He’s got a big ego — that’s really easily bruised

"Real men still do this" over image of man opening door for woman

Real men: Opening doors with confidence since 1955. (Image via)

It’s a simple common courtesy: two people walk toward a door, whoever gets there first holds the door open for the person. Truly one of the most mundane acts we perform as human beings and should have little effect on our ongoing existential crises.

Unless you’re a man, of course.

A study conducted by researchers at Purdue University found that holding a door open for men lowers their self-esteem and self-confidence, as compared to men who open doors for themselves. Yes, you read that correctly. If you hold the door open for man, chances are he feels less confident in himself. Holding a door open for a man could lead to a bout of self-loathing and despair, as he has been emasculated to the point he does not recognize himself as a man. Imagine that world. Imagine all the sad men having doors held open for them. Imagine the angst building up inside.

Imagine just how silly this whole thing is.

This isn’t the first study to show how fragile the male ego can be. Just last fall, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a study found that men’s self-esteem dropped when they found out that their wives or girlfriends performed a task well. Not that they did better than they did, but just that they performed well at all.

Guys: what the fuck is wrong with us? 

Yes, yes, usual disclaimer (and an attempt to derail the conversation) “it’s not ALL men.” Whatever. It’s enough to be disconcerting. The idea that men’s egos are so tied up in the most trivial things, like opening doors, does not bode well for our project of deconstructing masculinity. Its tentacles are deep into our psyches and affecting us on levels that are truly not that serious.

I mean, when I think of a toxic masculinity, I’m thinking that we have to have a discussion about violence, or power, or violence used to exert power, or emotional intelligence, or something equally as damaging to the societal fabric. But apparently we have to start with telling men it’s OK for someone to open the door for them. It doesn’t make you “less of a man.”

What exactly constitutes “less of a man,” anyhow? Because the whole concept is truly confusing for me. Are “men” expected to go through life doing everything on their own, from opening doors to running governments, without ever once asking their fellow man or woman for a helping hand? What does taking on that large of a burden actually prove? That’s not a recipe for manhood, it’s directions on how to die by the time you’re 35.

Patriarchy doesn’t make sense. Beyond that, it’s dangerous. And it’s not dangerous because of what it does to men’s egos when they are faced with the slightest hint of  “emasculation.” It’s dangerous because it somehow makes those moments important. It’s dangerous because the men whose self-esteem and self-confidence take a hit during these fleeting moments of “emasculation” don’t just bottle it up inside and allow themselves to whither away (dangerous in its own right, to be sure). No, it’s dangerous because those men, believing they are entitled to feeling masculine and powerful in a world that worships the masculine and powerful, often take out their frustration on the rest of society. They hurt those they deem weak. They find solace in performing a toxic masculinity in other areas of their lives. They further poison the well in order to find a sense of self in a dangerous system. Everyone else pays the price.

So yes, it is incredibly silly that there are men whose egos are bruised by the fact that someone opens the door for them. It’s silly that a man even gives the gesture that much thought. And yes, all of you “it’s not all men” people, it’s not all men. I heard you the first time. But if it’s not the door being held open, it’s having a partner perform well in a task. Or maybe it’s not being able to lift a heavy box. Or seeing someone else fix the kitchen sink. Who knows what other seemingly mundane tasks or filling up men’s heads with thoughts of their own worthlessness. That’s a problem. And unless we are about the work of interrogating, deconstructing, and redefining masculinity to say “hey, seriously, it’s OK,” those slights to the ego are going to continue adding up, and the ones most damaged when the hurt is finally expressed won’t be the guys having doors held open for them. It’ll be whoever is doing the holding.

MychalMychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute. You can open the door for him, seriously, it’s OK. 

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon. As a freelance writer, social commentator, and mental health advocate his work has been seen online in outlets such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Salon, Al Jazeera English, Gawker, The Guardian, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, The Root, and The Grio.

Mychal Denzel Smith is a Knobler Fellow at The Nation Institute and contributing writer for The Nation Magazine, as well as columnist for Feministing.com and Salon.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://feministing.com/members/nedhamson/ Ned Hamson

    Yes, males do have fragile egos and often related to gender roles but I think it is also just a human trait to be self-conscious and have a fragile self-image at times unrelated to gender.

  • http://feministing.com/members/vryheid/ Mike

    I think we need to take this study with a grain of salt (I’d think that would be common sense on a feminism-themed blog). Here’s a couple of important points you did not mention in your post:

    1. Relatively speaking, the difference in “satisfaction” between men who had a door opened for them and those who didn’t was miniscule at best. You can look at the chart yourself to see what I mean. If it was something like a 2-1 ratio, it might have been large enough to make some sweeping generalization about all men. That doesn’t sound like “bruised egos” so much as “mild annoyance”, and subconscious annoyance at that. In fact, the difference we get is so small that it could easily be accounted for by a number of external factors that the study even mentions near the end- the stressful and naturally competitive environment of a university, for instance, might naturally exaggerate the subconscious reactions people have to seemingly trivial gestures. I’d be very interested to see this experiment repeated in a different environment- at a grocery store, for instance. The difference in reactions would likely be even more subtle.

