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Elevator Behavior: The Good, The Bad and the Bizarre

By:  Ann Curtis Jul 18, 2013
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People in an elevator

Each year on the final Friday in July, the United States observes National Talk in the Elevator Day, an annual reminder of just how much time we spend waiting for and riding in these vertical people movers. While elevators are among the safest forms of public transportation, they’re also one of the most uncomfortable, and they can lead to some strange encounters. So in honor of the big day, which will be celebrated on July 26 this year, we decided to explore some of the oddest behavior seen in elevators and to find out just why these vehicles inspire such strange activities.

Awkward but Harmless Behavior

You don't have to be claustrophobic to feel tense when dealing with the forced closeness of elevator travel. According to Jodi R.R. Smith, author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners, (Sterling), elevators break down the careful boundaries we all create, especially in our professional lives. “In an elevator, especially a crowded one, we are well within other people’s bubbles. And occasionally we are even touching, shoulder to shoulder. This makes us here in the United States very uncomfortable.” Regular riders have come up with a host of coping methods to handle the daily interactions that can stretch the borders of normal social relations to the breaking point. Here, some of the most common avoidance techniques:

  • The smartphone escape: This move says, I’m so busy emailing I don’t have time to acknowledge other passengers.
  • The quick smile with barely any eye contact: Lets others know you see them, but tells them that if you wanted to talk, you would have said hello.
  • The ‘Don’t box me in’ stance: Give your fellow passengers their space and communicate with your body language that you expect the same courtesy.
  • The pointless comment: It could be about the weather (could it get any hotter?) or the day of the week (thank God it’s Friday!). The topic is irrelevant; this friendly gesture acknowledges that we’re all in this together.
  • The information overload: No one wants to be stuck with a chatty Cathy, but have some sympathy – fear of elevators is a common phobia, and some sufferers try to distract themselves by striking up a conversation. Of course the incessant talker may just be under the impression that she’s fascinating.

The Mirror Effect

Fun fact: Elevator companies first installed mirrors to distract people from thinking about their fear of the elevator crashing down. Instead of staring at a blank wall and worrying about impending doom, riders could focus on whether their hair looked okay or check for spinach in their teeth. These days, some folks view the presence of mirrors as a license totreat the elevator like their own personal grooming station.

When Careerbuilder.com asked American workers to share the weirdest behavior they had seen in an office elevator, respondents were only too happy to vent about inappropriate grooming. Corporate America has seen fellow travelers change a baby’s diaper; floss teeth; clip fingernails; and flash a rash and ask for a diagnosis while riding between floors.

Bizarre Behavior

Of course, not all tales of elevator annoyances are as harmless as watching a lipstick touchup. That same Careerbuilder.com survey cited a number of in-your-face instances of elevator misbehavior, including “pantsing” another passenger, fist fighting and even boogying for the duration of the ride.

Smith’s favorite tale of an awesomely bad elevator experience happened to a friend of hers, who was riding in a New York City lift with women speaking another language – one she happened to be fluent in. “The two women riding the elevator tore her apart,” says Smith. “When my friend got to her floor she turned and, in the same language, said that she had thought she actually looked pretty good that day. The women were shocked!”

Taking Charge of the Elevator Experience

While these instances are pretty extreme, it turns out that simply getting on an occupied elevator – and even waiting for the elevator to arrive – are among the least enjoyable moments of the day, according to the same survey. So do a little check-in to make sure you’re bringing your best manners to the elevator:

  • Do: Hold the elevator door when someone is rushing to catch it.
  • Don’t: Talk on your cell phone as if you are completely alone.
  • Do: Make sure to give others in the elevator their breathing room by automatically adjusting where you stand as others enter the elevator.

And, in honor of National Talk in the Elevator Day, take a chance and make a light connection with other riders and own your vertical commute. Smith, the etiquette expert, offers some tips to get you started:

  • If you're riding with a stranger, you could use the holiday as an ice breaker: “Good morning. Have you ever heard of National Talk in the Elevator Day?”
  • If you’re onboard with your boss: Keep it light and polite. A simple “Good morning” will do. If she makes eye contact and responds, you can ask, “Any big vacation plans coming up?”
  • If you’re sharing the car with your crush: Avoid work talk, avoid politics and avoid turning into an interrogator with rapid-fire questions. Try a simple flirt: Make eye contact, smile and look away. Keep the conversation positive and lively.  

And remember, don’t go too far. You’ll probably see these people in the elevator again very soon.