Sunday, August 26, 2012

Door precedence

Alexander McCall Smith is a writer I've quoted before on this blog, though never at length as I'm about to do here.  He's a prolific writer, and seldom uproariously funny, yet there's a wonderful crazy sense of humour underlying his books that only occasionally bursts into all-out mode.  I've read most of McCall Smith's books because, for a while, the editor of the Books page of a paper I review for would invariably send me anything by him.  Unfortunately there's been a change of editor and I note that someone else is getting his books to review these days. 

Anyway, the 44 Scotland St series is one of my favourites, although in fact they're the most rambly series you're likely to come across.  There's little in the way of plot (something they share with most of the AMS books), lots of characters whose lives only marginally intersect, and a goldmine of a child called Bertie.  Bertie is ostensibly six, and has remained so over a period of several years.  In the book I'm reading just now, which I happened to come across on the library bus the other day, he's going to turn seven.  This is momentous!

But Bertie doesn't appear in the following extract, which is taken from pages 36-8 of The Importance of Being Seven.  This ramble on the topic of who should open a door for whom comes out of nowhere, and has nothing to do with the story, and shows McCall Smith at his quirky best: funny, but not laugh-out-loud funny. 

...while Scotland has an order of precedence, it is never enforced and people may walk through doors in front of others who really should be allowed to go through the door before them.  That, of course, is how things should be; who would wish to live in a society in which the order of walking through doors was something that anybody cared about?  The important thing is that traffic through doors should flow freely, and that there should not be awkward moments when people hesitate, politely ushering another before them, who demurs, and invites the other to go before.  Such a situation can result in small knots of people building up in front of a door, with very little through traffic. 
The answer, of course, is a system based on common courtesy and consideration, mixed with a measure of sheer practicality.  In general, women should be invited to precede men, not because this in any way endorses chivalric notions that many may now find awkward or even condescending, but because it provides a totally arbitrary rule that at least minimises the chances of congestion.  It may be viewed then, in the same light as the rule that states one should drive on the left of the road rather than the right.  There is no real reason for that: countries in which people drive on the right are in no way different from those where people drive on the left, or, if they are - and they may be - then that is for historical reasons quite unconnected with driving on the left or the right.  So the fact that historically women have been invited to go through doors before men provides a basis for a contemporary rule that this should continue to be done. 
Unless, of course, the man reaches the door first; in which case he should go through naturally, rather than wait until the woman catches up with him.  An exception to this simple,, practical rule would be where the person reaching the door first wants to show particular consideration to the other; in such a case the first person should yield to the second person, ushering him or her in with an appropriate gesture.  This makes the second person feel better about himself or herself, in that he or she has been shown by the first person to be somebody the first person particularly respects.  For this reason, it is a good general rule to allow everybody to go through the door before you.  People who do this are usually much appreciated for their manners, but may not get very far in life, owing, perhaps, to the number of doors through which they do not ever pass. 
People with obvious infirmities should be allowed to pass through a door before those who are hale; under no circumstances should they be pushed if they take a longer time than usual to pass through the door.  Very aged people, those approaching a hundred years of age, should also be allowed through first on the simple, compassionate grounds that there will not be many doors left for them to pass through.  

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