The “Door Theory” and the Magic of “Perhaps”
For 26 years I have been living in Russia: building, creating, teaching, marrying, failing (at marriages as well as professionally) and ultimately succeeding. Many things have amazed me, charmed me, angered me and kept me interested in this at times confusing country; but one thing in particular has maintained my level of frustration at a slow-boil more than anything else: Russians don’t do doors well.
When I say, they “don’t do them,” I am not only referring to the physical manufacturing or “hanging” of the door. Opening, entering, exiting and holding doors open for anyone that might be behind them also presents many Russians with untold difficulties.
Given that I have created or taken part in some of the most famous and successful post-Soviet brands over the past nearly three decades, I feel that as an observer of “all things Russia” my qualifications for making such a blanket statement are intact. In 26 years, I have skirmished on the “door front” easily a half of a million times — entering shops, banks, government buildings, metros, airports and airplanes, elevators, mass transit, etc. My understanding of this fine people and massive land is as nuanced and acute as anyone who has ever lived here.
I get this place. I get Russians.
The famous saying by the Russian writer Fyodor Tyuchev “Russia cannot be understood by the mind,” implying that only the soul can appreciate the multi-layered and confusing society, amuses me. The soul has nothing to do with understanding Russia — patience is required.
The Science of Doors in Russia
When flying from Russia to say, the US or Germany, one of the first things that strikes me is how efficient the doors are in the public space. It’s a hard thing to convey to people who have never been to Russia.
“What do you mean, we have ‘efficient’ doors?” They will ask thoroughly confused. Let me try to explain. (The numbers below are estimates.)
Physical: 7 doors out of 10 throughout Russia suffer from “hindered” opening or closing. Hindered means that when you tug on the door with the same amount of force as you would in other countries, it will open but can quite unexpectedly stop at the half-way point resulting in an elbow or knee banging against it; or, the door might be missing a restricting-hinge at the top and it flies open crashing against the wall.
In addition, the doors are often made of questionable material and break from regular use almost immediately. Handles in Russia are notoriously bad being held together by a hodgepodge of materials. Many doors are purposely left ajar, stuck in some halfway space between open and closed, to reduce the effects of wear-and-tear.
People Interaction: Common in many cultures throughout the world is the act of “holding the door” for the person who may or may not be following you. Personally, I never let a door slam and always leave an arm trailing to hold it just in case some unnoticed person is walking behind me. 8 out of 10 Russians will not hold the door and act as if they are the only person in the world who is entering or exiting at that moment.
I used to think this was a Soviet-era habit but just the other day, a young girl of about 18 happily slipped through the closing door not even pretending to make an effort to stop it from closing in my face. On such occasions, I make comments like “oh, thank you, so kind of you” topping the sarcasm off with a wide smile. Few present at the moment ever understand my annoyance and quite often think that I am genuinely expressing gratitude.
Enter-Exit Formula: When entering or exiting through the one open door of a store, it is common to let the person closer to the door finish their movement — be it exiting or entering. 9 times out of 10, when trying to exit I will be jammed against my groceries and the door frame as the person entering scurries through before my stride out is completed— even though they were a good two or three steps further away at that moment.
It does, however, seem like entering takes precedence over exiting for only 6 times out of 10 will an exiter jam me against the door. Entering is sometimes so pleasant that I begin to believe my 26-year study is finally being disproved.
One Door — The number of establishments in Russia that have more than one small, narrow door unlocked and ready for use can not only be counted on one hand; but I can recall the dates and times when I was able to enter unencumbered by elbows, knees and shoulder bags. On other occasions, there might be ten doors that offer the hope of smooth entrance but only one — and usually the last one you check — will be open; but then there will be a second row of doors requiring you to shuffle through the narrow passage to get to that other, inside, open door.
Dangerous Doors — Anyone who has used the Russian metro, will tell you about the heavy, wooden metro doors. Except during rush-hour, when the crowds are purposely streamed through one door to control passenger flow, there are usually 5 or 6 open doors. The danger, however, is that because of the wind-tunnel effect created from the deep metros in Russia, a steady jet-stream of air is being funneled up and out. These gusts turn the heavy doors into “swinging ninja.” Many an unassuming foreigner, who might have been looking down at their English-Russian dictionary at that given moment, has been slammed upside the head. I am not joking, these doors will cause a concussion if they make contact; or, easily snap the unprepared finger.
