Territorial Behavior

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           A territory is a defended space.  In the broadest sense, there are three kinds of human territory: tribal, family, and personal. 
           It is rare for people to be driven to physical fighting in defense of those "owned" spaces, but fight they will, if pushed to the limit.  The invading army encroaching on national territory, the gang moving into a rival district, the trespasser climbing into an orchard, the burglar breaking into a house, the bully pushing to the front of a queue, the driver trying to steal a parking space, all of these intruders are liable to be met with resistance varying from the vigorous to the savagely violent.  Even if the law is on the side of the intruder, the urge to protect a territory may be so strong that otherwise peaceful citizens abandon all their usual controls and inhibitions.  Attempts to evict families from their homes, no matter how socially valid the reasons, can lead to siege conditions reminiscent of the defense of a medieval fortress. 
           The fact that these upheavals are so rare is a measure of the success of Territorial Signals as a system of dispute prevention.  It is sometimes cynically stated that "all property is theft," but in reality it is the opposite.  Property, as owned space which is displayed as owned space, is a special kind of sharing system which reduces fighting much more than it causes it.  Man is a co-operative species, but he is also competitive, and his struggle for dominance has to be structured in some way if chaos is to be avoided.  The establishment of territorial rights is one such structure.  It limits dominance geographically.  I am dominant in my territory and you are dominant in yours.  In other words, dominance is shared out spatially, and we all have some.  Even if I am weak and unintelligent and you can dominate me when we meet on neutral ground, I can still enjoy a thoroughly dominant role as soon as I retreat to my private base.  Be it ever so humble, there is no place like a home territory. 
           Of course, I can still be intimidated by a particularly dominant individual who enters my home base, but his encroachment will be dangerous for him and he will think twice about it, because he will know that here my urge to resist will be dramatically magnified and my usual subservience banished.  Insulted at the heart of my own territory, I may easily explode into battle--either symbolic or real--with a result that may be damaging to both of us. 
           In order for this to work, each territory has to be plainly advertised as such.  Just as a dog cocks its leg to deposit its personal scent on the trees in its locality, so the human animal cocks its leg symbolically all over his home base.  But because we are predominantly visual animals we employ mostly visual signals, and it is worth asking how we do this at the three levels: tribal, family, and personal. 
           First: the Tribal Territory.  We evolved as tribal animals, living in comparatively small groups, probably of less than a hundred, and we existed like that for millions of years.  It is our basic social unit, a group in which everyone knows everyone else.  Essentially, the tribal territory consisted of a home base surrounded by extended hunting grounds.  Any neighboring tribe intruding on our social space would be repelled and driven away.  As these early tribes swelled into agricultural super-tribes, and eventually into industrial nations, their territorial defense systems became increasingly elaborate.  The tiny, ancient home base of the hunting tribe become the great capital city, the primitive war-paint became the flags, emblems, uniforms and regalia of the specialized military, and the war-chants became national anthems, marching songs, and bugle calls.  Territorial boundary-lines hardened into fixed borders, often conspicuously patrolled and punctuated with defensive structures--forts and lookout posts, checkpoints and great walls, and, today, customs barriers. 
           Today each nation flies its own flag, a symbolic embodiment of its territorial status.  But patriotism is not enough.  The ancient tribal hunter lurking inside each citizen finds himself unsatisfied by membership in such a vast conglomeration of individuals, most of whom are totally unknown to him personally.  He does his best to feel that he shares a common territorial defense with them all, but the scale of the operation has become inhuman.  It is hard to feel a sense of belonging with a tribe of fifty million or more.  His answer is to form sub-groups, nearer to his ancient pattern, smaller and more personally known to him--the local club, the teenage gang, the union, the specialist society, the sports association, the political party, the college fraternity, the social clique, the protest group, and the rest.  Rare indeed is the individual who does not belong to at least one of these splinter groups, and take from it a sense of tribal allegiance and brotherhood.  Typical of all these groups is the development of Territorial Signals--badges, costumes, headquarters, banners, slogans, and all the other displays of group identity.  This is where the action is, in terms of tribal territorialism, and only when a major war breaks out does the emphasis shift upwards to the higher group level of the nation. 
