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Elevator Anxiety

February 5, 2009
We’ve all been there. Waiting alone for the elevator, when a stranger walks up and waits beside us.

The awkward acknowledgement, the half smile where you’re eyes never quite meet. It seems to say: “I acknowledge your existence, but it would be easier for both of us if we don’t get too friendly.” Eventually the elevator arrives. Who goes in first? Probably the person who arrived first, unless it’s a man, then he might hold the door if the other person is a woman.

Once inside, the natural opening line is then: “Which floor?” or “could you press ‘5’ for me?” But what if there is only one level to choose from? Then what? In any case, what follows is a few moments of excruciating awkwardness.

For that moment you are the only two souls on earth, occupying an enclosed box, with only brushed metal walls, hand rails, and blinking numbers to distract you. In that moment, what do you do?

There are a few strategies:

1. My favorite: silence. In social psychology this is known as “dehumanizing” the other person. This is what happens on a crowded bus or subway when total strangers must occupy eachother’s personal space. The idea of being in such intimate proximity to a stranger is so traumatic, that the only way we can cope is to pretend they are not real people—don’t talk, don’t acknowledge, act like it’s not happening.

2. Talk about the shared experience (i.e. what’s inside the elevator). The trouble with this is that elevators tend to be the most sterile environments on earth. I’m always relieved to see advertisements, building maps, artwork, anything, inside an elevator. Then, if you must talk, you have a safe, non-threatening subject to begin the conversation.

3. Distraction. This is probably the most common elevator-coping-mechanism. We pull out our cell phones, send a text, dig through our purse, read the same bulletin posting that’s been up for the past year. Or we simply stare at the door, waiting for the imprisonment to end.

Doors Open:

You think it’s over, but there’s one more dilemma: who exits first? You don’t want to seem rude by bolting out the doors, but if you hesitate, and the other person also hesitates, that creates the awkward: “you first, no you, no really…after you” shuffle.

Most of this can be avoided by pre-emptive jockeying for position. Next time you take an elevator ride with one other person, notice the body language. Usually, one person will step towards the back of the elevator, signaling: I’m going to wait and exit after you. Once again, gender and chivalry plays into this, but things can get complicated when it’s two men or two women.


So, what’s the treatment for Elevator Anxiety? That is where I’m opening it up to you. How do you deal with this everyday awkwardness? Together, we overcome this fear, and ride confidently!

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