I’m in a local convenience store buying a single-serving carton of milk. The clerk silently rings through my milk and the total appears on a little display next to the cash register. I glance at the total and give the guy a toonie. As he counts the change into my hand he says, “Dime and two pennies.”
Ordinarily I don’t pay attention to small change, but the clerk’s unusual choice of words makes me pause. “Shouldn’t that be a penny and two dimes?” I say.
The clerk looks at me blankly. “No…” he says, and hits a series of buttons on the cash register, causing the receipt to print out and the total to reappear on the little screen. I look at the screen. $1.79, it reads.
He’s squinting at the printed receipt. “No, $1.88, that’s right,” he says.
“But your screen says $1.79.”
He leans across the counter so that he can see the display. “No, that’s the subtotal,” he says. “The total after tax is down here, in red.”
He’s right. The total is bright red and in a much larger font, but somehow I’d missed it. “Sorry,” I mutter, and lug my single-serving carton of milk toward the door.
I’m in the little drugstore downstairs, buying a few groceries and renting a movie. It’s late in the evening and there are no other customers, but there are two people behind the counter. One is an attractive girl in her late teens. The other is a woman in her sixties.
I shop here all the time, so both women know me by sight. As the computer prints out the receipt that I’ll have to sign in order to rent the movie, the older woman makes small talk with me. Then, silently, someone farts.
When I catch a whiff of it I stop in the middle of a word and my eyes bug out. But I don’t say anything. Neither do the two women. We just stand there smiling at each other, holding our breath, wondering who did it.
If a stranger walked into the store at this moment and smelled the fart, sizing up the three possible perpetrators, there’s no doubt as to whom he would mentally assign responsibility. With my beard and shaggy hair and generally rumpled appearance I’m by far the likeliest farter.
Knowing that I’m innocent, I pin the blame on the next likeliest farter – the old woman. But the attractive teenage girl (assuming that she didn’t do it) has no way of knowing that I’m innocent. She’s going to pin the blame on me.
As I sign the receipt I’m thinking, now every time I come into the store this good-looking girl is going to think of me as that disgusting slob who couldn’t wait thirty seconds to get outside before uncorking this monumental fart.
Still holding my breath, I tuck the DVD and groceries under my arm and head for fresh air, silently cursing the old woman.
This anecdote can best be explained with the help of a diagram.
The situation I’m describing takes place at the door to my apartment building, but the diagram applies to any door through which large numbers of mutual strangers pass. The diagram defines your obligations if you pass through the door first and someone is coming up behind you.
If the follower is in zone A, you’re expected to hold the door open for him or her. If the follower is in zone C, there is no such requirement – in fact, it would look odd if you were to stand there holding the door waiting for the follower to catch up.
(Obviously the distances involved vary, depending on the amount of foot traffic, whether or not the door has a lock, whether or not the follower is carrying groceries, and so forth.)
This story concerns zone B, which is the awkward area where it’s unclear whether you’re expected to hold the door or not. I reached the door just as one of my neighbours was getting out of her car on the far side of the parking lot. As I passed through I glanced back and saw that she was on the further edge of zone B – that is, she was just barely within the range where she might reasonably expect me to hold the door for her. I hesitated.
Then I thought, in the time I’m waiting for her to catch up, I can cross the lobby to my mailbox and check my mail, and be back to the door in time to open it for her. So I stepped inside and let the door fall closed.
Then I realised that I was being unrealistic. There was no way I could fish the key out of my pocket and unlock, open, close, and re-lock the mailbox, in the five seconds remaining before my neighbour arrived at the door. Shaking my head at my own stupidity, I turned around and opened the door. My neighbour passed through and gave me a “thank you” and a funny look.
From her point of view it must have looked like I’d deliberately decided to close the door in her face, reconsidered, and with a shake of my head, reluctantly reversed myself.
Even if I were the kind of person who struck up random weird conversations with my neighbours, there’s no way I could have explained my ill-considered feint toward the mailbox. So I just nodded and let her pass.
Things could have turned out worse. At least I came back and opened the door.