A few years back, I was in a lift in a hotel in London. There were four or five of us, staring up at the numbers, or at the door, lost in our thoughts as we waited for the lift to get to our floor. On the second floor a young man walked in.
“Hiya, guys,” he said in a singsong Welsh accent. Nobody replied, and the lift started to move again. The friendly Welshman persisted: “I know we are not supposed to talk to people in lifts but look at you all, just standing there and not saying a word to each other, pretending that the other people don’t exist. There’s something wrong with that.”
Although I agreed with his logic, I had become uncharacteristically reticent as a result of my recent move to England, so I didn’t say anything. Neither did anyone else. An old lady nodded in a vague manner. A surly teenager with purple streaks in her hair looked up for a second, before returning to the examination of her black fingernails, and a stiff couple wedged against the mirror at the back stared stonily ahead, ignoring the exchange.
By the time the lift reached my floor, the Welshman had given up trying to make conversation and had joined the rest of us in a silence that had become even more uncomfortable by his earlier attempts at inspiring some kinship and connection with this transient group.
Of all the ironies of postmodern living, the lift is definitely the most striking – even though you are in close proximity to people, so close that you can almost smell them (more on that later), this proximity has nothing to do with intimacy. Indeed, when we are forced to stand close to strangers, we often ignore them as a means of retaining and enhancing our personal space.
So most of us “normal” people are not like the Welshman. Most people choose silence over conversation and adopt a whole range of behaviors that are designed to ensure maximum comfort for all.
Indeed, social behavior on lifts is fast becoming as codified as behavior in other public areas, like movie theaters for example, where talking into your cell phone in the middle of the movie will understandably incur the wrath of those around you.
So what are the rules that people follow while in an elevator? Here are a few: don’t make eye contact; keep greetings to a minimum, a nod and hello at most; if you are speaking with someone before entering the elevator, ensure that you wind down the conversation when you are inside; don’t sing, or hum loudly, and reduce the amount of personal space you are occupying.
To that, I add a final rule: do not fart in a lift (unless of course, there happen to be more than two people in the lift, in which case feel free to indulge – as long as you are discreet, the perpetrator will remain unknown.)
This last rule, I learned the embarrassing way when after a heavy meal I stepped into the elevator and let one off (if you catch my drift) only to have the lift stop at the next floor. The door opened to reveal a beautiful young thing and I would have spoken to her – elevator rules be damned – had not her smile disappeared probably because the fragrance of my Polo Black mingled uneasily with the topnotes of flatulence.