The Ups and Downs of Elevator Oddness

How many times have we walked into an elevator in the middle of an intense conversation just to shut up as soon as we pass the sliding-door threshold? Why do we separate from each other and then strike up the conversation again as soon as we exit the elevator? We gaze at our phones. We watch the numbers go tick-tick-tick. We even just stare at the door. Why do we do these things?

Dr. Lee Gray of the University of North Carolina has an answer: “The lift becomes this interesting social space where etiquette is sort of odd,” says Gray.

“You don’t have enough space,” adds Babette Renneberg, a psychologist in Berlin, We’re awkward, in other words, because crowded elevators violate the Western concept of personal space. Whereas Arabs, for example, will get on an elevator and stand close together while talking, even if they’re the only two people on the elevator, we’re almost obsessed with separating as much as possible.

There are all kinds of theories about how people behave in an elevator. Some contend that five people in an elevator will unconsciously adopt the shape of pips on a die. Others say that the reason we’re so subdued and awkward is that we don’t want to be seen as threatening or harassing in any way. Careers might be forever changed, or even lost, if a stray hand accidentally brushes against someone in an inadvertently inappropriate manner.

Gray also asserts that there is another reason we’re uneasy: lack of control. Sure, we push the buttons to choose our floor but, when we’re on the way, we are completely at the mercy of the equipment. We know there are safeguards. We know the little sign says the elevator can hold much more weight than is currently on it. We also know, however, that it’s a long, long way down, and that frightens us. Then, there’s the little problem of what to do if the elevator gets stuck between floors, especially if it’s after hours and most everyone else has gone home.

One New Yorker named Nick White recently spent nearly two days trapped inside an elevator. He even had to pry open the door and use the yawning shaft as a bathroom. Even today, knowing that statistics show his was an unusual case, it’s in the back of his mind every time he gets in an elevator. In fact, his ordeal was so damaging to him that he hasn’t returned to work since. He agrees with Gray that elevators are creepy and similar to a tomb in construction.

The fear and awkwardness apply even more in outside glass elevators. People who are afraid of heights now have a second anxiety to contend with. Also, knowing that modern elevators approach speeds of 40 mph makes us fearful. In a car, we have seat belts to protect us; in an elevator, on the side of a building or inside it, we have no such safeguards.