A Problem of Courtesy
Here is a problem I have not yet been able to solve. There are those who say it is trivial, not a problem at all, but this must be because I didn't explain it well enough. My students often complain that my explanations are not clear; I hope this time I can do better. The problem has to do with doors, maybe not only doors, since there are many courtesies people can exhibit besides opening doors for one; but somehow it turns up mostly with doors. If there were time I'd go into other manifestations of the same problem, but for now let me stick with doors:
People open doors for me. The problem is, should I just say thank-you and go on through the open door, or should I do something else?
Now before you say this is a trivial problem, please hear the circumstances. I am a man deep into his sixties, but in good physical condition. To me I look young, but probably not so young to other people, especially those I deal with at the U of R every day, where the people opening doors for me are usually students. Whatever I look like, though, I'm sure I don't look as if I cannot open a door for myself.
I open them all the time, actually; and if you were to ask a typical student who had just opened a door for me whether he (or she) thought I was not able to do it for myself you would probably get the answer that he thought I could, actually, but hell, it was just a courtesy. "What's the big deal? If he'd got there before me," he'd say, "He'd probably have opened it for me, wouldn't he? I mean, would he slam it in my face?" That's what the student would say, I think.
In other words it is not strictly because of my age that these doors are being opened for me. Or so they claim. It is true that I see them holding doors open for each other too, so that this courtesy is actually pretty common; but let me tell you this: They may hold doors open for each other, sure, but that is not the same thing as opening them for each other. My age, or dignity as a professor, elicits a behavior relative to door-holding that is different from what they do for a fellow-student.
To prove this, all you have to do is measure -- put a number on it. Samuel Johnson is said to have said, "Numbers render definite that which before floated in the mind uncertainly." When someone opens a door and is closely followed by another person, of whatever age or sex, he will generally hold the door a while until sure the second person is clear. That is, his only concern is not to surprise the second person into running into the edge of that door with his nose or something, or catching his fingers in the hinge.
Now a twenty foot interval between the door-opener and the second person is usually enough to induce the door-opener to ignore the second person -- if that second person is another student. (Try it; you'll see I'm right.) But with me? I can be halfway across the quadrangle, apparently headed for Lattimore Hall, and I will see an undergraduate holding open the door to Lattimore and looking in my direction expectantly, waiting for me to arrive and take advantage of his (or her) courtesy. That student could have got into the building and had the door closed behind him a good thirty seconds before I got there, assuming that's where I was going. If I had been another student I'll bet you that's what would have happened.
"So what?" you ask. "Why don't you just say thanks and go on through?"
I knew you'd say that. Actually, that's what I do, mostly, but it disturbs me, first, because "Thanks" is a species of lie, and second, because it solves nothing. It doesn't teach better behavior for the future.
Look. Sometimes I'm not going very fast, and I can see it's going to take me quite a while to get to the door. My benefactor is holding it open with his shoulder (half blocking the entry, of course) while holding a bag of books in his arms; and maybe it's winter and the wind is whipping around and he's wearing jeans and a thin denim jacket. I don't want him to be standing there without gloves holding a door for me any longer than he has to, so I speed up. I then come puffing through as if I had just climbed the Washington Monument, hardly able to say anything, let alone thanks. I'm not as young as I used to be, you know. A couple of times I have slipped on the ice, or tumbled on the stair up to the door; I could have broken a leg if I hadn't been so nimble. But I can't guarantee about the future; nobody's getting any younger. When I get through the door, which is a little hard to do without bumping the student or his book bag, I simply don't feel like saying thanks. It is not as if anyone had been doing me some kind of favor.
The worst is when I wasn't going to enter that door at all. Sometimes the student is so courteous that when he gets started with the door I am still far enough away to be on my way to somewhere else. I could -- it sometimes happens so -- I could be going only as far as the sidewalk in front of Lattimore, planning to turn left towards Strong Auditorium, and not go up the Lattimore stairs at all. In that case, what do I do? Do I turn left at the sidewalk and leave him (or her) holding the door for nobody? No; I'm supposed to take notice, and not insult him.
Perhaps I am expected to say, "Thanks, but I'm going to Strong Auditorium just now, because there's an exam in there and I must pick up the papers before the TAs go home. Maybe I'll be going to Lattimore next time, though. So thanks again."
I can't do that. For one thing, there I am a hundred feet away in a roaring February gale: the kid wouldn't even hear me. So while I have to run for it if I am going to the door he's holding, the times I am not -- as when I'm actually headed for Strong -- I often try to pretend I didn't even see him. That kid may have thought he was doing me a favor by holding the door open for me halfway across the quad, but he was wrong. Sure, he doesn't have to get punished for making a mistake, but there is no reason why I'm the one to be punished by having to run for it, or having to explain. Why me?
Furthermore, pretending not to have seen him usually doesn't work. Our eyes meet before I really get on to what he's doing and then it's too late; he's expecting me. What do I do then?
Sometimes I think the exercise itself is good for me, so why worry. Run across the quad a few times, tones you up. Well, yes, but it is the principle of the thing. Suppose I had a heart condition -- the student wouldn't know about that just by looking at me -- and then I had to run for it or else risk making the kid think me churlish and unappreciative. Then I might drop dead from a heart attack. So while the easy answer (run for it) would make a virtue out of necessity in my case (because I'm in very good condition), it wouldn't be an answer for everybody. And that's what I would like to have, an answer for everybody, not just me.
Ralph A. Raimi
25 October 1993