Why sit? The case against chairs

I’m cur­rently sit­ting at my standing desk as I write this after walking back from an inter­view on campus. I’m glad that I walked there–I could have just done it over the phone. But after meeting Wil­fred Hsie, a fourth-​​year stu­dent in Northeastern’s Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence, I wonder if I shouldn’t have danced my way over instead, if I shouldn’t be doing more than just sit­ting and standing at my con­vert­ible work­sta­tion. Maybe I should be spin­ning, squat­ting, and “sprinking” too. After all, Hsie said, there’s more than one way to interact with the infra­struc­tures we’re used to.

A chair for example, elicits a typ­ical response when we see it: sit down, butt on seat, back on back, feet on floor. But who’s to say I couldn’t “sit” with my head on the seat instead? Or, less dra­mat­i­cally, squat on it with my feet on the seat? Or butt on seat and one leg over head?

All these posi­tions prob­ably sound ridicu­lous, but why? Why don’t we approach our envi­ron­ment with more flex­i­bility and freedom? And more impor­tantly, why has move­ment turned into an iso­lated activity reserved for gyms and dance studios?

These are the kinds of ques­tions Hsie asks in a short film he made for his Envi­ron­ment and Tech­nology class with assis­tant pro­fessor Sara Wylie. “She asked us to look at some infra­struc­ture and pro­pose an alter­na­tive for how it could be used,” Hsie said. “That sent me off on a journey to under­stand what I do.”

You see, Hsie doesn’t always sit with his butt on the seat the way most of us do. As a kid in ele­men­tary school, he was always fid­geting, rub­bing up against the cul­tural norm and get­ting in trouble for it. Over time he found other out­lets for this energy–dancing, gym­nas­tics, music. But then in Wylie’s class he real­ized that per­haps he didn’t need to stifle his desire to squat in a chair, or to dance-​​walk across campus, or to do a back flip off a con­crete wall after run­ning up its height, for instance. Through his work in Wylie’s class, he began to realize that per­haps the butt-​​on-​​seat par­a­digm is a learned habit, one that’s rein­forced over and over by social and cul­tural norms, and that per­haps there’s actu­ally value in pushing its bound­aries. Per­haps it’s actu­ally good for our bodies to move in more dynamic ways than the ones they’re used to.

So there’s a way that society expects us to use a chair, and then there’s a way that when you start cre­ating your own def­i­n­i­tions you start to say ‘what way can I use this chair that gives me the most cre­ative satisfaction?’”

Cre­ative sat­is­fac­tion and internal peace were two things that came up repeat­edly in our con­ver­sa­tion. Our workaday lives keep our butts in seats in front of com­puters on desks behind cubicle walls. Hsie thinks that pat­terns like this make it harder for us to remember our bodies, to be able to rec­og­nize when they need to stretch or run or jump. He rec­om­mended every now and then just taking a deep breath and tuning into the internal body, asking it what would feel right in this moment. If a squat feels right, then so be it. Who cares if the people around you give you funny looks? Maybe you’ll just inspire them to go home and do the same thing.

While I’m prob­ably not going to start sprinking at my standing desk any time soon, the idea of inter­acting with my envi­ron­ment in more ways than those that are tra­di­tion­ally expected has been intriguing me ever since I watched Hsie skate­board off into after­noon sun last week. I prob­ably won’t start dance walking to my on-​​campus inter­views, but I may just squat on my chair this after­noon, just to see how it feels.