By Sanah Thakur
The universal experience of riding an elevator can be summed up in one word: awkward. And time has changed nothing, whether magazines and pagers were companions or highly advanced cellphones – the journey essentially involves a state of awkwardness.
I’m the type of person who loves being attentive to human behaviour in social settings and that’s why it intrigued me why we all conformed to the unspoken etiquette of elevator rides. Isn’t it funny that we hardly ever witness anything drastically different from silence, prolonged stares at the level buttons or looking intensely downwards? Imagine someone walking in screaming at the top of their voice or deciding to crouch on the floor. That would be uncomfortable. Even having someone walk in and stand in the opposite direction of the door would create confusion, because hey, no one really ever does that.
My curiosity escorted my fingers to the keypad of my laptop, to type in ‘awkward elevator rides’ and to my surprise, curiosity had led researchers to the same. The characteristic stance of standing uncomfortable in tension, (what I’ve referred to as the awkwardness), is believably instinctive, according to Professor Dario Maestripieri from the University of Chicago. The innate way of responding to danger has also remained eternally the same, for about a million years! Behaviour in elevators is mostly odd and while we believe its rational thinking, Professor Maestripieri disagrees. Entering into close proximity with strangers triggers a protective stance because the mind perceives a threat of aggression. He explains that while this threat is not real, our mind responds as if it is and therefore produces protective behaviours. This explains why we often walk into an elevator and move towards the corners or at an arm’s length from the people inside it. The confined space creates a feeling of discomfort, as we aren’t used to being socially intimate with people we ‘really don’t know’.
Typical behaviours one can spot in an elevator are usually disguised distractions from the silence. Texting consistently, staring into the depths of the insecurity highlighting mirror or essentially anything to avoid eye contact. Lee Gray, Associate Dean at the University of North Carolina, and also ‘Elevator Historian’, comments on the oddness of elevator behaviour in his NPR interview. “Well, I think one of the things that first, to sort of characterise it, is, we’re all accustomed to go into the buildings. We all know buildings are filled with technology. But this is the only piece of technology that looks like a lot of other spaces in the building. In other words, it looks like a room, although it’s a very, very small one. And we all know how we behave in rooms. We give each other an appropriate amount of little, polite, social distance between ourselves. And that’s all fine until we’re in the tiny, tiny room – that’s the elevator”. It’s interesting to notice how space can change social behaviour and bring it to a level of adolescent awkwardness. Often, I’ve walked into two people engaging in intense conversation and the minute I walk into the elevator, it seems almost rude to continue speaking because the norms of behaviour change instantly. Elevator rides are essentially social situations which change with every individual’s entry and exit, creating a dance in behavioural responses. Hence why, it never feels normal to ride an elevator unless you’re completely alone.
While the eternity of this awkward behaviour seems to be going nowhere, I did find relief in one study on releasing this behavioural tension. Maestripieri’s research studies revealed that the simple act of smiling could eliminate the likelihood of aggression. It seems easy to walk into an elevator and smile at the occupants, yet I can count the number of times I’ve experienced a journey with smiling strangers. So the next time you walk into an elevator, remember, however awkward it gets, you can always just SMILE.
*The author can be contacted on Instagram @sincerelysanah
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