Small Courtesies Point To Meaningful Civility When We 'Hold The Door'

Dec 3, 2018

Early in the morning or late at night, even in the most crowded times between classes, it is nearly impossible to approach an entranceway without someone holding the door open to let a nearby someone in.

And not just for me. Women hold for men about as often as men hold for women. Friends hold for strangers.

I’ve even witnessed a blind student holding the door for a sighted classmate.

From college president to groundskeeper, the entire community seems to have adopted this unstated "open door" policy. 

I once conducted a small unscientific experiment in which I exited my class building, took a few short steps,  then pivoted to reverse course. Each time, the person in front of me reached out to hold the door so I might first exit, and then immediately re-enter.

A source close to the internet tells me that holding the door, like pulling out a chair — or for that matter, dismounting from a stage coach — had its origins in the frilly hoop dresses and stiff undergarments women endured in the courtly salons of Europe.

Men had to hold the door for women because if they didn’t, the women simply couldn’t cross the threshold.

But today, on my humble campus with nary a farthingale, pannier, crinoline or bustle in sight, and where women pride themselves on breaking through every glass ceiling, the doors continue to swing wide for everyone.

Door-opening protocol is not in the student guide book, and it doesn’t come up in orientation. I’m sure that upperclassmen don’t hand it down to freshmen like a secret handshake.

And I have my doubts whether this almost quaint custom survives graduation day.

Yet somehow, while the students are here, the message comes through loud and clear. Hold the door.

Door opening on one small campus is not exactly going to win anyone a Nobel Peace Prize, or get the troops out of Afghanistan. But it's comforting to know that courtesy exists somewhere, even when civility around us seems to be in shorter and shorter supply.  

And if I may make a modest proposal: for a calendar already crammed with national popcorn day, national vodka day and national squirrel day, perhaps we might do with a national hold-the-door-open day.

It might make us just a little kinder, a little gentler and a little less self-absorbed to let someone else go first.

Commentator Robert Chipkin has taught journalism and literature for about four decades at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts.