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September 6, 2013

Summer Musings: Don't hold the door for me

Seemingly simple acts of courtesy become infinitely more complex when we examine their intent and effect.

Oh. OK, I’ll take the ramp instead of the stairs. To create some distance. Same destination, different route. Wait, never mind, that didn’t really work. At least I’m coming from the side so maybe you won’t see me—WHY DID YOU HAVE TO LOOK UP!? WHY!? Look what you’ve done. There’s no turning back now; let’s just get on with it.

You hold the door open for me. I smile and thank you.

I understand that holding the door open is not simply about saving someone the effort of lifting their arm. It’s a way we acknowledge those around us. We don’t like going about our lives as if we are invisible, feeling as if our passing through has absolutely no effect. Holding the door is one of an array of casual gestures which assures others that they are not invisible, that their presence carries some significance.

Sometimes, though, the best courtesy to me is to be ignored.

But how could you—as you approach the door just a few seconds before I do—know that? It’s an inherent and unsolvable mystery of social interaction: that we never know exactly what the other person wants and can only made an educated guess based on generalizations.

And sometimes our guesses fall short. I wait for a worker at Bartlett to come over and dish out the Halal station’s saucy meat of the day. Upon her arrival, I grab a dish from the stack and helpfully, I think, extend it towards her. It is completely disregarded as she brusquely grabs another plate from the stack. As she scoops up the chicken what’s-it-called, I quickly and hopefully discretely slip my plate back on top of the stack. And, just as how I sometimes find myself wishing that no one held the door open for me, I sometimes wish that there were more self-serve stations at Bartlett.

There is always the unsolvable question of what you would prefer, the question that we live with and endure in all of our interactions.

Occasionally, as I approach a door, I hear the dull thuds of footsteps behind me, and the familiar conflict arises: Do I hold the door open for you, or not? I try to gauge your distance by the sound of your footsteps, and I try to listen. There seems to be a timing to this business: The action must appear casual. There’s a line somewhere in your vicinity which separates the distances where holding the door open is helpful and where it is awkward.

Even the simplest of social interactions eventually becomes colored by an element of performance. Like the ever-attentive waiter who constantly fills your water glasses and asks about the quality of your experience. What at one point may have been a meaningful display of host graciousness now feels like a pale imitation, focused more on performance rather than expression of true care. It’s a performance some can appreciate but I, for some reason, cannot. The tip waiting at the end of these interactions does no favors for my suspension of disbelief.

There are tables with bells in Korea. Have you heard? If you need your waiter or waitress, you ring the bell. Otherwise you’re left alone. Incidentally, waiters and waitresses aren’t tipped in Korea. Doesn’t that sound beautiful?

The debate rages on in my head as your footsteps approach. Do unto others as you would like done unto you. If our spots were switched, I wouldn’t want you to hold the door open for me. But then again, I am probably afflicted with a wide streak of socially-awkward, and you are probably not.

Almost every time I hold open the door, and you hasten your steps. I feel bad because any help I conferred is probably negated by the obligation you feel to hurry up, and I feel bad because that means I got the timing wrong, and my performance was flawed.

As you approach I wonder: Did I decide to hold the door because I cared for you, or was it my way of signaling that I am a courteous person via social convention?

You slip around my outstretched arm and I release the door, still wondering if my holding it for you was really the best courtesy after all.

But I know that the next time I hear your footsteps behind me as I pull open the door I will hold it open for you again.

Eleanor Hyun is a second-year in the College majoring in English. Summer Musings is a Viewpoints blog that publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays through September 27.

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