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The intricate concept of territory extends its influence into the realm of interpersonal communication, unveiling a complex interplay between humans akin to territorial behaviors observed in the animal kingdom. While animals instinctively define and defend territories for the propagation of their species, humans engage in a more nuanced form of territoriality, particularly evident in nonverbal communicationOpens in new window and proxemicsOpens in new window.

The Communicative Significance of Territory

Territoriality, within the context of nonverbal communication, refers to the stationary or fixed geographic locations individuals claim and protect against intrusion. These areas, ranging from personal spaces like rooms and cars to specific seats at a dinner table, play a crucial role in shaping human behavior.

Sommer (1966) astutely acknowledged the enduring relevance of territoriality in the study of human behavior, even if humans do not exclusively or primarily define their territories through instinctual means. He conceptualized territory as an area under the control of an individual, family, or group, placing significant emphasis on physical possession, both actual and potential, as well as the imperative of defense.

Throughout history, the most extensive and coveted territories have invariably fallen under the dominion of the most powerful, influential, and often the wealthiest members of society. A prime illustration of this is found in the formidable walls surrounding Windsor CastleOpens in new window in England, symbolizing the manifestation of choice territory.

William the Conqueror's strategic decision to construct Windsor Castle atop a large, steep hill overlooking the Thames RiverOpens in new window underscores the purposeful nature of territorial choices. Rather than a mere residence, he conceived it as a fortress—an impregnable stronghold strategically positioned to monitor and control the activities of the potentially hostile population residing below the Castle.

With the following assertion, Sommer (1966) captures the essential nature of territoriality:

Since human communication is based largely on symbols, territorial defense relies more on symbols such as name plates, fences, and personal possessions than on physical combat, or aggressive displays. ... Salesmen have, and actively defend, individual territories. One criterion of territoriality is .... the home team always wins .... [and] an animal on its own territory will fight with more vigor. ... [Hence] a male on its own territory is almost undefeatable against males of the species. (p. 61)

Territorial behavior is intricately defined by deliberate efforts to demarcate and assert ownership over spaces that are perceived as "owned" by individuals or groups.

To safeguard against territorial invasion, various strategies come into play. One common practice involves placing nameplates on the exteriors of domiciles and office doors, with the hope that consistent use will signal ownership of a parking spot or a seat in a classroom. This symbolic gesture serves as a subtle but powerful assertion of territorial control.

Markers, in the form of everyday items such as books, coats, and notebooks, become tools to communicate ownership of a specific territory. For instance, leaving a book to save a seat during a brief absence from the classroom or marking a library table with a book while searching for another one, are ways individuals use tangible symbols to establish and maintain territorial boundaries.

The use of personalized markers extends beyond mere assertion; it serves a dual purpose of regulating social interaction within perceived territories and acting as a deterrent against unauthorized individuals attempting to encroach upon or utilize the space. Consider, for example, the act of putting a sign on a row of seats at a ballet recital to reserve the section for friends—a clear indication that this territory is claimed.

In essence, the strategic deployment of personalized markers becomes a language of its own, facilitating the subtle negotiation and communication of ownership within the intricate dynamics of territorial spaces.

Occasionally, individuals can exhibit an exaggerated use of territorial markers, demonstrating a heightened sense of ownership. A notable example is an antique shop owner in Santa Monica, California, who takes a bold stance by posting a sign on the front door with a direct message:

"No Browsing. Stay out unless you plan to make a purchase today."

Similarly, souvenir shop owners near the Eiffel Tower in Paris may resort to physically discouraging children from touching their merchandise, and in an upscale store in Grindewald, Switzerland, stickers on hand-carved music boxes assert,

"You drop it. You pay for it."

While such instances of territorial assertion may carry undesirable side effects, there exists a paradoxical effectiveness in the use of highly personal markers to delineate boundaries, as noted by Altman (1975). The more personal and distinctive the markers, the more influential they become in controlling or preventing interactions within a given space.

Given the central role of territories in regulating human interaction, an essential inquiry arises: What are the typical types of territories that individuals define and defend?

Broadly speaking, Lyman and Scott (1976) identify four kinds of territories:

  1. Public Territories

    Public territories are spaces that individuals can enter freely, but constraints on human interaction within these territories exist due to explicit laws and social traditions. Notably, the anonymity associated with public territories may result in impersonal or even rude treatment.

  2. Home Territories

    In contrast, home territories provide individuals with freedom of interaction within claimed spaces. These territories are often defined by distinctive markers, such as reserved chairs or personalized items, and can include private clubs, fraternities, or personal residences.

  3. Interactional Territories

    Interactional territories are informal gathering areas where individuals congregate. What distinguishes interactional territories is the flexibility of their boundaries, adapting to the dynamics of gatherings such as parties, campus meetings, or local pool halls.

  4. Body Territories

    Body territories encompass spaces marked for personal use by the human body. This concept, developed by Goffman (1971), includes personal space, stalls, use-space, turns, sheaths, possessional territory, informational preserves, and conversational preserves. Of these, personal space, stalls, use-space, turns, and sheaths are particularly relevant for interpersonal communication.

Understanding and navigating these diverse types of territories shed light on the complex ways in which human interactions are shaped and regulated within different spatial contexts.

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  • References
    • Successful Nonverbal Communication: Principles and Applications, by Dale G. Leathers, and Michael Eaves

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