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This morning, a man held the office door open for me. It was a nice gesture, but I was about 20 feet behind him and had to break into a trot so he didn’t have to stand there waiting, with his breakfast granola bar balanced on top of his coffee cup. As I passed through, I almost apologized for being so far away. Then when I left for lunch, a woman walking in front of me let the door slam in my face.
Doors have been around for thousands of years, yet they still provide an astounding amount of social confusion. That’s because no one operates by the same set of rules. I asked a number of people for advice on how and when to hold a door open for someone, and not one answer I received matched another. Neil Bhatiya, who works as a policy associate at the Century Foundation, says if you’re within 10 feet of the person, it’s expected. Oscar Madrigal, a college student who’s also employed at a call center in Costa Rica, says the cut off is much shorter—six feet. Brian Clouser, at an investment firm in New York, says 15 to 20 feet. “In Britain, they’ll just keep holding it indefinitely,” says John Eggen, a fund manager in Oslo.
Eggen has a lot to say about door etiquette because he’s worked in three different countries: the U.S., the U.K., and Norway. According to him, Brits hold doors the longest—and in such a bumbling fashion that “you almost want to avoid a position in which you have to hold one because you’ll end up becoming a doorman.” The Americans are similar, but they limit their holds to a more manageable distance. “In Scandinavia, they don’t hold doors at all,” he says. “If you printed this story in Norway or Sweden, they wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about.”
“I don’t know why people think about this in terms of measurable distances. I wish I could tell you what 12 feet looks like, but I can’t,” says Jacqueline Whitmore, author of the business etiquette book Poised for Success. Whitmore offers a better way to think about the issue: Hold the door if the person behind you is within earshot. “If you can talk to them at a normal voice level—not a screaming distance—then that’s probably a person who would appreciate you holding the door open,” she says. Whitmore also stresses that because offices are supposed to be gender neutral, both women and men should adhere to the same rules when they’re at work. That makes sense. Manners experts are always so practical.
Regular people, however, are not. And judging from the nuanced (and mildly neurotic) responses I got, we’re really concerned about the office door. “The biggest problem for me is when I don’t realize there’s someone on the other side,” says Lindsay Hutton, who edits a parenting website and works in Boston. “The doors in my office don’t have windows, so you can’t see through them. I’ve definitely banged a few noses by accident.”
For Hutton, the door doesn’t present nearly as much social anxiety as the other distance-related etiquette question: when to say hello in the office hallway. She can never figure out if she’s supposed to greet co-workers as she passes them or avert her eyes as she would with strangers on the sidewalk. “It fascinates me the way everyone responds to the situation differently,” she says. “If someone’s coming from the complete opposite end of the hallway, you don’t want to shout to them, right? So you pretend not to notice until they’re right in front of you and then you give a startled look like, ‘Oh, hello, I didn’t notice you coming down the hallway for the last 50 feet!’ But everyone knows what you’re doing. It’s completely fake.” When possible, she tries to carry a piece of paper with her when she walks down the hallway, so she can pretend to read.
Hutton especially hates it when she makes the obligatory hallway greeting and receives no acknowledgment in return. She calls these people “snoots” and thinks they’re being arrogant. To me, they just seem insecure. They’re often the same people who avoid holding doors; both actions require them to make eye contact.
Whether it’s down a long hallway or approaching a door, Whitmore says that if you encounter an introverted, eye-averting co-worker, you should “take control, be the bigger person, and don’t rely on the other person for clues on what to do.” Or you can take my advice instead: Run in front of them, get to the door first, and then stare intently as they pass.