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Open your office, closed doors don't work

Glenn Geher (The Shrink)
Filed on December 6, 2018 | Last updated on December 6, 2018 at 08.10 pm

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.

"There is nothing more scary than a closed door." -Alfred Hitchcock

Think about the following scenarios:

. Your supervisor e-mails you saying 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.

In each case, you would probably wonder what's going on. The door being closed, in fact, 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.

One of the great achievements of research in the field of social psychology pertains to the idea of situationism, addressing how seemingly small situational factors might have profound influences on behaviour.

And when it comes to impacting social behaviour, the audience matters.

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 behaviour 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. 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. It'd be great if life were full of all good news - but it's not. There are all kinds of bad news out there. Illness, death, divorce, infidelity, and psychological breakdowns - and these are 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. Such reactions might lead to uncomfortable or difficult social outcomes, 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 catastrophes. The fact is that people gossip. People talk about others for a broad array of reasons. Such gossip might be self-serving, putting someone else down to raise one's own status. Sometimes gossip might be more positively motivated, designed to help with someone else's welfare. Or sometimes, gossip may ultimately serve the benefit of one's shared community. If you fear that there is gossip going on behind that closed door, you might be right.

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. Closing one's office door inherently sets off unease as it may signal bad news or it might mean that a healthy dose of gossip is about to be served. 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, while closing the door during conversations has its place, 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.

This said, 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.

Whether an office door is open or closed during a meeting has major signaling value in our social worlds. Sometimes the door is closed out of necessity. But sometimes, it may well be closed because someone is up to no good.

-Psychology Today

Glenn Geher is professor of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz


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