06/13/2012 12:45 pm ET

Coffee Shop Politics: Professor Studies How We Mark Our Territory

Even the most sociable of us have done it -- you're sitting at a coffee shop, occupying a whole table by yourself, just trying to get some work done, while the hours tick away. Business owners hate it, so do other patrons, but sometimes we can't help ourselves.

Mary Gilly, marketing professor at UC Irvine's Paul Merage School of Business has been studying this phenomenon, along with Merlyn A. Griffiths of the University of North Carolina, occurring in what they refer to as our "third place."

"The first place is your home, the second is your workplace, and the third is the neighborhood bar or coffeeshop where everyone chats and mingles. But that's not what Starbucks got. Consumers turned it into something different. The coffeehouse has become a place where they're alone together."

Kathryn Boyd notes on that Gilly and Merlyn Griffiths, Ph.D. began this study about five years ago in Starbucks and similar coffee shops in the Newport Beach area. Their research has found that some people feel entitled to stay in a coffeeshop for an infinite amount of time, just because they've purchased something.

Gilly and Griffiths' study found that people's attitudes vary greatly when it comes to territoriality in these situations. There are the "renters," who only feel they're entitled to space while consuming a purchased beverage. Then, there are those who feel that purchasing an item entitles them to an unlimited amount of hang-out time. Amazingly, there are even consumers who feel they have the right to linger, even without purchasing something from the establishment.

"One girl argued that having the Starbucks' logo on her travel mug entitled her to stay as long as she wanted," Gilly said.

Everyone knows that loiterers are bad for the bottom line of a business, but this study also recognized aggressive social behaviors on the part of other customers, hoping to move squatters along. "In some instances, an intruder will do annoying things to make the already seated person run off -- like coughing and sneezing."

They've also discovered that the desire to occupy your own table appears to be a uniquely American problem. The pair of researchers told Devin Coldewey of that in more "collectivistic" places like China or India, "sharing public space is not an issue. It's more of a communal thing. People are less likely to feel threatened, or that their space is being invaded."