Maintaining Social Equilibrium: The Rationale Behind Holding Doors Open

by Margaret Antonio

A Dutch proverb states, “When a door closes, a window opens” (Wang). But what if the door stays open?  Some doors never do seem to close. For instance, a walk through the Boston College campus, just as classes are let out, testifies to this open door phenomenon. As a student approaches each door from the classroom, to the stairs, out of the academic hall, to the cafeteria, and beyond, someone is sure to be in front of him or her, holding open the door with an outstretched arm so the student may walk through. Although the door is naturally inclined to close on its own, sometimes it will stay open for up to five minutes due to the incessant act of “holding the door open” for the next person.

Why do people consistently (for the most part) engage in the act of holding doors open for strangers? Psychologists, sociologists, and behavioral analysts have numerous hypotheses and theories in answer to this question. However, the underlying rationale to holding open a door is to maintain a pre-existing social balance that exists based on consistency in movement, stability of emotion, and constancy of perception.

When students walk into a college cafeteria, they have an expectation of what they will see. Other students will be sitting at the tables, eating together or alone; these students will either be studying or talking. Others will be walking from the food stations to the cash register, holding their food in one hand and their ID cards in the other. Others will be walking to the waterspout to fill their water bottles or outside to go to another destination. The entire scene is predictable. In this scenario, there exists a social equilibrium, a balance of movement, emotion, and perception. However, when someone suddenly stands on his chair and aggressively shouts at a friend beside him, there is an abrupt change in the social equilibrium. In that moment, individuals within the atmosphere experience hesitation: they do not know where to go, they do not know what to feel, and they do not know what to think. A student standing on a chair aggressively shouting is not part of the script of the cafeteria scene. The equilibrium, which is “the tendency of the social system, when disturbed, to return to its original state” (“Social Equilibrium,” Encyclopaedia Britannica) is upset. Other unscripted actions, such as an abruptly closed door, have the power to upset this balance. Holding open doors is one way in which individuals strive to restore the social atmosphere to its proper balance.

The first noticeable problem a closed door poses is the restriction of movement. Within the social equilibrium of any given place, there is a certain continuity of movement. Whether it is the slow movement between cubicles in an accounting firm for ten hours of the day or the fast paced movement of students getting out of classes on a college campus for a five-minute period, the physical movement of the social environment is steady and continual. By following norms, individuals contribute to the maintenance of this continuity.  Professor Eric Posner, author of Laws and Norms, defines norms as “guidelines for efficiency in society” (Posner qtd. by Mitchell). Holding open a door is a norm of the social equilibrium because the social equilibrium denotes what is naturally best and most efficient for the community as a whole.  According to psychologists Joseph P. Santamaria and David A. Rosenbaum, such physically expressed etiquette can be “a means of reducing physical effort for the group” (Santamaria). Efficiency in movement requires continual, unheeded movement, which in turn requires an absence of barriers, which furthermore obliges individuals to hold open the door for others. Thus, when one holds open a door for another, he or she sustains the social equilibrium aimed at efficiency by maintaining the momentum of physical movement.

Closed doors not only cause an imbalance in physical movement, but also an imbalance in emotion. Through their joint research on the influence of emotion in physical activity, Anna-Britt Coe and Annette Schnabel, professors of Gender Studies and Sociology, respectively, at the University of Sweden, found that “according to feeling rules, people feel forced to actively perform ‘emotion work’ in order to evoke, shape, or suppress emotions accordingly.” By holding open a door for another or not, an individual has the power to “evoke, shape, or suppress” emotions that may arise. For example, when Jonathan White, a student at Boston College, was asked why he would hold open a door for someone behind him, he said, “Well, just imagine if you were walking behind someone, and as that person goes through a doorway, he just lets the door slam behind him, right in front of you. What would you think? ‘What a rude person!’” (White). White suggests that by not holding a door open, an individual can evoke negative feelings within the person following him. Such negative feelings upset the emotional aspect of the social equilibrium.

Returning to the cafeteria scenario (in which the student stood on his chair and started to shout aggressively): by violating the social norm of behavior, that student provoked mixed (most likely, negative) feelings in those around him. Holding open a door is often considered a measure of civility (Moser). Since society aims towards civility, and the social equilibrium is directed towards the good of society, one may conclude that holding open a door is a norm designed to maintain the social equilibrium, and therefore when the norm is contradicted, the social equilibrium is offset, namely by the imbalance of emotion that ensues.

