Uncommon courtesy

This was one of those ideas that sits for years, and then one day an editor asks you to write it, so you do:

After you

The simple gesture of holding open a door has come to symbolize UD’s culture of uncommon courtesy.

Pennsylvanian, sociologist and Marianist sister Laura Leming, F.M.I. ’87, needed a good six months to puzzle through the strange phenomenon she experienced when she first arrived on UD’s campus in 1981.

As she went about her days minding her own business, perfect strangers on sidewalks and in hallways not only smiled at her as she passed, but they even said hello.

“I thought, ‘How do they know who I am?’” she said. “People in Philadelphia do not do that.”

This kindness and openness may be more striking to a newcomer, but anyone who has spent time on UD’s campus knows the experience. Flyers who pass through campus doorways do not let them slam behind. They pause, they glance, and if another person will soon pass through, they wait for what might seem like an unreasonable amount of time to perform the simple act of holding the door open for the next person.

There is a message in that act, an unspoken acknowledgment of a common community, even, and perhaps especially, for people we do not know personally. Holding a door puts the holder in the service of another, however briefly. It takes time. It subordinates. It serves. The act has become a shorthand way of describing UD as an uncommonly courteous place, something Flyers tell themselves and hear from others.

As Leming put it, “People continually tell us there’s something different here.”

* * *

But is there? Or is that just a feel-good myth convenient for recruiting students and tugging at alumni hearts? Perhaps students at Xavier, Georgetown or Notre Dame pat themselves on the back for the kindness permeating their campuses. Perhaps Flyers are mistaking as a UD phenomenon one more broadly felt at Catholic institutions or even most private institutions generally.

Professor David O’Brien doesn’t think so. During his four decades on faculty at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, he lectured at dozens of Catholic institutions across the country, including all 28 Jesuit schools. None of them, he thought, matched the warmth, hospitality and courtesy he experienced at his little tight-knit, Jesuit liberal arts school with just 2,400 students.

“Until I came to UD,” he said, when he became UD’s University Professor of Faith and Culture in 2009. “Here the Marianist charism of hospitality is everywhere, evident in UD students with their friendly greeting, excellent manners, and care for one another and for the University.”

UD’s size and scope — it’s several times larger than Holy Cross and much more institutionally diverse in the programs it offers — make this shared community and its culture of courtesy all the more remarkable, he said.

“This community spirit is not a matter of mere sentimentality: Community, like love, actually matters,” he said. “In the workplace and the public square, we learn, sometimes by their absence, that cooperation, mutual respect and commitment to common work are essential to success.”

But his sentiments are still anecdotal. It’s almost shocking, when you come to think of it, that no professor or enterprising graduate student has taken up the subject as a research project. The University conducts nearly $100 million in sponsored research a year. Its researchers have studied everything from Himalayan glaciers to sticky proteins and the Nuremberg trials, but none are known to have paused to examine the meaning of the door held open right in front of them.

“This everyday behavior has not been systematically studied before,” wrote researchers Joseph P. Santamaria and David A. Rosenbaum, who studied the practice of holding doors open at Penn State in 2011. They pointed a video camera at a campus door and recorded as 148 people passed through. They found that people were more likely to hold the door open for people who followed closely and that the number of people following behind made a difference.

They explained this using something called “the shared-effort hypothesis.” The idea here is that the first person passing through the door does a quick, unconscious mental calculation: Is the effort I’ll expend holding this door open less than the effort they’ll expend opening it again? The followers also participated in reducing the shared effort by hustling a bit faster when they saw the door being held. This conduct, they hypothesized, was “a means of reducing physical effort for the group.”

Being researchers, they recommended a follow-up study to see whether “door holders were found to engage in door holding selectively — holding doors only for people they find attractive, for example.”

That’s a rabbit hole these researchers declined to go down. If you Google “holding open doors,” what you’ll find is pages and pages of results focused on the gender implications of men holding doors open for women or, less commonly, women holding them open for men (typical result: “Open doors for women: How and when to do it” from the site artofmanliness.com). The deeper you dig, the more the results splinter into subgenres. When do you thank someone who holds a door open? What does it mean if your boyfriend holds a door open for another girl? What’s the etiquette in China?

The social uncertainty that these questions reveal is not surprising; in addition to everything else, the Internet is a place where we play out our anxieties. But anxieties have accompanied questions of courtesy since its emergence as a social code in Western Europe.

* * *

Though we think of courtesy as a form of social kindness, the rules that govern it are rooted in violence.

As strong, centralized leaders began to emerge in early medieval Europe, homage in the form of goods, services and oaths of loyalty was the price villages and lesser warriors paid to demonstrate allegiance and secure protection, writes Benet Davetian in his book Civility: A Cultural History. Such homage took the form of increasingly complex social rules that signaled cooperation or conflict at a time when Germanic invaders were still plundering villages with gruesome consequences. Courtesy was the new diplomacy.

The capacity to balance extreme violence on one hand with restraint and deference on the other became a trait of nobility, as seen in the portrait of the knight that Geoffrey Chaucer draws in his Canterbury Tales. Though “of mortal battles he’d fought 15” everywhere from Alexandria to Prussia, the knight still “bore himself as meekly as a maid … a truly perfect, gentle knight” now going on a religious pilgrimage.

Courtesy became an art to master as increasingly stronger monarchs tamed the knights; it also became a way for the nobility to distinguish themselves from coarse commoners. Courtly love and deference toward wives and daughters venerated the idealization of women and affirmed common values, sowing the seeds of today’s Googlers wondering whether holding a door for a woman is inherently sexist or, well, chivalrous. By the time Louis XIV was declaring his absolute power in France, courtly manners had developed into a cutthroat game of palace intrigue. Courtesy was anything but kind. It served not equality, but hierarchy.

Equality was an ideal that would sweep through France before long, not just toppling the monarchy but creating the chaos that led William Joseph Chaminade — who would go on to found the Society of Mary — to flee for his own safety to Zaragosa, Spain, for three years. In that flight, Sister Laura Leming sees possible roots of UD’s culture of courtesy, and particularly hospitality, as expressions of kindness and equality before God.

“The Benedictine tradition is very much about welcoming strangers as if they were Christ,” she said, describing Chaminade’s embrace of Benedictine principles as he built the Marianist order. “He had the experience of  being in exile as he pondered how people in France could help one another and cultivate  community.”

She sees the Biblical roots of this tradition in a story told in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus visits the home of a Pharisee who, inhospitably, does not offer water to wash his feet. Jesus instead praises the “sinful woman” who wets his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair. Later, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.

The example of such loving, kind service to others “extends to the institution,” Leming says. She cites a familiar example: the experience of Joseph Saliba ’79, a young man who fled the Lebanese war and came to UD, speaking almost no English, to find a highly supportive faculty and community that went far beyond what was required to help him succeed. Today he has an engineering doctorate and is the University’s provost and a champion of its Marianist values.

* * *

Students on campus today offer their own anecdotal evidence of UD’s uncommon courtesy. “Dayton is seriously the nicest campus ever,” Stephanie Lutz ’15 said. “I probably have a daily instance happen either where someone holds the door or lets you get in front of them in line or says ‘bless you’ when you sneeze.

”That extra kindness helps especially on bad days, said Katy Utter ’14, a marketing and entrepreneurship major.

“Just the other day I woke up in a bad mood, and when walking to class random people smiled at me, said hi, held the door. People here are more courteous.”
Professor Steve Wilhoit in the English department has puzzled over the culture at UD. “I’ve noticed the door opening thing, too,” he said, “and being really polite in crowded hallways and staircases in the Humanities building between classes.”

When he asked students about it, they came back with a familiar refrain: “community.” It’s the word everyone uses when discussing UD’s culture.

“There is an ethos on this campus that dictates how people treat other people — what kind of behavior is expected,” Wilhoit said. “By and large, students embrace the idea of community and family — these are the metaphors that influence how we treat one another.”

Wilhoit also points to the role of students as keepers of culture: “It may also be the case that we recruit students who are like this, or it could be that students who are like this recognize UD as a place that ‘feels’ the same way, so they enroll. It could be a Midwest thing.”

Ah, the Midwest thing. Leming agrees there might be something there, too. She is not only a Marianist sister but also chair of the department of sociology, anthropology and social work. She suggests that there might be “an interaction effect,” a layering of Midwest friendliness over Marianist hospitality that creates a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

“You also might get something like that in Hawaii with its culture of ‘aloha,’” she said. “I would be hesitant to say that it’s all the Marianist piece.”

Whatever its origins, the culture of uncommon courtesy so pervasive on campus is more consequential than the effort spared when a stranger holds a door open for you.

“Love is first of all a verb, not a noun,” O’Brien said, “so the habit of smiling at strangers, reaching out a hand to people in need and listening when others speak are all acts of love with important cultural and political consequences. Commitment to community is at the center and not the edge of UD, and maybe someday such commitment will re-create our world.”

It manifests itself in the experience of Sterling Yates, a first-year mechanical engineering major from Chicago who arrived at the tutoring center in Marianist Hall just as it was closing for the night. It didn’t matter. An upperclassman stayed late to help him. “A lot of people at Dayton go out of their way and sacrifice so that your experience will be just as great as theirs,” Yates explained.

And there is the experience of Jonny Yadlosky ’10, who, during his first year, went to let his professor know he’d miss class because his grandfather in Pittsburgh had just died. “Jonny, you need to go home,” his professor said. “Take my car.” Then the professor tossed him the keys.

This depth of genuine compassion extends far beyond mere courtesy. It is a foreseeable consequence of the habit of kindness toward others, even strangers, that UD’s culture of courtesy nourishes.

Though there are no rigorous studies of these doors held open across UD’s campus, it is hard to believe that such a culture of kindness would not radiate out as students become alumni and scatter across the country and the world, that through the familiar welcome of alumni, San Francisco might feel less foreign, New York less daunting. Perhaps it radiates out to anyone near a Flyer and a door. Literal or metaphorical, a Flyer will always hold it open.

A stranger in McGinnis once offered a cup of laundry detergent to Meredith Hirt ’13, who contributed to the reporting in this article, to spare her the trouble of walking back all of the way to her house on the Darkside, where she’d left hers.

(Essay by author; reprinted from University of Dayton Magazine, Winter 2012-13)


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