I arrived at the Jefferson Market Library event late and out of breath. As quietly as I could, I slipped out of my coat and turned off my phone, scanning the packed reading room from where I stood in the doorway. There were no seats left that I could see; in fact there were several people standing at the back. Just then a library employee whispered commandingly in my ear: “Take a seat up front.” I looked and there they were: the ubiquitous, empty front row seats.
The author had already started reading and I was loath to disturb the proceedings by walking in front of everyone. “Why didn’t the early-comers fill up the first row?” I thought, annoyed. “Why are these seats always the last ones to go?
Obviously, there are many events for which first row seats are scarfed up instantly—such as a fashion show, or a celebrity concert. But at smaller venues—church events, school events, readings, lectures and other casual presentations—no one ever seems to want to sit in the front. And just as there are reasons for certain traffic patterns on highways, there are deep-seated (pun intended) psychological causes for this behavior.
For one thing there is a general sense that the front row seats are reserved for special guests—the mother of the bride, the publisher of the book, close family members or other honored guests. People often feel presumptuous or “grabby” about taking the “best seats” in the house.
The front row is also conspicuous. To get there, unless you are early, you have to pass in front of everyone else in the audience. Then there is the worry that once you get all the way up there—with all eyes on you—you will discover that the seat’s already taken; you had not been able to see the head of the small child sitting there, or the coat that someone has put down, indicating it is “saved.” Now you have to turn around, rejected, and make your way to the back again.
If you are seated in the front row, you're more exposed to everyone else in the room. The rest of the audience can see you, but you can not see them. You have nothing to look at but the stage or the podium, while people further back can amuse themselves before the show by surveying the other audience members.
Worse than that, you are also potentially vulnerable, or noticeable, to the person who is speaking or performing. One of the biggest audience phobias of all is the fear of being engaged by the presenter. (This might stem from memories of being in the classroom as a child, and being afraid to be called upon.) While usually this is a groundless fear, if you are attending a performance of a stand-up comic, sitting in the front row is akin to being on the front lines in a war--you are open to attack, with no protective barrier between you and whatever jibes may be lobbed your way.
But perhaps the most common reason for front row phobia is the fear of getting stuck. New Yorkers attend more performances and presentations per capita than anywhere else in the country; as a result we are jaded enough to know that many of them are going to be things we are going to want to get out of before they are over. It’s not easy to escape from the front row (though it is actually not that different from being in the second or third row), both because of it’s geographical location in the room as well as its higher level of visibility (you can’t exactly sneak out without being seen).
Even if we love the event, as public transit users we are used to situating ourselves near the exit in the subway or bus, or anywhere we are in a crowd. We don’t want to be trapped one minute longer than necessary; we are always impatient to be able to get on to our next thing. This strategic positioning practice is not restricted to people who don’t like to sit in the front row. There are also people who insist on sitting on the aisles, making it necessary for latecomers to climb over them to get to the vacant middle seats. I call these people “Edge-Hogs” and find their behavior even more annoying than the front row avoiders. There should always be some seats left empty at the back and on the aisles, for people who come in late.
“Of course,” I thought, as I blushingly made my way up the center aisle to the front row, “none of this behavior is nearly as bad as people who come in late!”