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Courtesy Can Be Counterproductive

• February 24, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: beebrain/Shutterstock)

A new study finds holding the door open for a man may dampen his self-esteem.

Guys: As you walked into the office this morning, did you hold the door open for a colleague? Was this co-worker a man?

If so, thanks a lot. You may have done him more harm than good.

That’s the surprising conclusion of recently published research, which suggests holding a door open while you let another man enter first can lower his self-esteem and self-confidence.

Real men, it seems, navigate doorways unassisted.

“Behaviors as fleeting and seemingly innocuous as door holding can have unforeseen negative consequences.”

There is a down side to “seemingly innocuous but unexpected helping behavior that violates gender norms,” Purdue University psychologists Megan McCarty and Janice Kelly write in the journal Social Influence. Their results suggest even a simple act of kindness can convey a negative message—He thinks I’m weak!—which can lead to increased self-doubt.

McCarty and Kelly describe an experiment featuring 196 people who walked into a building on a university campus. The entrance had two doors directly next to one another, each of which opened outward.

Each subject was approached by a male member of the research team as they walked toward the building. For half, the research associate “took a step in front of the participant, opened the door, and let the participant walk through the door first.” For the other half, he reached for the adjacent door, so that the two opened their doors more or less simultaneously.

Once inside, a female research associate approached each subject and asked him or her to complete a short survey. On a one-to-10 scale, they indicated their agreement with three statements measuring self-esteem (including “I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal plane with others”), and three measuring self-efficacy (including “I can usually achieve what I want if I work hard for it”).

The results: Male, but not female, participants reported lower levels of self-esteem and self-confidence if the door had just been held open for them.

The researchers note that the specific action they used in their experiment—opening the door for another person, and letting them enter first—is “associated with chivalry” and “traditional Western dating scripts.” It’s therefore possible that the men treated to this courtesy felt somehow feminized and less powerful.

Alternatively, the action may have sent the unintended message that the person “is inferior or too dependent,” they note. This, too, could negatively impact a man’s sense of self-worth.

Who says men have fragile egos?

Either way, the researchers write, the results suggest “behaviors as fleeting and seemingly innocuous as door holding can have unforeseen negative consequences.”

Then again, if the guy in question is competing with you for a promotion, you might want to hold the door open for him at every possible opportunity.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

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