While a closed door upsets the flow of physical movement and the stability of emotion in a social setting, it can also distort the normalcy of perception. The social equilibrium dictates that, to the best of his ability, an individual strives to think the best of another. When someone contradicts the cafeteria behavior norm by standing on his chair and shouting, a judgmental thought crosses everyone’s mind, but within that there is a glimmer of hope that there is a rational explanation for such abnormal behavior. In the classic novel, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s female protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet, tells her sister “I only want to think you perfect, and you set yourself against it” (Austen 175). People want to think well of others, but when the object of their judgment contradicts a social norm, the natural inclination of their perception is diverted to a contrary judgment. In the same way, an individual has the power of improving the way others perceive him by following the norm of holding open the door. Following such a norm inherent to a particular social setting symbolizes his inclusion in the community and his gratitude towards being a member of that community (Mitchell). Consequently, “people feel psychologically compelled to obey norms” (Fritsche), such as holding open doors, in an effort to maintain the social equilibrium of perception of themselves.

Despite the compelling evidence that maintaining social equilibrium is the motive behind holding a door open for someone else, one could argue that there is no rationale behind such norms, and that they are instead merely manifestations of habit. In a seminal article on “habit” published in 1903 in The American Journal of Psychology, B. R. Andrews argued, “the uneasiness felt when a repetitive action is interrupted is a clear indicator that an action is a habit” (Andrews). If one considers holding doors open as a habit, then the uneasiness felt by the imbalance of the so-called “social equilibrium” can easily be explained by the  “feeling of unpleasantness” which follows due to an interruption. However, consciousness is not a prerequisite for adherence to social norms (Bicchieri and Muldoon) and therefore, is not a necessity for contribution to the social equilibrium. Although an individual may think of holding a door open as a habit, he nevertheless commits the habit in an effort to habitually maintain the balance of the social atmosphere.

The existence of the social equilibrium is underhandedly woven into every occurrence within a social setting. It is the script, the guideline, and the map that members of a society follow by fulfilling its norms. When the social equilibrium is maintained through adherence to norms, everything is predictable, movement is undeterred, emotion is unperturbed and perception is constant. In other words, the door stays open. However, when a member of the community dares to violate a norm, he or she closes the door and offsets the balance of movement, emotion, and perception. Therefore, through the physical act of holding open a door; an individual plays a pivotal role in maintaining the social equilibrium that governs movement, emotion, and perception.

Works Cited

Andrews, B. R. “Habit.” The American Journal of Psychology 14.2 (Spring 1903): 121-49. JSTOR. University of Illinois Press.

Anna-britt Coe, and Annette Schnabel. “Emotions Matter After all: How Reproductive Rights Advocates Orchestrate Emotions to Influence Policies in Peru.” Sociological Perspectives 54.4 (2011): 665-88. ProQuest Political Science; ProQuest Sociology.

Austen, Jane. “Volume II Chapter I.” Pride and Prejudice. London: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

Bicchieri, Cristina and Muldoon, Ryan, “Social Norms”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).

Fritsche, Immo. “Account Strategies for the Violation of Social Norms: Integration and Extension of Sociological and Social Psychological Typologies.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 32.4 (2002): 371-94. PsycINFO.

Mitchell, Lawrence E. “Understanding Norms.” The University of Toronto Law Journal Vol. 49.No. 2 (Spring 1999): 177+. JSTOR. University of Toronto Press.

Moser, Gabriel, and Denis Corroyer. “Politeness in the Urban Environment.” Politeness in the Urban Environment. Sage Publications, 1 Sept. 2001.

Santamaria, Joseph P., and David A. Rosenbaum. “Etiquette and Effort: Holding Doors for Others.” Sage Publications. Association for Psychological Science, 22 Apr. 2011.

“Social equilibrium.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012.

Wang, David J. “When a Door Closes, a Window Opens.” Web log post. David’s Predilect Sayings. N.p., 12 June 2009.

White, Jonathan. Personal interview. 2 Nov. 2012.