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Elevator Proxemics: Why we do What we do in The Lift

September 4, 2018

Believe it or not, you are subject to ‘elevator proxemics’ every time you ride a lift. The ‘elevator etiquette’ you subconsciously follow is part of a coping mechanism we use to deal with others entering our personal space. So, what creates this unspoken etiquette, what on earth is proxemics and why is it such a big deal in an elevator?

What is Proxemics?

Put plainly, proxemics is the study of how humans organise our social space. Unbeknownst to most of us, we follow strict rules about how we position ourselves in relation to others. They’re something we don’t often think about, but it’s extremely obvious (to most) when someone breaks them.

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall developed the theory of proxemics in the 1960s. His studies (based on North Americans) identified four specific space ranges around us and who we willingly allow into each one. The chart below shows the outer Public Space ring we try to keep strangers in — at least 3.6m away from us; the Social Space starting 1.2m away from us that we reserve for social partners like colleagues; the Personal Space where we welcome close friends and family (no closer than 0.45m); and the Intimate Space inside this that we only allow, well… intimate partners.

Space invaders inside elevators

Of course, there are times when the ability to organise our social space goes out the window, or lack thereof. American psychologist Dr Layne Longfellow put it best when he said, “There are only three times in our lives that we enter a small, windowless, enclosed space that has no ready exit: the womb, the tomb and the elevator. The elevator is the only one we share with strangers.”

As an elevator fills up people begin to invade our social, personal and then intimate space. ‘Elevator proxemics’ sees us perform a peculiar yet predictable list of moves to help us survive the spatially awkward experience. First, we stand as far away from others as possible — Longfellow says the four corners are occupied first, the fifth occupant usually stands in the centre and when the sixth person enters a shuffle starts because no one’s quite sure where they should go.

From there another set of rules comes into play as we avoid body contact and pretend we don’t occupy any space at all so as not to appear threatening. We put our hands by our sides, abstain from eye contact (to avoid intimacy) by looking down at the floor or the numbers above the door, and stop speaking or quieten conversations with people we know.

How to abide by elevator etiquette

Call it tongue-in-cheek social commentary or an anxiety-avoiding lifesaver, Longfellow developed a list of seven key elements to elevator etiquette we should all follow.

  1. Face forward.
  2. Fold hands in front.
  3. Do not make eye contact.
  4. Watch the numbers.
  5. Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.
  6. Stop talking with anyone you do know when anyone enters the elevator.
  7. Avoid brushing bodies.

Failing number one is the ultimate faux pas — facing the back is a sure-fire way to cause panic in those following the rule. “Everybody allocates as much space as possible to the lunatic who’s facing the wrong way. If you’ll do something so outrageous as to stand backwards and look at them, God knows what else you would do,” Longfellow said.

How Vestner address elevator proxemics

Vestner go to great lengths to achieve a design and furnishings that help occupants of our elevators relax and escape the effects of elevator proxemics. Things like full-length mirrors, smart handrail design, materials, fittings, imagery and lighting are all employed to make people more comfortable in the space. To learn more about our commercial elevators, residential stair lifts and our entire product range, let’s talk.



IMG_3723e’ by dangerismycat under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Filed under Commercial Lifts \ Residential lifts

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