Why do doors present so many problems?
For years, as I stated already, I thought the lack of door etiquette was merely a left-over from Communist times; however, I began teaching at the local university here last Fall and was stunned at how many of the students were so “door inadequate.” Being cut off, bumped and left staring at just-closed doors at a rate that made me think somebody was filming to observe my reaction, it dawned on me — this is something found deep in the cultural DNA of this nation; taught, learned, passed down and practiced generation after generation.
Russia has a very weak, if not non-existent, civil society. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the staggered attempts at creating a civil society have recently been exorcised completely. The individual is, for the most part, powerless. The state is the sole actor; the Russian people are, in theory and practice, represented by President Putin. He is Russia and he is “the Russian person.” He embodies the Russian state as an individual actor on the world stage. He is all-powerful and always right even when he’s not.
Russian citizens, however, realize that they will most likely never be a “Putin,” the head of Russia, or, the head of a company or a leader of people, etc. As contemporary society becomes more predictable in terms of what a person can achieve — is allowed to achieve — Russian citizens need to collect small victories for the purposes of venting.
The entering and exiting saga, which happens to involve every single door here, is a completely non-political statement being made year after year, millions of times each day. When a Russian is in need of a small victory, perhaps he is feeling particularly powerless to affect the world around him at that moment, he will “door” someone.
The more “door inadequate” someone is in Russia, the weaker they are feeling; the less confident they are; the more severe the inferiority complex. The overall national penchant for making bad doors, for restricting free door use is because inherently doors suggest resoluteness and decisiveness — here is a door, I will enter. Here is a door, I will exit. Russia does not do “decisiveness.”
I love to state to my friends and colleagues that Russia is a country without a history. This in turn kicks off screams and hollers of protest. Of course, I don’t mean this in the literal sense. This is the classic example of hyperbole. Russia does, however, have a truly frustrating knack like no other country, for re-starting itself every thirty or forty years and disregarding all that came before; freeing itself of all the consequences. This is clearly a national display of indecisiveness — never commit, keep everyone off-balance.
When you are aren’t sure which door to pull on, how hard to pull on it and whether or not someone will literally push you out of the way to enter faster, you are always just a little out-of-step — now multiply that lack of rhythm by a lifetime.
How to use this knowledge
First of all, I guarantee that Putin holds the door open for others and unless making an official entrance or exit, let’s them go ahead of him — Putin is an extremely confident person; nevertheless, he is also OF Russia and so the seeds of this door inadequacy are inside of him.
The reluctance or inability to commit to the process of entering or exiting can be translated into a displeasure for being forced to choose; forced to make a firm decision and to live with the consequences of that decision. Western diplomats often push Russia to commit, to answer with a firm “yes,” or “no.” What Russia really wants, and needs, is an opportunity to just say “perhaps.” “Perhaps,” in Russian, from the cultural-linguistic point of view is acceptable. It translates as “mozhet bit,” meaning “it can be.” (Russians will often say, “yes, maybe,” which implies a pretty certain “yes.”)
Feeling forced and pressed upon highlights the inferiority complex and frees them from accepted norms, etiquette and consequences. When permitted to hesitate and “lollygag,” more gets done in Russia — I have noticed this leading teams of professionals. Don’t demand, just nudge gently but when needed be ready to cut them down abruptly.
If you are at a business meeting with a Russian, or a diplomat, and you notice them dooring you, ask yourself — why are they feeling pressed or forced? What have you done that rubs them internally the wrong way? Then again, if they too confidently open door and always let you go in or out ahead of them, this too could be a sign that you are being played. A lot depends on the context but by carefully watching how they enter or exit, you can learn a lot.
Quite often, I have approached some random door and someone will be standing before it; blocking my entrance as if lost in thought.
“Excuse me, are you going in?” I ask politely hinting for them to enter or step aside.
“Yes, maybe,” and he continues to stand there, thinking.