Do you lock the door to your home when you’re inside during the day? Or do you leave the door open if you are just running out for a minute? Some people, even in unforgiving New York City, do not. They are called the No Lock People.

But if we’re all locking our doors then we’re acting in concert to reduce opportunities for burglaries. One instance of not locking up, even if it’s in a closed system, compromises safety. The doorman could step away from his post, or someone could leave the main door unlocked. Someone who is stepping out for a “minute” could find that they have to stay away from their apartment longer than expected. Theoretically locking up offers increased safety, but anything can happen–whether or not you lock your door. Matters of personal safety aside, why then do we lock up?

Privacy is an institutionalized mode of withdrawal. And we withdraw as a coping mechanism. It’s a chance to reset and recharge particularly when it comes to relationships, which might become unbearable under a constant requirement to interact. In all interactions, there is a threshold at which point it becomes painful–we become overstimulated–and taking leave of each other or the situation allows us to maintain the larger relationship because it gives us time to reflect and recollect. This is true even of the most gregarious people, although they may require less time to recharge.

As such, guarantees of privacy are important. And the sort of withdrawal described above is built into every establishment: the allowance of privacy is a social code that both sides must recognize to some degree and adhere to. In other words, when someone walks away or shuts a door, there is a social recognition that we should not chase after them or break down the door. They’ve ended the interaction and are establishing distance.

Locking a door creates a self-defined barrier between yourself and others. S has a habit of turning the door handle to let himself in when we are expected at the homes of our friends and family members. He is always somewhat surprised when the door is locked because we’ve been invited into that space. But leaving the door open means that the door is open to everyone. And a violation of that person’s space–if someone who was not invited were to enter–may be a violation of self. This is one of the reasons break-ins have the emotional impact that they do: trespassing on an individual’s private space removes some of the individual’s control over that space.

So there are clear rules over who may open a door or who may enter through a particular door. Children, for example, are taught that they should not enter their parents’ room unannounced, while parents can bypass a shut door to a certain degree–certain allowances for privacy may be made with older children who have developed a greater sense of self. The back door to a home may be the more frequently used entrance for regular visitors, while the front door may be reserved for infrequent guests or specific occasions. We use these pathways into our homes to set the tone for the ensuing encounters. A locked door manages assertions of authority or familiarity, both of which carry with them a sense of power.

Overall privacy is a luxury. It can be purchased to differing measures. The locked door becomes important because it’s the lowest common denominator we can access that allows us to separate the self from the roles and responsibilities we might occupy in the public sphere. Behind closed doors we can indulge in secretive consumption that might otherwise threaten our public sense of respectability.

The No Lock People flout this sense of luxury. So are these views on locking up a regional thing? Outside of a large metropolis, are people leaving their doors open? Is small town security sufficient to preserving the sense of self we strive to maintain with a locked door?

Schwartz, Barry (1968). The Social Psychology of Privacy, American Journal of Sociology 73(6): 741-752.

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