Ask someone to sit on a chair. Ask him whether it is comfortable. “It’s alright,” he says. “Have a cushion, make yourself comfortable,” you say. “No, I’m fine,” he says, but you insist, and he, polite, takes it and wedges it behind him. “Better?” you ask. “It’s fine,” he says. The formalities have been exchanged. The rituals have been observed. But is he really comfortable?
We have all played both parts in the little dance described above. We are very comfortable with the word comfortable. But how many of the things we sit on are fit to be sat on and on how many are our bodies actually at ease. And is a chair which is good for our body, good for our posture, comfortable?
The office I worked at some years ago underwent a spectacular refurbishment. Even the decorative shells around the concrete pillars which held the building up were re-sheathed, round rather than square. The carpet tiles changed colour over a weekend and acquired such a generous nap that I struggled to walk a straight line on them. The desks shrank a little in dimensions but not so much that you noticed and a few giants had their surfaces raised an inch or two. But the really big change, or so we were proudly informed, was that we were to be given top-of-the-range chairs, designed by experts in ergonomics.
There are two kinds of humans. The first kind is the one which reads the manual, inspects the controls, flicks the lumbar support in and out, turns the knob which loosens and tightens the mesh of its chair. The second kind is the one which just sits. I am of the latter camp. I just sat on my chair at my desk and put my elbows on the new dust-free surface and checked that my daughter’s sketches (aged 3 ½) were clearly visible next to the VDU. Feet flat on the floor? Couldn’t tell you. Eyes level with the top of the screen? Who cares? The workstation assessor is coming around when?
Reader, I had to take them on board. The ergometric directives, I mean. Health and Safety. Avoidance of sickness-induced strain in the workplace. I was lined up, dropped down, pumped up, tilted back, plunged forward. “Comfortable there?”. “Ah, not sure, really”. “What about there, that’s how you should be sitting” “Um. I suppose that’s OK” I have some sort of respect among my office mates but now I am withered by a look from an invader I have never seen before. I knew I would never win this battle so I, cowed and bored, said oh yes, that’s got it. “Can I get on with my work now?”
I have a theory. Few of us actually know when we are comfortable. Some worry about it and some don’t. We all have pretty much the same skeletons. Some of us match the posture our assessors and the chair designers encourage us to assume, as though finally settled into Old Sparky sans safety belt. But most of us lounge and slump, twist and stretch. If we were at home in front of the TV, akimbo on the sofa like so many scatter cushions, we would be just as comfortable. “Hey, come in; make yourself comfy on the sofa there. That’s it. Fancy a beer?”. “Yeah, not too cold. Hey, that little table doesn’t look too comfortable under that old box of yours. When are you going to get a Digital TV?”
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