During my time teaching at Dixie State University, something odd occurred to me. Walking from the classroom where I taught to my office on the balcony of the Student Service Center (an office my students could never seem to find on the first try), I would pass through five doors, not counting my office door. It was a busy section of DSU campus, and inevitably I would arrive at each doorway a couple of seconds before or after someone else. When I arrived first, I would hold the door open for the person walking behind me.
After a casual analysis of this behavior, I decided that it made no sense. And yet, I wasn’t alone in my irrational door holding. When I arrived at the doorway a couple of seconds after someone else, they would go out of their way to hold the door open for me — most of the time. I was an able-bodied 30 year old to whom doors posed no opposition, but still — more often than not — they’d hold the door for me. Perhaps most irrational of all is the fact that I loved it. I loved those tiny moments of contact with another person, the tiny gesture, inconsequential as it may have been, of helping.
Wrapped in steel and fiberglass, we curse at each other, almost casually, in our cars. The smallest infraction is often met with near road-rage hostility. “You changed lanes without using your blinker! Burn in hell!” (honks horn and gives sweet old lady the finger). What is it about that separation of space that separates us from our basic humanity? Is it similar to the separation from personal responsibility and values that comes with mob mentality? As part of the moving horde that is traffic, do we lose ourselves in the noise of the mob?
When we’re walking foot in front of foot on the street, there is no such separation. We’re breathing the same air as the people who pass us. We are united without losing our individuality, our personal morals and sense of social responsibility. What is the difference between mob mentality and a sense of human unity? Perhaps in the mob we are so focused on losing ourselves in the noise of the group that we forget to see ourselves or others as individuals. We diffuse our individual responsibility, and we dehumanize those around us.
Of course, I could be wrong. Holding doors open could have nothing to do with gestures of helpfulness or connectivity between people. Art Markman, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, discussed the issue in his article “Why do you hold the door open for others?”
“Another possibility is that there is a social component. Perhaps men are socialized to hold the door for women or young people hold doors for older people. Maybe that social component isn’t so altruistic. Maybe men hold doors open for women hoping to seem more attractive to them.”
Markman went on to discuss a paper from a 2011 issue of Psychological Science written by Joseph Santamaria and David Rosenbaum.
“[We] also hold the door open for people behind us to minimize the collective effort spent … you hold the door for people behind you, because it makes it easier for them. They do not have to take the effort to open the door. If everyone held the door if there was someone close behind them, then over time, you would have the door held open for you about as often as you held the door for others, and overall everyone would spend less effort opening doors.”
This is a fun theory, this idea of some form of collective communal evolution toward conserving energy, but I’ve seen door holding cost more energy than it saves too often to believe it. It’s what Galanty Miller called “Premature e-hold-ulation” in his article, “Here’s The New ‘Holding The Door Open For People’ Rule.”
You open the door aware that someone is behind you but without looking over your shoulder to verify their distance. As you open it wide and step to the side to make room for the next person, you realize they’re farther back than you’d assumed, they’re twenty feet back, in Zimbabwe, floating through the international space station, and you’re stuck there committed to your act of altruism, awkwardly holding the door like a butler waiting for a celebrity.
I’ve seen the argument that door holding is just an outdated idea of overt patriarchy: the idea that women should only be allowed to do so much, that they’re too weak to do things for themselves. Tracing this tradition back to past (and honestly our current) patriarchy is probably a true connection. Still, rather than abolishing the tradition why not let it evolve with us? In her article, “On Chivalry, Opening Doors, and Basic Humanity,” Libby Anne says,
“Can’t we all just be people? Is that really so very difficult? … Today I hold the door for people all the time. If I’m there, and it’s not going out of my way, why in the world wouldn’t I? I hold the door for women, and I hold the door for men — honestly, gender doesn’t even cross my mind when I do it.”
My wife is tiny. She’s a kick-ass-powerhouse packed into a 5′ 4” frame with bad wrists. Still, she holds the door open for men and women, young and old. She says that she does it because it’s what she likes people to do for her. You know, that whole golden rule thing.
In high school, when I had long hair and wore oversized denims three-quarters of the way down my ass, I would hold the door open for every adult I could, just to see the surprised look on their faces from a young skate-punk being kind (except for my mother who I’d open the door for only to rush through before her because I thought it was hi-larious!) .
I would like to think that these nearly intimate interactions (doorways are only so wide, after all), bring out the best of us, that being in such close proximity to someone else reminds us that we are not alone without somehow losing ourselves. Let’s keep surprising each other and ourselves. Let’s find our common ground in the space of a door-swing. Let’s embrace even the little chances to connect to each other and our own humanity through simple, illogical acts of kindness, inconsequential or not.