Behind the Closed Door

How closing the office door impacts the work environment.

Posted Dec 05, 2018

Fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: Fizkes/Shutterstock

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

Think about the following three scenarios:

  • 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. 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.

All the World’s a Stage

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 behavior (see Ross & Nisbett, 1991).

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 while in your pajamas, sipping your first cup of coffee, is probably different from how you speak to colleagues at a professional meeting, for instance. The way that you speak to your buddies over poker is probably different from how you speak when you are being interviewed for a job. Another basic rule of social psychology, then, is this: Our behavior is largely shaped by the nature of the audience in front of whom we are acting (Synder, 1974). The world’s a stage. And our behavior changes as a function of which stage we are on at any given time (see Goffman, 1959).

Three Different Social Psychological Functions of Closing the Door

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. 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 ー but it’s not. There is all kinds of bad news out there. Illness, death, divorce, infidelity, and psychological breakdowns ー 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.
  • GossipBut let’s face it, closed-door conversations are not always about catastrophes. The fact is that people gossip (see Kniffin & Wilson 2010). 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 (Can you believe what Bob did? I would never do that!). Sometimes gossip might be more positively motivated, designed to help with someone else’s welfare (Sally drove home drunk after happy hour again last week. We have to do something about this!). And sometimes gossip may ultimately serve the benefit of one’s shared community (I saw James drink three cups of coffee at work yesterday, and I know on good authority that he hasn’t put a quarter in the coffee kitty since June!). 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; see Jonason et al., 2013) 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.

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.

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.

References

Kniffin, K. M., & Wilson, D. S. (2010). Evolutionary Perspectives on Workplace Gossip: Why and How Gossip Can Serve Groups. Group & Organization Management, 35(2), 150–176.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R.E. (1991). The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology. New York: McGraw Hill.

Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

Jonason, P. K., Kaufman, S. B., Webster, G. D, & Geher, G. (2013). What lies beneath the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen: Varied relations with the Big Five. Individual Differences Research, 11, 81-90.

Snyder, M. (1974). Self-monitoring of expressive behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 526-537.