    2. The scientists did NOT ask the male participants whether or not they actually approved of the door being held for them. It wasn’t even made clear to the participants that the door opening scheme and the questions were connected in any way. What this means is that to find any relevance in their ridiculous conclusion that men universally feel “threatened” by having to acknowledge the need for any form of help, we have to assume that men are incapable of acting in a rational nature and instead dominated by the vaguely defined, subconscious “ego” which was tested in this experiment. This is nothing but sexist dribble and causes their entire conclusion section to come off as poorly written pandering to mysandric attitudes in society.

    And frankly, with lines like “Guys: what the fuck is wrong with us?”, you’re not exactly helping matters. I’d question why you’d be interested in “deconstructing” masculinity when you seem to have already judged our gender as hopelessly corrupted to begin with. Just how much of a product of society do you think this seemingly male drive for self sufficiency really is? Is it not too much of a leap to suggest that some of the differences suggested in this experiment might just be a product of human nature? We’re a product of evolution over millions of years, and despite potentially conflicting with ideals of gender equality, psychological differences between men and women are very real and in no way exclusive to humans.

    I don’t think any of us has the capacity to “fix” masculinity to conform to our own world views and I think it’s arrogant to try. What we do have is the capacity to act above instinct and human nature, and we have the right to expect that from others. It doesn’t matter if someone subconsciously has their ego slightly dented by someone else opening a door for them as long as they have the common courtesy to say “thank you” and the decency to open doors for others. That’s just called having good manners, and it’s not exclusive to any one gender.

  • http://feministing.com/members/alexs/ Alex

    Lol, I’ve had many experiences over the years of men refusing to walk through doors I’m holding open for them. It always makes me laugh and I stand my ground until they either walk through it or I can see they’re not going to budge. Its never been a big issue but it always interests me to see who is really bothered by it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/beckiecannons/ Beckie

    Todays 30+ something man has been forced into an uncomfortable place where they can’t ocupy anything but the far end of masculinity. Of course having a door opened for them is a threat. Having said that I personally love it – having the opened and opening. It’s great fun as Alex says to see the reaction.

  • http://feministing.com/members/ricketson/ Adam Ricketson

    Mike, what you’re describing is just standard bad science (all too common in social sciences, though by no means limited to it), followed by bad reporting.

    The most amusing mistake in Levenson’s article at The Wire was attributing the research report to “Taylor & Francis Online”. Taylor and Francis is a publisher, not a publication. The publication is “Social Influence”. Right off the bat, we see that the reporter knows nothing about the subject that he’s reporting on — he’s doing little more than just repeating something that somebody said. This is all to common in science reporting — assuming that because it was published by a large publisher (and supposedly peer-reviewed), it’s conclusions are justified.

    A responsible reporter would at least see how this publication fits into the research ecosystem and talk to one or two scientists who can provide context for the work and provide an opinion about whether the conclusions are justified.

  • http://feministing.com/members/simeon54/ Simeon

    Nice article, well written, and on the money. Modern men are deeply insecure. This isn’t ‘nature’ this is society.
    Frankly, I’m tired of the same old line trotted out when someone points out something they see that might need addressing.
    What is nature anyway?
    Isn’t it a constantly shifting sand, an interplay of different components.
    Nurture is PART of nature. No organism is rigid, and unchanging, either physiologically, or psychologically. Things change.
    Would you go back to the first ape that stood on two legs and tell him not to go against his/her nature? That he was ‘hardwired’ (god, I’m sick of this nonsensical term) and should stay on all fours?
    Or perhaps tell the creatures that pulled themselves form the sea that they should stay there, and just not bother to mention that their genetic descendants would one day stand on the moon.

    Things change, we change, society is an evolving organism/system, just like a person is.
    Stop trying to keep the status quo by dismissing peoples arguments with ‘men and women are different and can’t change’. Our differences are not that interesting, we are more alike than different, a lot of what people are certain is hard wired sex difference is merely socially constructed gender difference and can be done away with quite easily and anyway, who cares? Try to do something different, and ignore all the idiots telling you not to do it because your sex differences make it unlikely you will succeed.

    Seriously, it’s time to embrace the potential we have as a species to change.
    Can you honestly tell me that we haven’t really altered that much in the last 200,000 years, or that we have stopped evolving?!