Elevator etiquette

Lately I have worked on a project where most of the work is done more than 30 floors above ground level. For the Netherlands that is quite exceptional. This country is flat and many cities seem to be reluctant in allowing high rise buildings. This project is therefore a unique opportunity to study an interesting social phenomenon: elevator etiquette.

Earlier observations suggest that in general people will avoid communication in the elevator. Humans are social animals but when stepping into an elevator at the start of an office day one would not necessarily come to the conclusion. No talking, barely any eye contact and some nervous shuffling to allow for additional people stepping into the small box. The mirrors (implemented to avoid claustrophobic anxiety) get some attention and in complete silence we go up. Only on exit the leavers mumble something about wishing you a good working day.

Being forced into someone’s personal space without actually making contact feels kind of awkward; my latest research shows the awkwardness increases with the height of the building but rarely to a level that initiates social contact, at least not within 34 floors. In the nature-vs-nurture discussion, this type of behavior illustrates how we learn social conventions later in life.

This becomes clear when circumstances force a random group of individuals into cooperation. For instance when a cleaner or maintenance person comes in with equipment that only will fit when the whole group rearranges. Immediate deliberation involving all fellow travelers starts quickly. The result is a creative rearrangement even taking into account the order in which we have to get out. After that the interaction continues until the everyone reaches his or her destination. To me this suggests a latent desire to engage in conversation despite the social conditioning.

Follow up research

My project will run for at least another two months which allows for time to set up some interesting experiments. On-line research on the topic of most-annoying-things-to-do-in-an-elevator suggests the following options:

  • Meow occasionally
  • When there’s only one other person in the elevator, tap them on the shoulder and then pretend it wasn’t you
  • Say “ding” at each floor
  • When the doors close, announce to the others, “It’s okay. Don’t panic, they open up again!”
  • Pretend you are a flight attendant and review emergency procedures and exits with the passengers

Although each of these actions can provide deep understanding into human nature and social dynamics, I will probably be able to resist the temptation to actually execute them. Therefore I have to settle for your feedback on first hand experience with elevator etiquette. I am especially interested in how high-rise buildings impact the behavior of different cultures.