Have you ever tried to avoid someone on the elevator? Maybe you let the door "accidentally" close before they could board? 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 acknowledgment of any sort. Do you press the “Door Close” button repeatedly?

Or are you the source of the dreadful “local” joke?

There’s always at least one. There I am at work, waiting — a bit groggily — with a group of people to board the elevator. The car finally arrives and we shuffle in, arranging ourselves Tetris-style and shifting accordingly as the elevator stops - on what seems like every floor - to let people off. After about the third stop someone will invariably pipe up from the back of the car: “Must be the local.” Most mornings the worn joke will be met with a murmured acknowledgment and calculated silence. In New York City, on an elevator packed with strangers the norm is silence. Though cell phone talkers are increasingly invading this space, for the most part polite, short acknowledgment is acceptable (if given at all) and companionable silence is preferable. But every now and again, someone will cheerily take the bait (“Haha! Yup, tell me about it. Local all the way!”) and strike up a conversation. It upsets the dynamic of the elevator ride, making the rest of us feel like interlopers.

There are an estimated 900,000 elevators in the United States, each serving an average of 20,000 people per year (1). That means approximately 18 billion elevator rides are taken every year. With 310,622,223 people in the United States, that amounts to about 58 elevator rides per person per year (2). 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 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 school at a minimum to get to and from a destination, then we’re already at 14 rides! So 58 is a really low estimate. Elevators are a major player 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, but for what purpose?

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. In recent years, they’ve served as something of a security measure as buildings in New York City closed off stairwells (except in case of an emergency) and required elevator-only access to upper floors. Necessity is to invention as elevators are to development. 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 that were 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 would 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. But elevators overall still seemed to make people uneasy.

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 (3). People were asked to put their trust in a system they could not see. In the confines of the car, visions of frayed cables came easily. Not even Elisha Otis and his “safety elevator” design were initially well received. Although, in truth, his unveiling at the 1853 New York World’s Fair was perhaps a bit dramatic and may have contributed to the elevator’s worrying 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 several forms of resistance in how society adapts to mechanical inventions, including exhortation and ridicule, and toleration, criticism, and a scientific attitude and found that elevator adoption fit this pattern (3). Otis’ demonstration drew ridicule, even as businesses placed orders for their own establishments. As elevators became mainstream means of transportation, a more tolerant attitude emerged, helped by the inspections required by law to ensure that elevators are functioning as they should. But it appears to be a feeling that persists even today. A 2007 New York Times article reports that elevator phobia is fairly widespread. In some instances it may even be debilitating, preventing people from taking higher paying jobs in high-rise buildings. Acrophobia, fear of falling, fear of being confined against one’s will — could these concerns help us understand some elevator behaviors today?

For example, let’s say you work in a high-rise building where multiple companies are tenants. It’s likely that you ride the elevator every day with people you don’t know well, some who may be offensive (e.g., too much perfume, loud talkers), and some who make you uncomfortable. It is unlikely you would want to be confined to an elevator car with someone you didn’t know well or disliked. Some New Yorkers position themselves out of sight of approaching passengers by moving to the rear of the car, thus reducing their responsibility for holding the door. Others busy themselves with books and iPods and smart phones as a means of avoiding contact with others.

Conversation in a full elevator encroaches on the personal space of other riders, which is already greatly reduced. The closed space imparts a sense of intimacy, and the riders who aren’t participants in the discussion are left feeling like eavesdroppers. That’s not to say that no conversation occurs, but that conversations with strangers are kept to a minimum. Conversations themselves are somewhat awkward things - you never know how they’ll go with the other person if this is a first meeting, and in the close quarters of an elevator cab it can feel as though you’re under close scrutiny. Lingering uncertainty about the elevator - its mechanics are well hidden from the rider - encourage riders to keep their business in the car as short as possible. Conversation can also be distracting - what if you missed your stop? Then you’d be forced to spend more time on the elevator! And that increases your chances of something going wrong. The repeat button pushers are likely trying to accomplish the same thing: to disembark as soon as possible. They have little control over the elevator itself, but repeated pressing their floor number or the “Door Close” button helps maintain the sense that they are doing something.

These behaviors change in the company of people we know. In residential buildings, for example, where riders may be more familiar with one another, there is greater chance that a rider will hold the door for someone or engage in conversation. However, there may be a greater social imperative in these circumstances. 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 (5). 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. When relationships break down in this environment, there is a shift toward avoidance behavior described in the commercial setting — no point in making an uneasy experience (both socially and environmentally in this case) even more so.

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? Share them below.


1. Elevators. Consumer Watch. Jan. 2010. http://www.consumerwatch.com/workplacepublic/elevators

2. U.S. and World Population Clocks. Oct. 2010. U.S. Census. http://www.census.gov/main/www/popclock.html

3. Gittler, Joseph. Schema for Studying the Social Effects of Inventions. Sociometry Vol. 5 (4) 1942: 382 – 394.

4. 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.

About the Author: Krystal D’Costa has a Masters in Anthropology from the New School for Social Research. She divides her time as a digital strategist and a writer. Her blog Anthropology in Practice uses anthropology and history to help explain everyday and often overlooked patterns of behavior. Krystal’s series on the anthropology of coffee has received widespread attention and was featured talk during Ignite NYC X. It was actually inspired by her attempt to kick the caffeine habit. (She failed, but now enjoys coffee in moderation.) Krystal also has another blog - The Urban Ethnographer and can be found on Twitter as @anthinpractice.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.