Vassar’s biggest ethical, mathematical question: When should you hold the door?

Ben Fikhman/The Miscellany News.

You are approaching the Deece doors when you take a quick glance behind you. Using just your peripheral vision, you can see that somebody is doing something in between a normal walk and an aggressive speed walk. Typical college student. You note that the distance between you and that person is relatively far, yet you concede to the spirit of kindness and hold the door open, only to then be ashamed of how long you have to wait for that person, and you wonder if that person now thinks of you as a weirdo rather than appreciating your kindness. 

One day later, you end up in a similar predicament. You rely on your periphery again to tell you how far away the person is before you make a decision, as well as how fast they are walking. They are closer to you and the door than the student from yesterday, but you don’t think it’s sufficient. Remembering your fatal mistake from yesterday, you decide to go straight in, and hope that the door closes before the other person behind you reaches it. You fail. As you applaud yourself for making what you thought was a strategic decision, the other person has to grapple with the bothersome inconvenience of having to pull the Deece door against the force of physics that is making it thud to a close. The person is offended. 

Holding the door for another person has always been a scene of emotional interaction and significance. At Vassar College, we interact with people on a daily basis, so these scenes happen consistently, and they can often go not as planned. An anonymous Instagram user on @vassar.confessions complained, “People open the door for me and I’m 100ft away or at the bottom of the stairs so I end up having to run basically because I’d feel bad about making them wait for me.” I second that frustration. 

No matter which side of the scenario you are on, a simple miscalculation can mean an uncomfortable interaction that will stay with you for the rest of the day. We need a solution so that these awkward encounters become a distant reality, and so that we can harmoniously go about holding (or not holding) doors for others. But that requires physical and societal standards, and I am writing to establish those very standards for Vassar College, a place where almost, if not every, person has an opportunity to open the door for somebody else throughout each day. 

Let us assume that, regarding door-holding, exclusive social norms have been expunged and accessibility issues resolved. There still remain four dominant factors in the decision of whether the door should be held open for the approaching person or not: distance, time it takes for the door to close, walking speed and understanding of courtesy. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian tries to employ two strategic approaches in solving the issue of holding doors. One is to hear people’s footsteps to approximate distance and the other is to draw conclusions from the door’s reflections. There are many problems with those approaches. Number one, students often wear headphones; therefore, we can’t apply the footstep approach. Number two, not all doors are reflective. The Deece doors and main entrance doors of Main Building make the reflections approach impossible. Both approaches also don’t take into account walking speed, and while the Massachusetts Daily Collegian acknowledges these flaws, they don’t offer an alternative. But I will. 

While distance, time it takes for the door to close and walking speed are empirical measures, the question of courtesy is quite subjective, but I have a perspective that can lock down a door-holding definition of it that I hope people here at Vassar can rally behind. It is important to definitively reach a conclusion to the question of courtesy, and I believe it must be the following: To be courteous you should always hold the door, unless foregoing that option would lead to the door closing fully preceding the arrival of the next person. That means trying not to pull a Larry David in Season 9, Episode 1 of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and having the door inconveniently being on its way to closure even when the following person gets there. It led to a prolonged verbal confrontation in the show. It is easier to open a fully closed door than it is to counteract the movement of a closing door. To not hold the door such that the following person must pull it open as it is still closing would be a violation of courtesy. It’s not worthy of the same kind of confrontation as we see in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but it’s still disrespectful. Holding the door open even if it would otherwise shut before the person got there wouldn’t necessarily be a violation of courtesy, but it would look rather odd and will lead to judgement. If you are far ahead of somebody, don’t wait for a whole 20 seconds as the person who you are trying to please feels pressured to walk faster to avoid inconveniencing you, the person spending eons holding the door. It’s a two-sided nightmare of confusion and potential animosity. Again, hold the door as long as foregoing it would mean the door not fully closing prior to the arrival of the next person, and don’t hold the door if it will fully close before the next person reaches to open it.

Now that we have sealed into society what is and isn’t courteous in the realm of holding or not holding doors for others, it is now appropriate to transition to analyzing empirical metrics: time it takes to close the door, average walking speed and the determinant factor, distance. To estimate door-closing time, I opened 36 different doors at Vassar, some of which I use throughout the day, to their fullest extents to then use my stopwatch to measure how long they took to close. The average time that I gathered was 6.629 seconds, and the good thing is that the greatest anomaly was off by only 1.2 seconds, which I feel is not wildly off considering the amount of time measurements taken. Next, I did research on what the average walking speed of people generally is. For 20-29 year olds, the age section most inclusive of Vassar students, the average walking speed is 3.00 to 3.04 miles per hour (mph), so let’s assume that the speed for this topic is the larger extreme, 3.04 mph, since I’ve seen many brisk walkers on campus which should definitely skew the speed measurement. Finally, with the use of a simple physics equation, distance equals velocity multiplied by time, we can figure out the ideal distance as the threshold metric for when the door should be held or not. The distance comes out to be approximately 20 feet; therefore, ideally, if a person is at most 20 feet away from you, hold the door for them.

Note that I used the word “ideally” when I offered the resulting distance measurement. I said “ideally” because anomalies when it comes to people speed walking rather than walking normally could very well corrupt the concept of a universal 20-foot social standard at Vassar, as well as factors having to do with accessibility, door-closing time anomalies or something else. The point of having an ideal measure of 20 feet is not to prevent awkward door-holding drama every single time it happens, but to reduce the amount of times it happens. Mitigate the awkwardness. So, if you try to imagine a 20 foot ruler with your eyes between you and the person approaching, it is your best chance to make the most educated guess of whether you should hold the door for that person or not. And if somebody is literally sprinting at the door or walking at the speed of a snail, at least use the aforementioned factor of courtesy to mentally make your case for whether you should hold the door or not. 

At the end of the day, we are not robots. We cannot actually figure out with our eyes exactly 20 feet or exactly how fast somebody is walking behind or in front. But eyeballing it to the best of our ability can reduce awkwardness, and that is the goal. 


  1. Ben Fikhman, this article is amazing! Send it to the New Yorker:)

    “To be courteous you should always hold the door, unless foregoing that option would lead to the door closing fully preceding the arrival of the next person. ”

    and most importantly:

    “…if a person is at most 20 feet away from you, hold the door for them.”

  2. On the subject of awkward college interactions…In the late 60’s/70’s we had 2 different handshakes on campus…regular and palm clasp…if you were against the war in Vietnam you clasped…awkwards were from assuming,by a persons look ,that they were Pro-war you shook regular only to discover he was going for the clasp…vicee versee with giving a clasp to a dungareed guy with a flannel…it was collegiate awkwardness.As to doors 20 ft is a good rule of feet for door holding but 10 better

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