           Each of these modern pseudo-tribes sets up its own special kind of home base.  In extreme cases non-members are totally excluded, in others they are allowed in as visitors with limited rights and under a control system of special rules.  In many ways they are like miniature nations, with their own flags and emblems and their own border guards.  The exclusive club has its own "customs barrier":  the doorman who checks your "passport" (your membership card) and prevents strangers from passing in unchallenged.  There is a government: the club committee; and often special displays of the tribal elders: the photographs or portraits of previous officials on the walls.  At the heart of the specialized territories there is a powerful feeling of security and importance, a sense of shared defense against the outside world.  Much of the club chatter, both serious and joking, directs itself against the rottenness of everything outside the club boundaries--in that "other world" beyond the protected portals. 
           Second: the Family Territory.  Essentially, the family is a breeding unit and the family territory is a breeding ground.  At the center of this space, there is the nest--the bedroom--where, tucked up in bed, we feel at our most territorially secure.  In a typical house the bedroom is upstairs, where a safe nest should be.  This puts it farther away from the entrance hall, the area where contact is made, intermittently, with the outside world.  The less private reception rooms, where intruders are allowed access, are the next line of defense.  Beyond them, outside the walls of the building, there is often a symbolic remnant of the ancient feeding grounds--a garden.  Its symbolism often extends to the plants and animals it contains, which cease to be nutritional and become merely decorative--flowers and pets.  But like a true territorial space, it has a conspicuously displayed boundary-line, the garden fence, wall, or railings.  Often no more than a token barrier, this is the outer territorial demarcation, separating the private world of the family from the public world beyond.  To cross it puts any visitor or intruder at an immediate disadvantage.  As he crosses the threshold, his dominance wanes, slightly but unmistakably.  He is entering an area where he senses that he must ask permission to do simple things that he would consider a right elsewhere.  Without lifting a finger, the territorial owners exert their dominance.  This is done by all the hundreds of small ownership markers they have deposited on their family territory: the ornaments, the possessed objects positioned in the rooms and on the walls; the furnishings, the furniture, the colors, the patterns, all owner-chosen and all making this particular home base unique to them. 
           When they venture forth as a family unit they repeat the process in a minor way.  On a day-trip to the seaside, they load the car with personal belongings and it becomes their temporary, portable territory.  Arriving at the beach they stake out a small territorial claim, marking it with rugs, towels, baskets and other belongings to which they can return from their seaboard wanderings.  Even if they all leave it at once to bathe, it retains a characteristic territorial quality and other family groups arriving will recognize this by setting up their own "home" bases at a respectful distance.  Only when the whole beach has filled up with these marked spaces will newcomers start to position themselves in such a way that the inter-base distance becomes reduced.  Forced to pitch between several existing beach territories, they will feel a momentary sensation of intrusion, and the established "owners" will feel a similar sensation of invasion, even though they are not being directly inconvenienced. 
           The same territorial scene is being played out in parks and fields and on riverbanks, wherever family groups gather in their clustered units.  But if rivalry for spaces creates mild feelings of hostility, it is true to say that, without the territorial system of sharing and space-limited dominance, there would be chaotic disorder. 
           Third: the Personal Space.  If a man enters a waiting room and sits at one end of a long row of empty chairs, it is possible to predict where the next man to enter will seat himself.  He will not sit next to the first man, nor will he sit at the far end, right away from him.  He will choose a position about halfway between these two points. The next man to enter will take the largest gap left, and sit roughly in the middle of that, and so on, until eventually the latest newcomer will be forced to select a seat that places him right next to one of the already seated men.  Similar patterns can be observed in cinemas, public urinals, aeroplanes, trains and buses.  This is a reflection of the fact that we all carry with us, everywhere we go, a portable territory called a Personal Space.  If people move inside this space, we feel threatened.  If they keep too far outside it, we feel rejected.  The result is a subtle series of spatial adjustments usually operating quite unconsciously and producing ideal compromises as far as this is possible.  If a situation becomes too crowded, then we adjust our reactions accordingly and allow our personal space to shrink.  Jammed into an elevator, a rush-hour compartment, or a packed room, we give up altogether and allow body-to-body contact, but when we relinquish our Personal Space in this way, we adopt certain special techniques.  In essence, what we do is to convert these other bodies into "non-persons."  We studiously ignore them, and they us.  We try not to face them if we can possibly avoid it.  We wipe all expressiveness from our faces, letting them go blank.  We may look up at the ceiling or down at the floor, and we reduce body movements to a minimum.  Packed together like sardines in a tin, we stand dumbly still, sending out as few social signals as possible. 
