Why do We Behave so Oddly in Lifts?

Why do We Behave so Oddly in Lifts?
By William Kremer
9 October 2012 BBC World Service

Many of us use them several times a day without really noticing. And yet the way we behave in lifts, or elevators as they are known in the US, reveals a hidden anxiety. “Most of us sort of shut down.” “We walk in. We press the button. We stand perfectly still.”

Taking the lift could be the least memorable part of your journey to work, but Dr Lee Gray of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte has made it his business to scrutinise this overlooked form of public transportation. People refer to him as “the Elevator Guy”.

“The lift becomes this interesting social space where etiquette is sort of odd,” he explains. “They are socially very interesting but often very awkward places.”

Elevator Etiquette

Passengers seem to know instinctively how to arrange themselves in an elevator… like the dots on a die. With each additional passenger, the bodies shift, slotting into the open spaces.

The goal, of course, is to maintain (but not too conspicuously) maximum distance and to counteract unwanted intimacies – a code familiar (to half the population) from the urinal bank and (to them and all the rest) from the subway.  Conversations that have been struck up in the lobby tend to be extinguished quite quickly in the thick atmosphere of the office elevator. We walk in and usually turn around to face the door.

If someone else comes in, we may have to move. And here, it has been observed that lift-travellers unthinkingly go through a set pattern of movements, as predetermined as a square dance.

On your own, you can do whatever you want – it’s your own little box. If there are two of you, you take different corners. Standing diagonally across from each other creates the greatest distance. When a third person enters, you will unconsciously form a triangle (breaking the analogy that some have made with dots on a dice). And when there is a fourth person it’s a square, with someone in every corner. A fifth person is probably going to have to stand in the middle.

Now we are in uncharted territory. New entrants to the lift will need to size up the situation when the doors slide open and then act decisively. Once in, for most people the protocol is simple – look down, or examine your phone.

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