Elevator Proxemics

Proxemics was a term coined by anthropologist Edward Hall to describe the study of "man's use of space as a specialized elaboration of culture."

Elevator proxemics, by extension, is the study of the use of space in elevators. Or put another way, how people behave in elevators.

The most widely cited expert on this subject is the psychologist Layne Longfellow. On his website, he describes how he became the media's go-to guy for questions about elevator behavior:

It's the mid-1970s, and I am in my office, Director of Executive Seminars at The Menninger Foundation. My phone rings, and my friend Ralph Keyes, the writer, says, "I'm doing an article for New York magazine on how to behave in an elevator. I'd like to interview you."

"Ralph, I know nothing about it and have never given it a second thought."

"I know, but you have a prestigious position as a psychologist and you're funny, so make something up."

I leaned back in my swivel chair, tossed my feet up on my desk, gazed unfixedly into the trees outside my window, and said some things that I thought were, in fact, funny - but also true. Ralph published the article, and then my phone REALLY began to ring - I had entered the world's media archives as an expert on elevator behavior.

Below are a few nuggets of wisdom I've been able to glean about the science of elevator behavior, gathered from a handful of articles, mostly referencing Longfellow. Although a few other researchers have also been roped into becoming instant experts on the subject.

  • Studies of elevator body placement show a standard pattern. Normally the first person on grabs the corner by the buttons or a corner in the rear. The next passenger takes a catercorner position. Then the remaining corners are seized, and next the mid-rear-wall and the center of the car. Then packing becomes indiscriminate.

  • "When the sixth person gets on you can watch the shuffle start," says Longfellow. "People don't quite know what to do with the sixth person. Then another set of rules comes into play governing body contact."

  • In an uncrowded elevator, men stand with hands folded in front or women will hold their purses in front. That's called the Fig Leaf Position. Longfellow says, "As it gets more crowded you can see hands unfold and come down to the sides, because if you have your hands folded in front of you in a really crowded elevator, there's no telling where your knuckles might end up. So out of respect for the privacy of other people you unfold them and put them at your side."

  • High-status individuals are given more space. For instance, if the president of the company gets on, he gets more space.

  • Men leave more space between themselves and other men than women do with other women.

  • People tend to put more space between themselves and others wearing bright colors because, says psychologist Robert Sommer, "it's too much stimulation."

  • According to Ralph Keyes, "The self-confident, it turns out, never get on first. Instead, they wait affably with underlings for the cab, then wave everyone ahead into the car like a hen mothering chicks."

  • Passengers avoid eye contact because, explains Longfellow, "eye contact, especially in American culture, is the root to intimacy."

  • "The ultimate egregious faux pas a person can commit in an elevator is to face the back," says Longfellow. "Everybody allocates as much space as possible to the lunatic who's facing the wrong way. If you'll do something so outrageous as to stand backwards and look at them, God knows what else you would do."

  • Everyone looks at the numbers. The most common explanation for this is that it allows everyone to avoid eye contact, and it gives people "the appearance of having something to do." But anthropologist Harvey Sarles argues that the real reason to watch the numbers "is to enhance peripheral vision and allow you to keep an eye out for any quick, dangerous movements around you. Then if someone is going to jump you, you can make an adjustment."

Longfellow eventually distilled his knowledge into a handy 7-point guide to How To Behave In An Elevator:

  1. Face forward.

  2. Fold hands in front.

  3. Do not make eye contact.

  4. Watch the numbers.

  5. Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.

  6. Stop talking with anyone you do know when anyone enters the elevator.

  7. Avoid brushing bodies.

Sources: LA Times - Aug 20, 1982; New York magazine - Nov 21, 1977. Image source: intro to soc.
     Posted By: Alex - Tue Aug 30, 2016
     Category: Etiquette and Formal Behavior

Who'd've ever thought to use the phrase "so make something up" and psychology in the same sentence.

Well, gee, Doc, back when I remember being Bucephalus, my buddy, Alex and I would ...
Posted by Expat47 in Athens, Greece on 08/30/16 at 08:13 AM
I must make many people in America uncomfortable when riding a lift. I'm sure that I've violated nearly all of those "rules" at some point. I've observed that America is basically a touchless society.
Posted by KDP on 08/30/16 at 08:31 AM
Exactly the sort of useless crap that fascinates academics.
Posted by A Nonny Mouse on 08/30/16 at 08:42 AM
It seems like elevator etiquette is a lot like urinal etiquette.
Posted by Fritz G on 08/31/16 at 07:25 AM
When someone asks me if I'm going up or down I always answer sideways.
Posted by BrokeDad in Midwest US on 09/01/16 at 05:18 PM
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