Elevators are a goldmine for armchair anthropologists. Where else can you find a random sampling of 10 to 15 human beings with wildly different standards of personal space and personal hygiene forcibly comingled in such an awkward, tightly packed cube? Forget the dinner table — the elevator is where good manners matter the most.
In the 1960s, a scientist named Edward Hall invented the field of proxemics, the study of how humans use personal space as an important form of nonverbal communication. Hall's experiments found that people — OK, American people — divide their personal space into four categories [source: Inglis-Arkell]:
- Public space = at least 12 feet (3.6 meters) away
- Social space = at least 4 feet (1 meter) away
- Personal space = at least 1.5 feet (48 centimeters) away
- Intimate space = way too close for anybody you don't want to make out with
The elevator laughs at your definitions of personal and public space. "In here," it proclaims, "we're all equally uncomfortable!" To make the best out of your next 30-second trip in vertical transportation hell, follow our 10 weird (but indispensable!) rules of elevator etiquette.
The two-flight rule is simple enough for a toddler or even a college student to understand: Do not take the elevator unless you are traveling at least two flights up or down. This rule will save you from the piercing stares and eye-rolling sighs of your fellow passengers as you prolong their elevator agony for, like, 20 seconds (!) just so could you avoid walking 12 measly steps.
Yes, we obviously allow exceptions to the two-flight rule for the elderly, people with disabilities, parents with strollers, and buildings where the stairwell is hidden better than a North Korean missile silo or the doors to the stairs lock behind you. But if you have a pair of perfectly good legs and are not carrying a box equal or greater than the weight of an adolescent hippo, you need to take the steps, pal.
If you've ever worked in an old office building with one functioning elevator, you will be familiar with Mr. Oblivious. He's the one who walks into a crowded lobby and waltzes straight up to the elevator doors (pressing the already pressed "up" button, of course) seemingly unaware of the snaking line of impatient people fantasizing about creative ways to hurt him.
Then there's Contestant No. 1 who thinks he's on some sort of hidden-camera game show called "Guess That Elevator!" This guy ignores the rule of etiquette concerning multiple elevators. If there are four elevators in a busy building, you don't split up into four groups like you're betting on which one will "ding!" next. You should wait in a single-file line and board available elevators on a first-come, first-serve basis.
This next pearl of elevator etiquette comes from the self-styled "Manners Mentor" Maralee McKee. (If you question her commitment to alliteration, check out her latest book, Manners That Matter for Moms.) McKee takes a studied approach to the age-old elevator-boarding question: ladies first?
The answer: It depends on the context. In a social situation — riding down to dinner at a dungeon-themed restaurant, riding up to the nosebleed section at a Sting concert — it's customary for ladies to board and exit first.
A busy office building is a different story, she says. In the workplace, women and men expect to be treated as equals. In an elevator, that means you should be equally unfriendly to everyone. If you're a dude and you're first in line, board first.
Of course, this may vary by U.S. region or country. If you're female, and your male colleague steps aside so you can board first, say thank you and enjoy the courtesy.
Ignore for a moment the hotly debated issue of whether the "door close" button even works. We'll leave that to the experts. Our question is simple: Do you or do you not hold the door for a late-arriving passenger?
First there's the "do unto others" and "karma" camp, who argue that you should hold the door open under all circumstances. Compassion and simple decency, they say, should override any complaints about wasted time. Then there are the hardliners who argue that no door should be held open under any circumstance, letting the wheels (or in this case, the doors) of fate decide.
Here's my own improvised policy — three different rules for three distinct situations:
- If you are alone in the elevator, you should always hold the door.
- If there are a few other people in the elevator, but you are the designated "button pusher," use your discretion. (Did the person see your face? Do they seem desperate? Is it your boss?)
- If the elevator is very full, let the doors close, but make a lame, shrugging "Sorry!" face.
Let's revisit proxemics for a second, the study of human behavior as it relates to public and private space. If you're a man, then you are already a student of the urinal theory of proxemics, which states:
- If you enter a bathroom and someone is using one of the urinals, use the urinal the farthest away from that person
- If multiple urinals are occupied, make sure there is at least one empty urinal between you and the next person
- If all urinals are occupied, take the next available one, but look directly at the wall in front of you at all times
The elevator, it turns out, has similarly strict spacing rules [source: Driver]:
- Two people on an elevator should stand on opposite sides of the car.
- Three to four should gravitate to the corners.
- Five or more should space themselves evenly, face forward, keeping hands and arms straight down to avoid contact.
- More than 10 should check the posted weight limit.
Even if you ignore all other rules of elevator etiquette — you cut the line, talk loudly on your cell phone and travel a grand total of one floor — do not break this one: Face the doors.
Most people can deal with standing way too close to someone for a few seconds, if that someone's face is pointed in a neutral, parallel direction. If you turn around and put your back to the door, it creates an awkwardly confrontational standing situation. Or, your fellow riders might think you're from another planet.
