Earlier this week, Pacific Standard reported on a study published in the journal Social Influence that found that holding doors for men can make them unhappy (the men, not the doors). In two preliminary experiments, psychologists from Purdue University established that men were less likely both to expect and to be on the receiving end of a certain type of door-holding—the “chivalrous” kind, where the knight steps in front of the damsel, flings open the door, and allows her to enter first. (Generic door-holding, in which the holder goes inside first but doesn’t let the door slam behind him or her, scans to most people as gender-neutral.) In their main experiment, the researchers asked male confederates to ambush 196 unwitting men and women as they walked into a building on a college campus. The building’s entrance consisted of two adjacent doors. In one condition (call it the Lancelot condition), a confederate held the door, chivalrously, for the entering test subject. In the second condition (the Emersonian condition), the confederate chose the other door, forcing the subject to manage his or her own entrance.
Just inside waited a female researcher. She approached each participant with a survey measuring self-esteem and self-efficacy. While women subjects filled out the questionnaire the same, regardless of how they got into the building, men in the Lancelot condition reported dimmer confidence and frailer self-esteem than men who got to wrangle their own doors.
These results underscore some tired but important points: that men aren’t allowed to be vulnerable or to require aid, that we intertwine ideas about femininity with ideas about passivity, that micro-cues matter. But they also highlight the phenomenon of “unexpected help,” a departure from social norms that can leave people grateful, delighted, confused, resentful, and ashamed.
“It is normative for men to hold doors open for women,” the researchers write, but not for men to receive the same kindness. So while the women in the study didn’t feel patronized or even think twice about the courteous gesture—to them it seemed mundane and appropriate—the men were thrown off.
I’m guessing that for some of those guys, the unscripted door-holding demanded an extra layer of justification; it felt pointed and personal. The men may have feared they looked atypically weak or dependent, like they needed someone to prop a door open for them. And this gets at a larger and perhaps obvious fact: When you’re treated in a way that defies convention, it’s hard not to take it personally, to wonder what you did to suspend the rules. It doesn’t matter that, often, you haven’t done anything: You’ve simply run up against another person (like a researcher) pursuing an eccentric line of conduct for his or her own mysterious reasons. People go through life surprising one another. Sometimes they bend a code because the sight of your withered bicep moves them to grab the door—and sometimes they’re just naturally solicitous. Human interaction is an enduring puzzle that can’t be solved, but we’ll all keep on trying to figure out whether someone is behaving a certain way because of norms, because of us, or because of them. (It doesn’t help that all of these can overlap.)
The Purdue study made me go back and reread Maureen O’Connor’s essay from last week on “like addiction,” in which she explores why “our online persona may be needier than our real one.” Maybe it’s because online, the rules don’t feel clearly defined. Men IRL may be confused and upset when door-holding codes are broken, because they don’t know how to interpret the new behavior. And that uncertainty resembles the confusion we all feel on the Web, where there are no codes to begin with. No one really knows, for instance, what strategies work best for attracting OkCupid messages: Do you winkingly curate your “brand” or act clueless or flaunt your tattoos or cover up or respond to everyone or respond to no one? Unclear! How are you supposed to grieve on Twitter? Are selfies obnoxious or awesome? We have no clue! And when the rules are written in smoke, not stone, everything feels intrinsically motivated and personal. A “like” seems like it could be more than a common courtesy, even if it’s not. A RT might feel like a spiritual endorsement, or at least the beginning of a real-world friendship, but remember, RTs are not endorsements (and favorites might actually be the opposite).
Internet users interact in a space where the absence of nonverbal cues makes the usual problem of untangling motivations (Is it me? Him/her?) even harder than it usually is. At the same time, the usual social niceties don’t apply, or apply imperfectly. (Twitter-speak contains twice as many swear words as IRL talk, one study found. Also there are no doors to hold or not hold, even when you can suss out a user’s gender from the profile pic.) We lack the centuries of ingrained etiquette to numb and protect our Web selves—we are all a little bit raw online. We are all a little bit like the guys in the Lancelot condition at Purdue, self-consciously wondering why the people around us are doing what they’re doing.
It’s no accident that some of the savviest social network players can expertly exploit this ambiguity. The Instagram god in O’Connor’s piece—who “created a bot that would crawl his feed and automatically like every single picture that every single person he followed posted”—falsely convinced people that his dealings with them were about them, not about cultivating his “Insta-magnificence.” In an interview with Logan Hill, a few of New York’s most desirable online daters described how they boosted their ratings: by giving everyone five stars on OkCupid and only swiping right on Tinder. So maybe the lesson here, as with the door-holding study, is to beware of taking things personally, even if you can’t quite account for someone’s behavior by referring to explicit conventions. Or maybe it’s to revel in the freedom to do and say what you want, to be mysterious, at least until Google develops a mind-reading app. Or maybe it’s that the male ego is a delicate flower. Or maybe, when someone opens a door for you, say thanks and go inside.