What can doormen teach us about inequality?

doormen-peter-s-bearman-hardcover-cover-artMixing across social class boundaries is rare in the United States and becoming rarer. In places like New York City, the professional elites often live in well-manicured and exclusive buildings in coveted areas like the Upper East Side, and entry into this world is carefully controlled.

Doormen can be found in front of virtually every residential building in the coveted zip codes in Manhattan. Their presence helps to maintain boundaries between the tranquil, familiar “inside” world of the buildings and the chaotic and anonymous “outside” of the city streets. Yet even as tenants rely on doormen to create a separate space, the presence of doormen also creates unique social boundary problems. How doormen navigate these problems provides unusual insights about class interaction in America in Peter Bearman’s fascinating book “Doormen.”

The book was published in 2005 (but was on my winter reading list). The book’s themes have, if anything, become truer during our time of increasing class anxiety and a focus on the “one percent.” The book examines how doormen negotiate specific problems that arise on the job. Here are a few examples:

Getting a Job

Lots of people would like to become a doorman, but most doormen report that getting their jobs was very easy. How can this be?

Connections matter. Most doormen do not intend to go into their profession, but know the right people – either other doormen or building superintendents. These individuals provide an express lane into the coveted job of doorman, a job that provides paid vacation, a union negotiated salary, and generous benefits. Many doormen get their jobs without so much as filling out an application form.

One consequence of this informal process is that certain social groups are overrepresented, while others are vastly underrepresented. For example, there are pockets of certain immigrant groups like Poles and Dominicans in the doormen trade, but very few African Americans working as doormen. The absence of social networks that provide access to jobs for African Americans is thus revealed as a major, but not deliberate, source of inequality. This point is made vividly in Sandra Susan Smith’s 2007 “Lone Pursuit”, which traces out the reasons why African Americans are reluctant to aid others in their social networks in the job search process.

Unfortunately, this kind of social exclusion is very difficult to reverse in practice. While employers are nominally required to post jobs, and to conduct searches, it would be both impractical and unreasonable for them to turn down the chance to hire candidates that have already been screened, and known to be reliable. Moreover, because contacts stake their reputation on new hires, they have greater incentives to refer high quality people.

Policing the Door

Doormen don’t believe themselves to be racist, but they appear to treat racial minorities that want to enter the building in a different manner. What explains this behavior?

Bearman argues the appearance of racial exclusion actually arises mainly because doormen are trying to follow different tenant preferences – some tenants want their guests to be sent up directly, others ask that their guests wait downstairs until they are called. If a black guest arrives and asks to see a tenant with a strict visitor policy at the same time that a white guest arrives and asks to see a tenant with a lax visitor policy, this will create the appearance of racist treatment. If it happens many times it will lead to the collective experience of discrimination, as blacks are required to wait when whites are allowed to go up without a phone call.

I don’t find this explanation entirely satisfying – unless black guests are more likely to visit tenants with strict visitor policies, why wouldn’t it be just as likely that a black guest would be sent up while a white is asked to wait? There are two possibilities. One possibility is that people are more prone to read racial discrimination in those instances which blacks are asked to wait than when whites are asked to wait, because they anticipate a racist encounter (a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy). The other possibility is that doormen are implicitly following a racial profiling policy, perhaps using race as an imperfect (or downright inaccurate) proxy for the potential danger that a visitor poses for the safety of the building. This is a version of statistical discrimination, even if the doormen are incorrectly estimating the average risk posed by different groups, the idea is that it makes sense to apply greater scrutiny to visitors that have characteristics that are more likely to cause problems (younger, minorities, dress, patterns of speech, etc.). These problems are pervasive in the social sciences – they are found in the study of policing behavior, doctors, teachers, and virtually every other profession in which a gatekeeper is asked to subjectively assess the performance or behavior of others.

Small Talk

Why do doormen talk about the weather?

It turns out that doormen take pride in knowing the weather, and look down upon their colleagues who have not bothered to check the weather. It is useful information to provide to tenants. It is also a safe topic for small talk. Making conversation with tenants is an important part of a doorman’s job, but it is also fraught with peril – getting too deep into some conversations would risk compromising professional boundaries, creating misunderstandings, or reveal conflicts in values over politics or religion. Thus, doormen stick to trivial topics that are unlikely to give offense or to be particularly memorable.

