December 7, 2018
Open doors are viewed as welcoming—and they offer “transparency,” in terms of what the occupants of a room are saying and doing. The message: These people obviously have nothing to hide. But, when we think of things that happen “behind closed doors,” we become suspicious. Closed doors represent secrecy and hidden activity.
Indeed, Glen Geher, a professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz offered three scenarios in the December 5 edition of Psychology Today that illustrate how closing a door may alarm or intimidate the occupants of a room; and leave those on the outside with feelings of uncertainty, curiosity, or even trepidation:
- Your supervisor emails you saying that she needs to speak with you. You come to her office. Immediately after she greets you, she closes the office door before sitting down.
- You’re a college student and one of your professors asks you to stop by his office after class. You head over there. He welcomes you into the office. You sit. He closes the door.
- Your co-worker stops by your office and asks if you have a few minutes to talk. You say “sure” and welcome her in. She closes the door before taking a seat.
In each case, you would probably wonder what’s going on, Geher remarks in Psychology Today—noting that closing the door “is a pretty powerful social signal.”
“We often take it to mean that something is up. Maybe your boss wants to talk to you about a complaint about your work. Maybe your professor is going to call you out on academic dishonesty. Maybe your co-worker is about to drop some terrible news on you. When the door closes, something is up.”
Small situational events can have a powerful effect on behavior, he says, and when it comes to impacting social behavior, the audience matters. The way that you talk to your kids at home on a Saturday morning is probably different from how you address colleagues at a professional meeting, for instance. The way that you chat with your buddies over lunch probably is poles apart from how you speak when you are being interviewed for a job.
We behave differently in closed-door versus non-closed-door conversations partly because these contexts change the nature of the audience. When you are in your office with the door open, anything could be heard by anyone who’s around. The potential audience for your behavior and conversation, then, should match that broader, public audience.
But when the door closes, the size of the audience shrinks dramatically. The playing field changes Geher says in the Psychology Today report. And what all might be said increases exponentially in terms of possibilities.
One reason that the “closed office door” situation strikes a sense of unease is the fact that the door closing may signal all kinds of things. And none of them are usually good. Here are three factors that might lead to someone wanting a closed-door conversation:
- Bad News. There are many kinds of bad news out there. Illness, anger, work reorganizations, and job elimination represent just the tip of the bad news iceberg. Conversations in which information about these kinds of issues is divulged are often sensitive—and they may lead to unanticipated, negative emotional reactions. So, it’s often a good idea to divulge difficult news in a relatively private context. And closing the door serves this purpose.
- Gossip. But let’s face it, closed-door conversations are not always about calamities. There could be scuttlebutt to pass on: Can you believe what Bob did? I would NEVER do that!!! Or that earful you are getting might be positively motivated: There’s a new management job in your area. Maybe you should post for it.
- Power. Given the general sense of unease that is caused by the closed-door conversation, closing doors during small meetings may, for some, actually be part of a power-driven social strategy. People who score as high in the Dark Triad (being overly self-focused, manipulative, and uncaring) often manipulate social situations so as to put others in a state of unease. From this perspective, simply closing the office door during conversations may well serve as a control tactic for those who seek to exert social power in their interactions with others. So, someone who closes the door more so than is warranted may well be implementing a strategy of intimidation in an effort to advance his or her own agenda.
Geher said, “Sometimes when a student comes to my office, he or she will ask if we should close the door. My answer is usually, ‘Why, is something terrible going to happen?’ They usually will laugh and be at ease. They get it: Nothing is going to be said here that couldn’t be heard by anyone in the world.”
He notes, however, that “sometimes you do have to close the door.” Discussions about family emergencies, financial catastrophes, and academic integrity, for instance, all require the privacy that a closed door affords.
When you are on the outside of a closed door, don’t assume it’s for a reason—but don’t rule out that someone on the inside is up to no good.
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