For most people, the accepted norm for an elevator ride is: Get in and position yourself as far from others as possible, face forward, be still, stand up straight and stare silently at the door, or your cellphone, until you get to your floor.
Is that really how it should be? Germany-based theyssenkrupp Elevator doesn’t think so. The company has issued a challenge to us all: Start talking when riding elevators.
Seven billion elevator trips happen every day, according to a survey by the company, and two-thirds of the people riding do so in complete silence. If each journey lasts an average of 30 seconds, that adds up to more than 38 million hours in silence each day, theyssenkrupp’s research suggests.
But according to various research projects and studies, even small and seemingly superficial encounters among strangers can have significant emotional and physical health benefits for the people involved.
A landmark study of Chicago commuters by Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder found that people were overwhelmingly mistaken when they believed they preferred silence and isolation to an interaction with a stranger.
“To examine the experience of connecting to strangers, we instructed commuters on trains and buses to connect with a stranger near them, to remain disconnected, or to commute as normal,” the authors wrote in a paper. “Participants reported a more positive (and no less productive) experience when they connected than when they did not. Separate participants in each context, however, expected precisely the opposite outcome, predicting a more positive experience in solitude. This mistaken preference for solitude stems partly from underestimating others’ interest in connecting, which in turn keeps people from learning the actual consequences of social interaction.”
Shawn Horn, a psychologist in Spokane, Wash., who specializes in shame, said some of the reasons behind our closed and wary behavioral norms around elevator use may have biological and neurological roots.
“We are bio-neurologically hard-wired to survive,” she said. “The elevator is an intimate, closed container with no escape, and if you are stuck with someone you don’t want to talk to and you can’t leave, it does not feel safe. We’re vulnerable and may go into a protective position, standing face-forward, waiting.”
It’s one thing to enjoy a moment of quiet mindfulness on an elevator, she said, but if you’re shutting down because you’re worried people might judge you for talking to them, that limits your opportunities to connect with people.
An elevator ride can “create shared experiences that go some way to eliminating this loneliness that people may feel in a built-up environment,” theyssenkrupp said in a statement.
But not every elevator manufacturer wants their product to become a venue for chitchat. Mowrey Elevator offers a guide to personal space on elevators and advice on when it’s OK to talk.
“While exchanging quick pleasantries with other passengers is considered well within the range of good elevator etiquette, striking up awkward conversations with strangers or carrying on conversations with your friends in a loud manner is not OK,” the company, based in Florida, recommends.
And if you’re having a conversation with someone before you get on the elevator? Put it on pause until you’re out of “the sanctity of an elevator car,” Mowrey advises: When the doors shut, so should your mouths.
Renée Gilbert, a clinical psychologist and member of the Washington State Psychological Association who teaches courses on shyness, anxiety and social skills, warned that social interactions in elevators can be tricky.
“Elevators are a different kind of animal. It’s not a one-size-fits-all situation,” she said. The atmosphere in an elevator may depend on the building it’s serving. Is it an office, a restaurant, a sports stadium, a hospital? The mood in each may be different, she said.
In each case, it’s important to “read your environment,” Gilbert said.
It’s ultimately the awareness of others, and their needs, that contributes the most to the well-being of both the person who is willing to strike up a conversation in a small space and the person they talk to.
Cortney Anderson-Sanford, an etiquette expert who splits her time between Seattle and Baltimore County, Md., warns us not to let our protective bubbles get too big.
“When I teach my classes, I really get into the fact that we are an isolated society and have lost the ability for polite and meaningful conversation,” Anderson-Sanford said.
She tells people who are willing to open up to the world to make eye contact, smile, hold their head and shoulders up and to put their devices away.
“You don’t have to have a big, cheesy, Joker look on your face,” she said, “but you never know who you will smile at that needs an uplift.”
The underlying principles of good manners are not about just using the proper forks, she said, but rather and more important, the idea that it is not all about us.
“We need to look outward and be aware of our fellow humans,” she said. “We can be fed by each other. It can get us through the day.”