Elevator speech

One of the things that fascinates me most about human culture is the sheer number of rules that govern our behavior.

Some rules—stopping for red lights, keeping our mitts off other people’s food—are obvious.

But other rules are more subtle. Like how to behave on an elevator, for instance.

I work on the top floor of a large office building, so I’ve had ample time to consider this. Most folks just stare quietly at the door.

But today a guy got on, poked a button, and immediately turned to face the corner, as if preparing to relieve himself. It was surprisingly unnerving.

It reminded me of an experiment I’d done years ago for a sociology class. My task was simple: I was supposed to get on an elevator, face the back wall, and look each of the other occupants directly in the eye. (A verbal greeting was optional.)

The experiment was so upsetting that I did it only once. A couple of people stared at me. Another backed away, and one man became hostile. “What’s your deal?” he yelled. If I’d been a guy, he might have punched me.

I have no idea what “Mr. Corner” was doing today. Maybe he was conducting his own experiment. Or maybe he hates elevators. Either way, it was an excellent reminder of the complexity and subtlety of the cultural ties that bind us.


  1. It’s amazing how powerful our cultures are in shaping our boundaries and sense of space, and how unnerving it can be when someone doesn’t follow the “rules.” Though it’s hard to imagine that being eyeballed by petite, kind-eyed H would be that scary. 🙂

    • Culture is a funny thing. I don’t think about it very often (usually only when I’m traveling), but it really does have a *huge* influence on how we see ourselves, each other, and the rest of the world.

      Oh, and to your comment about being eyeballed by a petite, kind-eyed H: I used to be much taller. Ha.

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