Cultural Affordances

As defined in The Design of Everyday Things,1 “affordances” are actions users of some object can take. Not only that, but they’re the actions the users themselves believe they can take. For example, a door with a flat metal panel affords pushing, and a door with a handle affords pulling. If the door swings the opposite way of what is expected, confusion ensues, and we can say the door was badly designed for that particular user.

What happens if we simply lift this idea from the world of design, and take it into the world of human-to-human interaction?

In any given conversation, the individuals involved are constantly giving each other small affordances. While asking questions, you’re clearly affording answers to your conversational partner. It’s good practice to ask open-ended questions, or at least questions that afford more than a single syllable in response, because not only does it give your partner a chance to talk about what interests them, it also gives them a chance to return the favor and give you plenty of affordances.

It’s unlikely that in talking to anybody even remotely unknown to you that every single point brought up in conversation will be both familiar and interesting to both parties. By bringing up multiple different topics, you’re allowing many possible threads of conversation to occur, since each new idea is a potential point for new discussion to branch off.

We all know what it’s like dealing with a poorly-designed door, and we all know what it’s like dealing with a poorly-flowing conversation. However, in conversation you actually have a chance to remedy the situation. (I suppose you could fix the door too if you wanted to bust out your screwdriver real quick.) If you’re skilled enough at directing the flow of ideas, you won’t have to suffer through as many boring conversations, since you’ll always be able to find some mutual interest that both you and your partner can implicitly agree makes for good discussion.

There are other affordances possible in day-to-day interactions. Some of these are completely silent. Ever had someone comment on a cool shirt you have representing some interest of yours? If you’ve just given a talk and are standing in the back of the room patiently looking around, it’s a good bet people will feel comfortable walking up and asking a few questions.

Some amount of our sum total shyness comes from a lack of good affordances, and some amount of this is intentional. For example, if someone’s wearing headphones, they’re usually seeking not to be disturbed. If you’re sitting around wearing headphones and expecting people to come up and talk to you, however, you’re probably not giving the right amount of affordances that you could possibly be giving.

It’s possible to give too many affordances and overwhelm people around you, just like it’s possible to have too many handles on the same door. Typically, though, the important thing is just figuring out which way the door opens, and from there getting it swinging wide open on its hinges is pretty smooth sailing.


  1. The Design of Everyday Things. Don Norman. 1988.


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