Greg Dillon M.D.


The Door-Hold Experiment: Communication in the Digital Age

Non-verbal anticipation, communication, and navigation

Posted Jan 17, 2014

Is the formerly esteemed convention of the door-hold too bourgeois a topic for the pages of Surf-Head I think not…

 Metaphor and Speed Trap for Communication

Swinging Doors as Metaphor

Exiting NY Hospital after Psychiatry Ground Rounds always presents as mildly traumatic for me. At the exit to York Avenue, a double pair of weighted, spring-loaded, glass doors mitigates the in and egress. Back in the day, late 70’s or early 80’s, I recall the standard of practice was to hold such a viciously recoiling door-cum-death-trap for the person behind you, maybe with the addition of a smile or at least communal recognition. A cultural if not instinctual no-brainer. Now, it’s not so clear. 

When assessing all comers, there seems to be an even split between 1) anachronists (those who follow the old convention), 2) reactivists (those who, perhaps, actively eschew the convention), 3) negligents (those who consciously or unconsciously avoid, or are simply non-plussed by the convention), and 4) ambivalents (those who express an erratic array of reactions to the door-hold dilemma).

My sense of, albeit mild, anxiety in this situation, and a valid reason for exploring an otherwise banal gesture is not a curmudgeonly spouted paean for  the loss of politesse and human decency (though a fair argument), rather a heads up for the dissolution of  communication. Each hypothesized sub-group above has a justifiable if not wholly valid reason for its action in response to the management of a swinging door in a crowd. Anachronists may value chivalry or simply be grounded in nostalgia. Reactivists may be reacting against chivalry, sexism, over-hyped, bourgeois propriety, their parents, etc. Negligents may be working on an alternate track of values, be void of values, or simply distracted, while ambivalents have not settled on a consistent, predictable course of navigation.

The problem is that, without a shared system of values, or at least a running, mindfully aware, empathetic understanding of Venn circles of values, there is either no, or more likely, mis-communication. Anachronists read Reactivists as petulant and adolescent or Negligents as lazy or self-involved, and everyone reads Ambivalents as dithering, weak characters. The beauty of the door-hold experiment is that the miscommunication results in punctuated, physical slapstick (glass door in face), not just amorphous, bruised feelings.

Beyond this facile, metaphor/experiment, this dilemma strikes everywhere. The highway on-ramp, the take-off at a crowded point-break, even searching for a point of insertion or assertion in a meeting or a call. “You were telling me abou…””Yeah I was starting to sa….””Yeah you were sta..””What? …wait…”

In all, my gripe is not in favor of any one management strategy. They all have their reasons, rationalizations, validations, and places. Likely that the recurrent themes of democratization, devaluation, dilution, and dissolution of  values and language (verbal and non) in the Digital Age have contributed to the chaos. Rather, it’s important to give the time, space, and cues to let your communication strategy be known, lest you give the impression of ignoring, rejecting, or trampling another’s line of communication. I stick with holding doors an smiling for men, women, children, sick, and able. Again, not because I particularly invest in chivalry, but because in terms of feed-back data, I find that my intentions and tolerance for others intentions are best communicate in this consistent, pleasant approach. Though transcendent smugness may be icing on the cake. GD

About the Author

Greg Dillon, M.D., is a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City and an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Public Health at the Weill Cornell Medical College.

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