When you board an elevator, do you shift to the side where the panel is so you’re obscured from sight? Do you focus on your phone or look for your keys to avoid seeing the person rushing to catch the car before the doors close? Or maybe you timed your arrival at the elevator bank to “just” miss the car? Or are you someone who holds the door only to find you're rudely ignored? No eye contact, no thank you, no acknowledgement of any sort. Do you press the “Door Close” button repeatedly?
In New York City there is an art to minimizing the number of people who share an elevator with you. It’s called the elevator dodge, and there are clear behavioral cues that suggest it has taken place: the sidelong glance as someone rushes toward the open elevator, the ineffective motion toward the door open button, and the grimace or apologetic shrug that happens as the door closes. While it might be tempting to chalk up the elevator dodge to the anti-social inclinations, it might actually be rooted in our relationship to mechanical inventions.
There are an estimated 900,000 elevators in the United States, each serving an average of 20,000 people per year. That means approximately 18 billion elevator rides are taken every year. With 325,000,000 people in the United States, that amounts to about 55 elevator rides per person per year. That number is likely to be far higher if you live in an urban area where elevators are an integral aspect of residential and commercial buildings. For example, if we suppose that the average person in New York City rides an elevator at least twice per day, either at work or at home or to get to mass transit or at the mall or at school, then we’re already at 14 rides a week! And with the rise of ADA compliance initiatives, elevators are now an accessibility option so they may be found well beyond urban environments. So 58 rides per person per year is probably a low estimate. Elevators are major players in our lives: They’ve increased our mobility and our range, but because they are such close quarters they've opened the door for the development of unique coping skills.
Elevators are a remarkably useful invention. They allow us to easily move people and materials to great heights, and have helped us maximize available space by allowing us to build upward. We’ve relied on their efficiency as a mode of transportation for hundreds of years, with documented use dating back to the Greeks and Romans who used small containers buoyed by rope and pulled manually by animals or men or water to carry building supplies. When they were installed in palaces throughout Europe in the 17th-century, they were symbols of luxury. By the 1800s, with the development of steam power and hydraulics, elevators spread rapidly to become a part of everyday life. But hydraulics weren’t practical for a society that wanted to grow taller. The hydraulic system relied on a plunger that used pressure to raise and lower the car, and the plunger needed to be buried in depths that matched the building’s height. The hydraulic system was also painfully slow. So in 1850 Henry Waterman refined a rope-geared system that suspended the car from a cable using a pulley-type contraption. However none of these efficiencies address the uneasiness that some people experience with elevators.
Sociologist Joseph Gittler proposed that Americans initially resisted the elevator for personal use because they didn’t quite understand how it worked and this opacity contributed to fear for their personal safety. People were asked to put their trust in a system they could not see. In the confines of the car, it was easy to imagine the cables fraying or the gears not working properly or the doors closing on an arm or leg. Not even Elisha Otis and his “safety elevator” design were initially well received. Although his unveiling at the 1853 New York World’s Fair was perhaps a bit dramatic and may have contributed to the elevator’s sketchy reputation. Otis’ design included a mechanism that would stop a falling car—a version of which is still in use today. At the World’s Fair he essentially stood on a platform rigged with his device, had someone cut the rope holding the platform up, and dropped spectacularly before coming to a complete stop. While this did wonders for his business and helped launch Otis Steam Elevator Works, it did not necessarily discourage public concern.
Gittler identified themes of resistance in how society adapts to mechanical inventions; this includes ridicule, begrudging tolerance, criticism, and invoking the scientific method. This pattern can be traced in the adoption of elevators. Otis’ demonstration drew ridicule, even as businesses placed orders for the new elevator. As elevators became mainstream means of transportation, a more tolerant attitude emerged which was helped by the inspections required by law to ensure that elevators are functioning as they should. Despite this acceptance, this general uneasiness toward elevators persists. Whether we openly acknowledge it or not, we want to spend the least amount of time in the elevator as possible, particularly with people we do not know. And for those who suffer from elevator phobias, the experience of riding in an elevator may be debilitating: for example, it can prevent people from taking higher paying jobs in high-rise buildings.
Phobias like a fear of falling or of confined spaces or of being held “prisoner” if the doors refuse to open can directly influence our behaviors. Particularly in instances where we’re with people we don’t know or don’t know well, it can prompt behaviors that promote self-preservation over cooperation. For example, if you work in a high-rise building where multiple companies are tenants, as is common in New York City, you’re very likely going to be riding the elevator daily with people you don’t know. As opposed to your building elevator, where you are likely to encounter people you do know (presumably, your neighbors). In the former case, you aren’t obligated to spend time with these people, or for that matter, to extend social niceties to them. It may not be the socially acceptable thing to do, but there are no repercussions if you don’t hold the door for someone—except that they may one day do the same for you. The size of elevators means that our personal comfort zones are severely compromised in these settings. Our personal boundaries are challenged as we crowd in together. It is not surprising that if we can protect those boundaries, we will. It may potentially minimize competition for resources in an emergency setting. It probably seems to be a small price to pay to extend your comfort and shorten the amount of time you spend in the mysterious mechanical box that’s transporting you between floors.
However if you were to obviously engage in the same types of behaviors in your apartment building, you could find yourself unpopular with your neighbors. And in this case, where you are openly sharing resources with each other, a breach in social conventions could deal an irreparable blow to this specific network of connections. In a study about relationships in high-rise buildings in Israel, researchers Ginsberg and Churchman have noted that elevators are a form of public commons where social interaction could occur to help strengthen network ties. Because a living space is being shared, there is a sense that collaboration and sharing should occur because all parties are responsible for the shared space. In fact, when this cooperative social contract is broken, patterns of avoidance begin to emerge much like the behaviors described in the elevator dodge.
There seem to be three main groups of dodgers: the hiders (those who move to the rear and hope that they are out of sight of approaching elevator riders, the apologetics (those who pretend to have hid the hold button too late or noticed you too late to stop the door from closing), and the oblivious (people who are so engrossed in some other task, they completely miss that you are there). Hiders and oblivious will be more common in commercial settings; there are simply more unknown people in this context which makes it easier to act in these ways. Apologetics are apologetics by nature because they’re facing people they know, even if it’s only in passing. They still have an obligation to acknowledge others around them. But regardless of the type, a good dodger will achieve their end goal of minimizing the number of stops the elevator needs to make to minimize the amount of time they need to spend riding the elevator.
Elevators may be a standard of daily life, but they also seem to represent an uneasy meeting of mechanical invention and society. What are your own elevator experiences? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
An earlier version of this article appeared on the Scientific American Guest Blog.
Ginsberg, Yona and Arza Churchman. The Pattern and Meaning of Neighbor Relations in High-Rise Housing in Israel. Human Ecology. Vol. 13 (4) 1985: 467 – 484.
Gittler, Joseph. Schema for Studying the Social Effects of Inventions. Sociometry Vol. 5 (4) 1942: 382 – 394.
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