When I was a student at Georgia State University in Atlanta, as ten-o-clock break rolled around, students would stream out of Sparks Hall, cross Courtland Street and enter the Student Center to get to the cafeteria. There was and probably still is a single set of doors that lead out of Sparks Hall onto Courtland, but there’s a bank of six to eight doors going into the student center. Despite this, the throng of students would inevitably only use whichever door was already open, lining up to wait patiently to enter the building. Some, and this group eventually included me, would break away and go through one of the other doors, prompting people to follow. This would inevitably lead to people lining up at two doors to patiently wait to enter the building, despite the fact that there were still four to six other doors not being used.
The front doors at most QuikTrip service stations open either way. To get in one can either push or pull either door and both are always unlocked. Despite this, I frequently see people waiting patiently in front of a perfectly functioning door, for someone to exit the other door so he or she can enter. In fact, I see this anywhere there’s more than one door. Everyone waits patiently to use whichever door everyone else is using, rather than using the perfectly functioning door beside it. Whenever someone uses the other door, or points out the fact that the other door is working, people sometimes act offended, as though the other person did something wrong, when, in fact, all he or she is doing is attempting to gain egress to a building in the quickest and most efficient manner.
I don’t know why people do this. It’s very aggravating and frustrating to have to wait several minutes, while people patiently wait for something which doesn’t require them to wait. It’s possible people may not know the other door works, since a lot of buildings limit access by locking some of the doors, using signs that state “use other door” to indicate which one is open, but in the absence of such a sign, I rarely see anyone even checking to see if a door is open, instead getting frustrated that he or she has to line up to get in, even though he or she doesn’t have to line up to get in. In such instances,when possible, I’ll go for the other door, but in the case of QuikTrip, it’s not always possible because people waiting to use one door will frequently block the other, perfectly functional door, so no one else can use it.
This is contrasted by people completely befuddled by how to enter or exit a location, despite there being clear signs stating how one gets in or out. Perhaps this is why so many people fall victim to the herd mentality, just following whoever is in front. So what if we’re walking toward a cliff? Follow the leader! My experience at Georgia State was that even when someone broke away and used another door, which one would assume is the logical thing to do, most people remained in whichever line they were in, patiently waiting for their turn to get inside. Maybe they were banking on the sure thing. We know this door is open, but not that one. That other guy is going to look awfully silly when— Wait, he got in! No, I’ll just wait. Some might start to follow, then lose their resolve when someone goes ahead of them, possibly thinking the opportunity has been lost forever.
Signs and signals are meant to help us, to establish a common frame of reference for people, yet frequently, I see people ignoring posted instructions or rules, causing confusion. How many times have we tried to navigate a parking lot that has lanes clearly marked as to the direction of travel, only to have someone use the wrong lane. Some people simply can’t follow directions, no matter how many times they’re given them, or how important the directions are, and despite any consequences that might result from not doing so. In 2004, I had a car totaled at an intersection near my house by someone who not only didn’t stop at the red light, but who went around other cars that were stopped in order to get into a free lane to run the light.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who meticulously follow any directions given, to the letter, with no divergences, even when strict adherence to the rules makes no sense at all. I don’t like traffic lights. I hate getting caught at one and am constantly complaining about lights which hold people at an intersection much longer than traffic conditions warrant. Innovative planners will put triggers at the intersection, which cause lights to change when a car is waiting, so drivers aren’t forced to sit for long periods of time when traffic is light, but many intersections don’t have triggers, and for those that have them, they don’t always work properly. Despite this, I understand why the lights are there. I don’t argue against having the lights, and in fact, in quite a few places, especially in Atlanta, we need more lights, and especially turn signals, so drivers don’t have to sit for long periods of time at an intersection, behind someone turning left against oncoming traffic.
We are a society of rules, of customs and traditions, often stated on signs that tell us how to function. Sometimes these rules are clear, concise, logical, and few question them. Other times, they make no sense, until explained properly, and sometimes, still don’t make sense even after adequate explanation. Sometimes the explanation is “we always do it that way” stated as though that should be the final word on anything. Within these rules are often hierarchies, degrees to which one rule can or cannot be ignored. Along the way there are customs and courtesies which also govern our behavior, sometimes conflicting with a stated rule, even defying logic. While it’s nice for someone in an office to make a new pot of coffee if he or she drinks the last of what’s there, it’s unlikely someone would lose his or her job over not doing so. It’s also considered common courtesy not to let a door slam in someone’s face, but in buildings that require badge access, grave consequences can result from simple courtesy, if an unauthorized person gains entry. While rules don’t always make sense, sometimes they’re the only things preventing utter chaos among individuals.
Perhaps this conflict of rules versus custom is what leads a person to wait patiently in front of an unlocked door to enter through the one that’s already being used, not wanting to violate the other person’s space, or believing he or she is being courteous, without reasoning how such actions are discourteous. Eventually, at Georgia State, I realized that the best way to get to the Student Center from Sparks Hall was to use the underpass below Courtland Street, where I was free to enter the Student Center or the Urban Life building without fighting the crowds. Why more students didn’t use this method of getting across Courtland was also a mystery to me. The lesson I learned is, despite the rules, customs, and courtesies, there are usually other options, and knowing one has options often makes all the difference.