the social psychology of elevators


Check out this great article by Nick Paumgarten in the New Yorker on the history, future, and social psychology of elevators:

Passengers seem to know instinctively how to arrange themselves in an elevator. Two strangers will gravitate to the back corners, a third will stand by the door, at an isosceles remove, until a fourth comes in, at which point passengers three and four will spread toward the front corners, making room, in the center, for a fifth, and so on, 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. One should face front. Look up, down, or, if you must, straight ahead.

But most interesting is the story weaved throughout of BusinessWeek’s Nicholas White, who spent 41 hours trapped in an elevator.

Watch him go (quickly) insane here:

What happened to this guy after spending 41 hours isolated from the rest of the world? (SPOILER ALERT.  Read the article, it is really good):

At a certain point, Nicholas White ran out of ideas. Anger and vindictiveness took root. He began to think, They, whoever they were, shouldn’t be able to get away with this, that he deserved some compensation for the ordeal. He cast about for blame. He wondered where his colleague was, why she hadn’t been alarmed enough by his failure to return, jacketless, from smoking a cigarette to call security. Whose fault is this? he wondered. Who’s going to pay?…

Caught up in media attention (which he shunned but thrilled to), prodded by friends, and perhaps provoked by overly solicitous overtures from McGraw-Hill, White fell under the sway of renown and grievance, and then that of the legal establishment. He got a lawyer, and came to believe that returning to work might signal a degree of mental fitness detrimental to litigation. Instead, he spent eight weeks in Anguilla. Eventually, Business Week had to let him go. The lawsuit he filed, for twenty-five million dollars, against the building’s management and the elevator-maintenance company, took four years. They settled for an amount that White is not allowed to disclose, but he will not contest that it was a low number, hardly six figures. He never learned why the elevator stopped; there was talk of a power dip, but nothing definite. Meanwhile, White no longer had his job, which he’d held for fifteen years, and lost all contact with his former colleagues. He lost his apartment, spent all his money, and searched, mostly in vain, for paying work. He is currently unemployed.

Looking back on the experience now, with a peculiarly melancholic kind of bewilderment, he recognizes that he walked onto an elevator one night, with his life in one kind of shape, and emerged from it with his life in another. Still, he now sees that it wasn’t so much the elevator that changed him as his reaction to it. He has come to terms with the trauma of the experience but not with his decision to pursue a lawsuit instead of returning to work. If anything, it prolonged the entrapment. He won’t blame the elevator.

Yikes.  I am very glad that I live in a mostly flat college town, and on the first floor of my four story building.



8 thoughts on “the social psychology of elevators”

  1. Re the first part of this, we just had a lot of diversity training type stuff in which the “avoid interaction on elevators” custom of us White folks became iconic of what is seen as an unwelcoming environment for students of color. Whether you are friendly to strangers or even slight acquaintances (i.e. students in your class) when encountering them in halls, elevators or on the street is, it turns out, a matter of great cultural and also regional (or urban vs small town/rural) difference, and a source of a fair amount of inter-ethnic bad feeling. I almost included this as an example in my r-word post. Black people have generally been raised that when you encounter another person, you look at them and greet them and acknowledge them as a human being, and not to do so is insulting to the other person.


  2. Interesting! I never knew that. I hardly spend any time in elevators, and so I never know what to do. Part of the assimilation process, it appears, is that I have learned to do nothing. Which is weird. The times I am in elevators I am at conferences with other faculty, and somehow conversation grinds to a halt in the elevator and picks up when we exit. That’s just plain silly.


  3. At the last ASA conference, I was on a crowded elevator in the conference hotel. Just as the doors were closing, someone excitedly shouted “TINA!” from the hallway, in the sort of tone that is usually reserved for spotting one-named rock stars. That was the only time I ever felt like a sociology celebrity.


  4. So, even though all of my conference funding comes out-of-pocket (cursed doctor of juridical science program that is not a part of the grad division nor with any funding of its own), I was checking out the schedule for the ASA this year. It looks interesting! I even have a law prof friend to crash with in Boston!

    But combining the flight + conference registration, I just can’t justify that cost, especially since I have to save up for my annual Employment and Labor Law Colloquium. So I’m missing out LSA in Montreal (US Dollar < Canadian Doller = WTF), ASA in Boston, and will thus see you at ASA in 2009 in SF and LSA in 2009 in Denver.

    Too bad, I really want to meet sociology rockstars.

    Tina, that sounds like a Rolling Stones story. Awesome.


  5. Did I just say “doller”? I must have been speaking Canadian.

    Also, an evil thought occurred to me. When I was a student helping out with registration at the Society of American Law Teachers conference, I thought “hey, these things are so easy to crash!” Indeed, they are. I have tons of badges with my name on them. You just need one of the plastic sleeves and a sharpie and an index card, and you can sneak in. This is not unlike how I would read books for free in Barnes and Noble when new releases were not yet available at the public library.

    Evil mind + loose morals + empty wallet + hunger for knowledge = Bad Belle.


  6. olderwoman…. my students of color, esp my African American students, frequently tell me that they prefer face to face communication over email.. makes me wonder if email feels like the elevator avoidance thing to them. it also makes me worry that email –the preferred communication for many of us — is not the best way of reaching out to all of our students.


  7. Are there any regional or locational differences? I notice that in the elevator in my building (half classrooms, half dept. offices), I often smile at people and make comments, or vice versa. But in other buildings I’m less likely to do so.


  8. tamsynx, it seems likely that there are at least location-based differences in communication in elevators. the context would differ based on the public/private nature of the elevator (is it your place of employment? are you a visitor? who else uses the elevator?) and one’s status. presumably doctors feel more comfortable in making small talk in a hospital elevator than a small family may feel in the same elevator.


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