The whole "facing forward in the elevator" thing apparently came from the mid-1800s when elevators had a back row of benches [source: NPR]. (This seems like a custom that should be revived). The only exception to this front-facing rule might be standing with your back against one side of the elevator, but only in a noncrowded car situation.
Yes, elevators are giant dangling yo-yos of awkwardness, but one way to dissolve a little of the tension of traveling in a tight space with strangers is to give everyone a generic nodding smile. It's an effective nonverbal way of saying, "Hi, I'm normal. Excuse me while I invade your intimate space."
The key to a good nodding smile is to keep eye contact to a minimum. After that, shift your attention immediately to something else. Anything else. Your smartphone. The exciting parade of numbers over the door. The scrawled inspection log.
All the more reason NOT to go back for seconds on eye contact. Staring is second only to passing gas on the list of elevator no-nos. The only exception is if you're commenting on something mundane, like your elevator mate's cool earrings or overstuffed briefcase. Then it's right back to the inspection log before things get weird.
There's a unique power dynamic that only exists inside elevators. The car is divided between the normal powerless riders and [cue dramatic music] the Button Master. If three or fewer people board an elevator, there is no need for a Button Master. Each passenger is expected to push his own button before gravitating toward his lonely corner. But if four or more people squeeze into the box, someone must wrest the proverbial Excalibur from the stone and accept their true, if temporary, calling as Master of the Buttons!
Know this first — you will receive no wage as Button Master. No one is going to give you one of those cool 1920s red bellhop hats with the chin strap, either. Your job is simple, but the responsibility is sacred. As each new person boards the elevator, you are to ask, "What floor?" and press the button for the corresponding floor. Don't try to be cute and say things like, "As you wish, sir!" or "At your service!"
Even if you're not originally chosen as Button Master, you need to be ready to carry the flag if the anointed one unexpectedly exits. As a rule, the person closest to the first Button Master is Vice Button Master and assumes the post when the first man or woman departs.
What, you didn't know your smartphone had an "elevator mode?" OK, it's not as much of a "mode" as a state of being. A state of being in your pocket, preferably off.
We definitely don't want to be trapped in an elevator listening to one side of an extremely private phone conversation about what you will do to Sandra if she ever tries to pull that kind of crap again. (Well, most of us don't. Some will prick up their ears to learn more about Sandra's fate – not what you want, either.)
If you are on the phone when boarding an elevator, tell the other person you'll call them back in a second. Same thing if you get a phone call while riding the elevator. Texting, however, is perfectly acceptable, as long as you're not the Button Master. Duty calls!
An overpacked elevator can be a scary place, especially if you're squeezed against the back wall of the car. Claustrophobia aside, there's the issue of successfully exiting the elevator when it gets to your floor. If your fellow passengers are ignorant of basic elevator etiquette, you might have to fight your way out with a mix of elbow jabs and clench-toothed exclamations of "Excuse me!"
Here's the rule. The two people standing closest to the door of the elevator should step out of the car at each requested stop and hold the doors open with one hand so passengers can exit without resorting to trampling.
Maralee McKee, the Manners Mentor, has another tip for extricating yourself from the back of a crowded elevator. When the car is approaching your destination, announce in a calm, friendly voice, "My floor is next" [source: McKee]. Most decent people will make room for you leave. For the rest, say hello to Mr. Elbow!
Some people get anxious about opening a gift in front of the giver in case they don't like it. HowStuffWorks looks at gift-giving etiquette.
Author's Note: 10 Weird Elevator Etiquette Rules
If you couldn't tell from my gushing description of rule No. 3, I love being the Button Master. If I board an elevator and no one else has claimed the post, I'm all over it. I take a disproportionate amount of civic pride in easing the journeys of my fellow passengers. It's one of those small courtesies, like holding open a door or stopping your car to let a pedestrian cross a busy roadway, that constitute the glue that holds society together. So before you mock my Button Master pride, think if you'd like to live in a world where every passenger has to press their own elevator button, like an animal. Not me, man. I'd rather take the stairs.
- Driver, Janine. "The unwritten rules of elevator etiquette." Today. Aug. 18, 2007. (July 11, 2014) http://www.today.com/id/20335786/ns/today-today_health/t/unwritten-rules-elevator-etiquette/#.U774rY1dWK5
- Inglis-Arkell, Esther. "Proxemics is the Science of Why You Shouldn't Stand So Close to Me." io9. June 10, 2014. (July 11, 2014) http://io9.com/proxemics-explains-how-close-you-can-stand-to-other-peo-1588551052
- McKee, Maralee. "Going Up? The Top Seven Tips for Savvy Elevator Riders." Manners Mentor. July 7, 2014 (July 11, 2014) http://www.mannersmentor.com/only-at-work/elevator-etiquette-the-dos-and-donts-of-riding-with-others-you-want-to-know
- NPR. "Why We Behave so Oddly in Elevators." Talk of the Nation. Dec. 24, 2012. (July 15, 2014). http://www.npr.org/2012/12/24/167977420/why-we-behave-so-oddly-in-elevators