Mark Sherman: Door dilemmas

Mark-Sherman SQUARE“Be an opener of doors”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882)


We hear all the time about how civility is going down the tubes, but I wonder. Of course, if someone were to stop me in the street or call me because they were doing a survey on the topic, I’d tell them where they could put their survey, but still I wonder. While in so many ways, people don’t seem to care about each other, there does seem to be at least one place where civility still exists: public doorways.

However, because most of us want to do the right thing in terms of holding doors open for people, or opening doors for them, we are sometimes faced with dilemmas.


I’m sure that others have written about this, and perhaps there is even a book on it, but here’s the problem: What are the rules for door-opening and holding?

Of course, in this modern world of ours many doors are automatic sliding doors, so there is no issue. Or there are revolving doors, which can be a claustrophobe’s nightmare. But most doors are the old traditional type, and here is where we need guidelines.

Some situations are very simple. Someone is about ten feet behind you, so of course, you hold the door open for them. Even 15 feet is fine for doing so. But there is a limit. If the person is 100 feet away, you’re certainly not going to do it. Even 60 feet is kind of iffy. But where do you draw the line? The problem is that if you are the person for whom the door is being held — let’s call you the “holdee” — and you are at a considerable distance, you feel like you have to run to the door so as not to inconvenience the holder. And, of course, as the holder, you don’t want to rush the other person, especially if he or she is old or somewhat incapacitated.

There is nothing sadder in the annals of civility than to see an elderly person rushing as fast as he can to get to a door being held open by a well-meaning younger person. It’s especially difficult for the door-holder when the elderly person collapses in his efforts to run to the door. This is clearly civility run amok.

Then there is the issue of two people arriving at a closed door at the same time. Someone has to open the door, so who will it be? Back in what my children call olden days, i.e., the ’50s into the early ’60s, it was easy, at least when it was a man and a woman. The man opened the door for the woman, plain and simple. I remember on dates, the young woman waiting on the passenger side of the car until I rushed over and opened the door for her. Back then, the guy who said, “Hey, you can open your own door!” was seen as brutish. But the prescient woman would see him as pro-feminist, not to mention being a bad boy, and therefore found him incredibly sexy.

But feminists soon pointed out that all this door opening by men was disempowering. A woman could open her own doors, and if you, as a man, opened the door for her, especially if it took any special effort to do so, you were sexist. As a man, there are three ways to handle this: (1) Don’t open the door for anyone, but let them open the door for you, (2) just stand there for several minutes until one of you makes a move to open it, or (3) open it for anyone and everyone.

Keep in mind, though, that if you are a man taking this last approach, and the person approaching the door is a woman, you run the risk of her thinking you are treating her as helpless and dependent. So my policy is to open the door for other men, but to let women open the door for me. How this might be empowering for a woman I don’t know; but, hey, in spite of studying gender issues for close to 40 years, and being married to a woman for more than 44, male-female relations remains a mystery to me.

Finally, there is the biggest issue of all around door opening and holding: the “thank you.” A classic moment of instant resentment is when you hold a door open for someone, and they walk right through and don’t say a word. Who raised this person? Aren’t “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome” three of the words and phrases we teach our children even before they have any idea what they mean?

When someone does this, many people say a sarcastic “You’re welcome,” but the person who doesn’t say “thank you” is not the kind of person likely to notice such little digs.

I tend to say rather flowery “thank you’s,” and I love it when other people do too. But I guess you could go overboard on this. Still, that’s better than not saying it all. Do you think it would be so bad if, when someone has held the door open for you, you were to say, “Thank you so very much! You’ve absolutely made my day! God bless you!”?