the only one to be stolen from the exhibition—though it was bolted down.