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The Millennial Guys Still Playing the ‘Doorknob’ Game

A psychoanalyst explains why some of us can't stop saying ‘safety’ — long after the threat of punches is gone

Nearly 14 years ago, Mit Ellis, a 26-year-old living in the U.K., witnessed a scene that would stay with him for life. He’d just entered a new school, and while he was perturbed to see it, he assumed it was “part of the lifestyle there.”

A kid got punched in the arm for not saying “safety” after he farted.

“It seemed like a bizarre ritual,” he tells MEL, “but there was no avoiding it, so my friends and I naturally joined in.”

For the following six years, Ellis became conditioned to saying “safety” after every burp or fart — it was the only way he could protect himself from being punched until he touched a doorknob.

To the uninitiated, this is a bizarre ritual. But to many men now in their late 20s and early 30s, this was merely an accepted law of growing up. The rule is simple, though many of us learned it the hard way: If you fart — especially if it’s audible — you must say “safety” before your friends can say “doorknob.” Otherwise, they proceed to punch you until you get up and touch a doorknob.

Decades later, the game still haunts those who fell victim to it. This is the Adult Male Doorknob Phenomenon. Why can’t millennial males shake it?

Perhaps it’s the years of conditioning. Perhaps it’s the nostalgic appeal. But for some reason, many men have taken to the internet to wonder if anyone else — now grown adults with jobs and responsibilities — still whisper “safety” to themselves after farting. It’s an deeply ingrained impulse they’re unable to avoid, even when they’re sitting alone with no visible threat of punches.

When you’re 25 and you still say “safety” after every fart. from CasualUK

What weird habit can’t you kick? from AskReddit

“I still say safety and I’m over 30,” says one redditor in an r/Nostalgia post asking if anyone else used to play it. “Hell, I say it even when there’s no one around to punch me. Some habits die hard.”

Ellis echoes the sentiment: “I finished school 10 years ago now, I’ve even moved away from where I grew up, but I still catch myself saying it out loud. A few weeks ago while driving on my own I said it out loud. I guess it’s just a habit.”

He adds that he’ll do it especially with audible farts, as if it excuses the fart or breaks the tension an audible fart causes. “Mainly in case I think someone may have heard,” he says.

Eliot, now 29, is another adult man who was conditioned to say safety after farting. He too played the game through his teen years, but stopped right around 17 or 18, he says.

“After that, I really don’t know why I continued saying it,” he tells MEL. “For the first few years [of college], I would say it really quietly under my breath; no one ever noticed I don’t think … but for I guess the last six or so years I only ‘think’ the word safety now.”

In reflection, Eliot “just [does it without thinking] … my mind just does it by default, which is quite weird now that I come to think of it.”

Eliot theorizes it’s just because he has “a routine-like personality when it comes to certain things, and this just kind of stuck.” But what about the rest? I reached out to Dr. Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst based in Tarrytown, New York, and author of The Making of a Psychoanalyst, to explain the Adult Male Doorknob Phenomenon.

As it turns out, there’s a lot more going on with this game than just farts and punches.

Luiz says this game serves as a sort of preparation for boys to become men by providing a safe space to practice managing our fight-or-flight responses. “[The game] creates a threat,” she explains, “which activates fight-or-flight response, for which there is a solution. So it involves quick thinking, courage and exposing yourself to a threat. All very traditionally ‘masculine’ activities that would prepare men for hunting and for war.”

Sure, it’s possible that all the farting and punching were easing us into the varied stresses of modern manhood. So why do guys like Ellis and Eliot still quietly whisper “safety” alone in their apartments after eking out a fart?

Luiz says this is a Pavlovian response: Saying “safety” after farting has been (literally) beaten into their reward systems. “The reward is palpable,” she explains. “That is, we will feel safe if we say ‘safety’ after the behavior that creates a threat.”

She adds, “It’s a double reward, really. The first reward is conjuring a game that creates the threat or challenge, and then there’s the reward of being quick enough to be safe. We may not forget this game, just for the sheer pleasure of it.”

There is, however, a less-fun counter-theory about why guys might play a silent doorknob game long into adulthood. Is it possible, I wondered, that some guys were experiencing mild PTSD? PTSD is based on the brain being “unable to let go of a threat,” Luiz explains, and just like with a Pavlovian response, “the brain wants to remember so that it can control a positive outcome.”

Luiz says it comes down to how individual guys experienced and played the game to determine whether the reflexive urge to say “safety” after farting is due to PTSD, “activating cortisol and adrenaline,” or due to a Pavlovian response “activating dopamine responses.”

“I will bet that since all men are different, you’d find variations in their shared impulse to keep replaying the word ‘safety’ even when they are already safe,” Luiz concludes.

In the case of Eliot, we can assume it’s not PTSD, but instead a small hit of dopamine, the brain’s joy juice, that keeps him saying “safety.” After all, he says, when he’s around his old friends and says “safety” or “doorknob” in response to a fart, he “can see them let out a nostalgic glimmering smile.” Good times.