I hate to generalize. Actually, hang on.
I tend to generalize a lot. The slightest observation on my part often leads to a cynical “so that’s how it is” brand of thinking that is both unhelpful and reductive, which then leads to a rethinking of my own reactions, and then internal admonishment of my desire to open my big fat yap. So what I really hate is my own habit of generalization.
But sometimes it gets the better of me. Like now, for instance, where I am about to make some gross generalizations about the sorts of people who hold long conversations in doorways.
I’ve spent over a decade working in office buildings, and I’ve seen (and been obstructed by) people who think there’s no better place to hold a conversation than in a highly-trafficked portal between rooms. This seems odd to me. When I need to talk to someone face-to-face, I’ll generally go to their desk, ask them to come to mine, or book a conference room. I have almost never invited someone to meet me in a doorway.
What goes through the mind of the people who block access to breakrooms, bathrooms, and other rooms with their tête-à-têtes? Most people don’t do silly, inconveniencing things on purpose, so I assume that these folks have their reasons.
I think some of the people are incapable of telling time. There’d be nothing wrong with holding a brief conversation in a doorway as long is it was indeed sufficiently brief — ten seconds, let’s say — and the time just gets away from them. Perhaps the people involved are convinced that they’ll only be a second, but are also the sort of people who’ll leave you waiting in the car for an hour while they “just run in real quick.” Or, more modernly, they’re the kind of people who’ll text you to say that they’ll meet you at the restaurant in “just a minute” only to show up an hour after you’ve been seated and made swans out of all of the napkins. (You may have been drinking while you waited.)
Another sort of person who crowds the doorway might be the very, very important. Not actually important, mind, merely an expression of their own perception of same. “Look, I’m an important guy. I’m doing some big wheeling and dealing over here, and I’m sorry, but your lunch is peanuts compared to the big work that I’m doing, and you need to accept that. I know it sounds like I’m just talking about my weekend at my cabin, but that is a vital part of business!” What can we say about such people? Very little, just in case they might be reading this. (Please hire me.)
This all seems rather negative. These traits speak to the dark and dire parts of the human brain, the snake in the sociological grass that spoils our grand dreams of an eventual utopian culture. Okay, fine — they’re mostly just long-winded ways to say that some people are either absent-minded or rude. But there is a third option.
I think many doorway conversations come about because at least one of the participants usually does not want to talk right now. Standing in a doorway might thus be an attempt to subtly communicate to one’s partner that you are just itching to get out of there. And who could blame them? No matter how politely you try to put it into words, there’s no safe way to simply state, “I do not want to talk to you about this right now.” Saying you’ve got another commitment somewhere else could imply that this person is less important than, well, whatever — and in the event, you may not actually have pressing business to attend to.
You could also try saying that you need to use the toilet, but even that is fraught. For one thing, I had a manager once tell me that you should never excuse yourself from a meeting to go to the can because that would be a sign of weakness — a lack of mastery over your own body. (Executives at this company often had to endure marathon meetings because all of them refused to acknowledge that human beings sometimes need to pee.) What’s more, many of our world’s can-do go-getter types are perfectly willing to follow you into the john so you can continue dialoging (whatever that word means).
But body language, and physical placement within the shared space, is always deniable. “I can see you want to leave.” What? No, of course not. I’m just standing in a doorway, shifting my weight from foot to foot — it doesn’t mean anything.
In any case, I choose to believe in option three. That way, when I have to excuse myself through the eight doorways between me and my destination, I can feel a little sympathy for these poor, trapped souls, instead of the anger I’d otherwise feel at their lack of consideration for other human beings who just want to grab a cup of coffee (and hit the bathroom) before the big conference call.
Good luck sirs, I hope you escape your buttonhole soon.