Standing on two feet – the anthropology of keeping still

We were built to move rather than stand motionless on our two feet

By Sean Carey

In post-industrial societies, where the generation of wealth is focused on the creation and manipulation of signs and symbols, fewer and fewer people have to stand to make a living. The majority of employees sit for large parts of the day and press the keys on computer and mobile devices, often communicating with people digitally or over the telephone, but with whom they have never had a face-to-face encounter.

Others, typically senior and middle-managers, spend their time sitting in an endless round of meetings with people they know very well – perhaps too well they might feel on occasion –attempting to finalize decisions or close deals.

So, it does not come as a huge surprise to find that over the last decade in the US and a number of other countries including Australia, Canada and the UK “stand-up” meetings, also known as the “daily scrum.” have been introduced.  This so-called agile practice  are increasingly fashionable in companies, large and small, especially in fast-moving sectors of the economy like tech and financial services where time is at a premium and long-winded orations are seen as an obstacle to efficiency and service delivery. Instead of key personnel sitting round a conventional conference table, leaders and team members stand. Exceptions are made for those who are sick, injured and pregnant, of course.

Agreement about decisions and strategy is made quickly by metaphorically and literally keeping people on their toes.

So popular has the practice become, that in the last few years a number of larger companies have introduced specially designed workspaces for stand-up meetings. One recent innovation is a table at standing height that  allows people to gather round and take notes.

Yet there is nothing new in holding meetings while standing. University of Missouri Business Professor, Allen Bluedorn, has found that they were routinely used by military leaders in the First World War. The military’s top brass believed that eliminating sitting on chairs avoided wasting time by getting everyone to focus on the problem at hand. But the fact that standing is perceived as something that leads to discomfort, and is used as an incentive to speed up decision-making either in war rooms or at Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Munich Re offices around the world, is revealing.

Many people in less digitized parts of the economy are obliged to stand when they work. They communicate with real people in real physical spaces – for example, shop assistants, market traders, hairdressers, restaurant workers, teachers and lecturers. And nearly everyone who is fit and able stands on their two feet on occasions. Typically, this occurs in leisure spaces like bars, art galleries, outdoor music festivals, parties and sporting venues.

What is especially interesting from a cultural anthropological point of view is that very few people who stand while working are obliged to keep still. I drive along the Outer Circle (the outer ring road) in Regent’s Park at least once a week. The armed police officers, who keep a 24-hour watch outside the US ambassador’s residence, never sit. They alternate between standing in one position and walking a short distance in either direction along the road. When the weather is cold, they tend to walk more.

Probably, the one exception in the modern world to the ‘keep moving while upright’ rule is ceremonial personnel. For example, at London’s Buckingham Palace if the Queen is in residence, four guards stand at the entrance, but only two when she is away. Whatever the number, while on duty the bearskin-hat-wearing guards are expected to stand still, but for no more than ten minutes at a time. So at least 11 times over the duration of the two-hour sentry duty, members of the Queen’s Guard will march up and down to stop themselves stiffening up or fainting.

What lesson do we learn from this? It’s very clear. We were built to move rather than stand motionless on our two feet.

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 17 August 2012

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