This does not mean that small talk is useless. To the contract, Bearman argues it is an important “social lubricant.” Through conversations we can define how we stand in relation to one another in social settings, assert status, and allow people to transition into or out of spaces. He points out in an illuminating footnote that we can often learn much about social roles simply by “muting” cocktail parties and similar encounters, and watching actors take on their socially prescribed roles. To ensure that conversations remain trivial, doormen guard against “endogenous drift”, conversations that lead into more fraught territory: a conversation about the weather could drift into a conversations about how to dress which could drift into a conversation about social standards. This gets thorny for both participants, but particularly for the doorman. Doormen and their tenants are not necessarily going to agree on questions of value.

It is thornier for the doorman because he occupies a different, and lower social role. A tenant can make an inappropriate, or demeaning joke to a doorman much more easily than the reverse. For this reason doormen are much more guarded about revealing too much about themselves to tenants, but this objective comes into tension with the imperative to provide personal service to tenants and to make them feel like they are particularly appreciated. A savvy doorman knows which “safe” conversations are enjoyed by which tenants.

Social Policy from the Capillaries Up

Doormen is not a perfect book, but I love that it takes on nuanced questions of social policy at the level of “capillaries” the small channels through which social status is communicated, conflicts are resolved, and identities are created. This analytical lens is useful for many problems, but the real genius is finding a study population that provides a view into the micro-worlds out of which larger social realities are created.

6 responses to “What can doormen teach us about inequality?”

  1. Brendan
    I live on the Upper East Side. In a doorman bldg.

    I am also data driven, and recoil at n=1 explanations. Frequenting many bldgs in the neighborhood however, expands my sample size. I am agnostic on topic, meaning I am not beholden to neighborhood or my neighbors. Classicism and racism exist, but by reading above, you think the turf oozes a foul stench. 🙂

    Regardless, I read above and did not know if conclusions came from another planet. SHeesh, talk about not my experience.

    Maybe the book dealt with the financier/captain of industry type bldgs across from Central Park or on Madison or Park Ave (UES big place, vertically at least).

    I will check out book. Thanks for heads up, even if its a few years old. You have gotten me curious.


  2. Hey Brad,

    Thanks for the comment. If my post seemed to imply that racism (or class discrimination) is a pervasive features of the doorman’s job then I regret that summary very much. Most of the doormen in Bearman’s sample are very satisfied with their jobs and have positive feelings about their tenants (although interestingly not necessarily the guests that visit their buildings).

    The sample for the book is drawn from several neighborhoods in Manhattan, not exclusively the ultra fancy buildings.

    The point I was trying to bring out, which Bearman makes in the book, is that navigating boundaries of class, social status, and race are inevitable issues for doormen. They are well paid, but they constantly have to navigate boundaries of class in order to do their jobs effectively (and they almost invariably are very proud of their ability to deliver excellent service to their tenants).

    Hopefully you’ll give the book a read, and I’d love to hear more,


  3. The policing thing threw me. Strangers, no matter what ethnicity, dont go up. Tenants who invite staff to send folks north unrestricted will do so, so long as the guest does not tote a weapon (joke). The routine i have noted…most bldgs will have a policy to let person “x” up all the time, or on Sat. nite when having the party, due to familiarity or a guest list, If preordained instructions lay out rules, or your doormen knows visitors face, you dont have a problem. Random bodies dont show up in lobbies. Not getting it.

    I also have never talked weather. Weird. Comfort develops with staff. As they get to know you, you might share personal anecdotes or serious life encounters. I have a staff of 16 in my abode, and some of the guys (no women) have knocked on my door for medical advice. However, I get the lower social role space. Agree 100% until years of familiarity break the barrier.

  4. I know this is an old post, but I came across it searching for posts about discrimination against women in hiring NYC doorMEN. I am not minimizing the racial and ethnic discrimination, but after almost 15 years in NYC, I have never seen a female doorman. The only case I know of: A favorite waitress told us she was only waiting tables a little now because she had gotten a doorman’s job in a brand new building. I do not understand why there have not been major discrimination suits; I am not the only one wondering but there are very few:

  5. In 12 years of living in Manhattan I have seen exactly two female doormen. As a union profession, I often wonder how union leadership explains that their constituency is almost 100% male. It’s ironic, particularly with a president who believes that women should be allowed into combat military roles (I think that’s moronic and wholeheartedly disagree) yet, I see no reason why women can’t handle being doormen. They might even be more pleasant. It’s not as though doormen are asked to act as armed bouncers.

  6. How about opening your own freaking door. Why does this job exist in 2019 for residential buildings??!! Yeah some janitors love their jobs….give me a break. White people just love that old world-let-the-negro-do-it feel. That makes them feel special and superior. Hey Alexa, put me to sleep, breathe for me. Siri, tell the guests to wait in my boudoir! Get over yourselves and open your own freakin door, this isn’t 1787! The coveted doorman position???!!! Unbelievable!

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