           Even if the crowding is less severe, we still tend to cut down our social interactions in the presence of large numbers.  Careful observation of children in play groups revealed that if they are high-density groupings there is less social interaction between the individual children, even though there is theoretically more opportunity for such contacts.  At the same time, the high-density groups show a higher frequency of aggressive and destructive behavior patterns in their play.  Personal Space--"elbow room"--is a vital commodity for the human animal, and one that cannot be ignored without risking serious trouble. 
           Those of us who have to spend a great deal of time in crowded conditions become gradually better able to adjust, but no one can ever become completely immune to invasions of Personal Space.  This is because they remain forever associated with either powerful hostile or equally powerful loving feelings.  All through our childhood we will have been held to be loved and held to be hurt, and anyone who invades our Personal Space when we are adults is, in effect, threatening to extend his behavior into one of these two highly charged areas of human interaction.  Even if his motives are clearly neither hostile nor sexual, we still find it hard to suppress our reactions to his close approach.  Unfortunately, different countries have different ideas about exactly how close is close.  It is easy enough to test your own "space reaction":  when you are talking to someone in the street or in any open space, reach out with your arm and see where the nearest point on his body comes.  If you hail from western Europe, you will find that he is at roughly fingertip distance from you.  In other words, if you reach out, your fingertips will just about make contact with his shoulder.  If you come from eastern Europe you will find you are standing at "wrist distance."  If you come from the Mediterranean region you will find that you are much closer to your companion, at little more than "elbow distance". 
           Trouble begins when a member of one of these cultures meets and talks to one from another.  Say a British diplomat meets an Italian or an Arab diplomat at an embassy function.  They start talking in a friendly way, but soon the fingertips man begins to feel uneasy.  Without knowing quite why, he starts to back away gently from his companion.  The companion edges forward again.  Each tries in this way to set up a Personal Space relationship that suits his own background.  But it is impossible to do.  Every time the Mediterranean diplomat advances to a distance that feels comfortable for him, the British diplomat feels threatened.  Every time the Briton moves back, the other feels rejected.  Attempts to adjust this situation often lead to a talking pair shifting slowly across a room, and many an embassy reception is dotted with western-European fingertip-distance men pinned against the walls by eager elbow-distance men.  Until such differences are fully understood, and allowances made, these minor differences in "body territories" will continue to act as an alienation factor which may interfere in a subtle way with diplomatic harmony and other forms of international transaction. 
           A third method of reinforcing the body-territory is to use personal markers.  Books, papers and other personal belongings are scattered around the favored site to render it more privately owned in the eyes of companions.  Spreading out one's belongings is a well-known trick in public-transport situations, where a traveler tries to give the impression that seats next to him are taken.  In many contexts carefully arranged personal markers can act as an effective territorial display, even in the absence of the territory owner.  Experiments in a library revealed that placing a pile of magazines on the table in one seating position successfully reserved that place for an average of 77 minutes.  If a sports-jacket was added, draped over the chair, then the "reservation effect" lasted for over two hours. 
           In these ways, we strengthen the defenses of our Personal Spaces, keeping out intruders with the minimum of open hostility.  As with all territorial behavior, the object is to defend space with signals rather than with fists, and at all three levels--the tribal, the family, and the personal--it is a remarkably efficient system of space-sharing.  It does not always seem so, because newspapers and newscasts inevitably magnify the exceptions and dwell on those cases where the signals have failed and wars have broken out, gangs have fought, neighboring families have feuded, or colleagues have clashed, but for every territorial signal that has failed, there are millions of others that have not.  They do not rate a mention in the news, but they nevertheless constitute a dominant feature of human society--the society of a remarkably territorial animal.