Why We Behave So Oddly In Elevators

For most of us, riding from floor to floor in an elevator is a completely mundane process. Lee Gray, an associate dean at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is known as the Elevator Guy. He spends a lot of his time researching the history of elevators and why we behave so oddly in the big metal boxes.

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JOHN DONVAN, HOST:

Well, a lot of things slow down, or grind to a halt altogether, over the holidays but hopefully, elevators are not on that list. For many of us, riding up and down in big, metal boxes hanging from cables, is totally routine. And in movies, they can even be romantic.

Most people don't think a lot about their time spent between the ground floor and the 10th. But it turns out that the way we all behave, when we're inside elevators, is pretty unique but also, pretty standard. If you are riding in an elevator all by yourself and a second person steps into the car, what do you do? Well, there is answer, but here are some suggestions: Do you strike up a conversation? Do you offer to push the button? Do you retreat to the far corner? We want to hear from you. What's the best elevator ride you've ever had? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So today, we are joined by elevator historian and associate dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at UNC Charlotte, Lee Gray. He joins us by home from his - by phone from his home in Charlotte. And welcome, Lee Gray, to TALK OF THE NATION.

LEE GRAY: Well, thank you, John.

DONVAN: So as I was saying, the - we all kind of have a dance when we get into an elevator, whether we know it or not. And most of us are following the same steps. So take us through a typical elevator interaction.

GRAY: Well, I think one of the things that first, to sort of characterize it, is, we're all accustomed to go into the buildings. We all know buildings are filled with technology. But this is the only piece of technology that looks like a lot of other spaces in the building. In other words, it looks like a room, although it's a very, very small one. And we all know how we behave in rooms. We give each other an appropriate amount of little, polite, social distance between ourselves. And that's all fine until we're in the tiny, tiny room - that's the elevator.

And that's why I think you see, you know, if you're the only one in the elevator, you sort of stand in the center. And if someone else comes in then you move to a corner, or give yourself an appropriate social distance. And you can watch that dance continue, as you say, as more and more people get in until you have the four corners, then four corners, then some person in the middle, and then that sixth person, then we (unintelligible) to get very crowded.

DONVAN: So we're all - are we shifting positions as more people get into the elevator?

GRAY: I think typically yes, and most of that is because certainly in the Western society, we have a very large sense of personal space. If you notice how, you know, two Americans who don't know each other hold a conversation, almost at arms-length from each other. You know, we're very comfortable that way. So in the elevator we try to - partly for ourselves and also out of courtesy to others, sort of, maintain that same distance.

DONVAN: So is there a whole-school of study on behavior - elevator behavior research?

GRAY: That's a really good question. I know there had been some psychologists who have studied behavior in elevators. Most of those studies have to do with some obvious things, claustrophobia and finding ways to treat people who have trouble traveling in such small spaces.

DONVAN: I actually do a lot of research myself on the topic of autism. And I know a psychologist who works with teenagers who have autism who - he uses encouraging to learn skills that will allow them to be independent in the world to get out on their own. And one of his lessons with some of the teenagers is what to do in an elevator because he says that the typical kid that he works with, when the door is opened, and he's been told that he should step inside, will step inside and face the back wall because nobody has told him that everybody else in the elevator is going to turn around and face the front doors, which raises for me the question, when did we all figure out that that's what we're supposed to do as we get into the elevator and we all turn and face the front?

GRAY: That behavior started actually very, very early; the first passenger elevators in any widespread use late 1860s, early 1870s. And part of that was conditioned by these very early elevators that actually had benches in them along the back row. So you would sit facing the door, and then you would sort of stand up and exit. And then it just became normal behavior because you - most elevators, as you know, they got one door. So you go through the door and then turn around, and then you're - that way, you're prepared to exit.

DONVAN: We would be - we would really distress people, though, if we stepped into an elevator and kept staring at the back wall, would we not? I mean, everybody else would get a little bit uncomfortable.

GRAY: Yes. And there have been, I think, some either for - I've seen some television programs and some things where they've done things like that to discomfort other passengers or to, you know, greet everyone who enters an elevator or to stand uncomfortably, you know, stand close to them because there's no question that there's a normative pattern of behavior.

For example, one is, often, if two people are having a conversation and they'll step on to the elevator's crowded, the conversation stops and everybody sorts of stares at their shoes or stares at the door or stares at the indicator until they get off. If you're on an elevator and a group of people enter, and they continue having a conversation, that's actually very uncomfortable.

DONVAN: Well, you're supposed to pretend that you're not hearing the conversation which is happening four inches from your eardrum.

GRAY: Yes. And because that's, you know, the sort of social politeness, you don't eavesdrop, but it's a little hard not to.

DONVAN: We want to hear from you, our listeners, what's the best elevator ride you ever had? Our number is 800-989-8255. Davis in Chicago, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION. Davis, if you could turn down your radio, we do want to hear from you, our listeners. What's your story?

DAVIS: Well, basically, I lived in the dorms my freshman year, and, you know, that was a story in itself. But riding from the fifth floor down to the ground floor, it usually, you know, you walk in there's a few other people. And, you know, some days, there would be 10 people already on the elevator. So, you know, that intimate situation, you know, quickly becomes almost like a very social, you know, joyous situation. But one day, the most interesting - didn't really expect one of these, you know, parties on the elevator, but pressed the down arrow. And as I'm waiting for the doors to open, you know, this people stopped the conversation, doors open. There's these two guys, and one has like a five-foot tall didgeridoo or what I do, you know, envision...

DONVAN: The musical instruments? The musical instrument, yeah.

DAVIS: Right. And...

DONVAN: Can you - very briefly for our - members of our listeners who actually don't know what kind of sound it makes, tell us what kind of sound it makes?

DAVIS: Yeah. It's like a - it's very ominous humming. You know what I mean? It's - let's say you're driving and your car started making that noise, or say you're out washing your feet, you're out washing your shoes and started humming like this, you'd be concerned.

DONVAN: And it's a string instrument, yeah.

DAVIS: No, no. It's actually - it's basically like...

DONVAN: Oh, you brought it.

DAVIS: ...you know, like, yeah, maybe like a big piece of bamboo...

DONVAN: OK.

DAVIS: ...hollow at one end, and you blow and you - and it's like a trumpet. I mean, it's very delicate...

DONVAN: OK. OK. So you're hearing that in the elevator?

DAVIS: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I don't know. And so that, you know, I wasn't sure if that's what it was, I asked him. And he's, like, yeah, that's a didgeridoo. And so, I'm OK. Can you play it? And so, basically, from the fifth floor, down to ground floor, we've got to hear a didgeridoo in, you know, basically Midwest. I never would have thought that I'd have a little piece of Australia riding on the elevator with me.

DONVAN: A great elevator story. Thanks very much, Davis. And, Mary, hi. You're on TALK OF THE NATION in Lakeville, Connecticut.

MARY: Hi.

DONVAN: Hi.

MARY: Well, my story is that 28 years ago, I was going to an art gallery in a building in Tribeca that was converted from an industrial building to a - sort of a commercial residence kind of building. And so there was a security guard at the front, near the elevator. And then getting to the gallery I was going to was relatively complicated. So the security guard gave me directions. I was stepping into the elevator as a man came right up behind me, asking for the same gallery. So I turned and said, oh, follow me. I'm going to the same place. We both got on the elevator and started chatting and introduced each other to each other and ended up chatting during the gallery opening and one in cheese party, et cetera. And I ended up joining him and a couple who are old friends of his that he was planning on having dinner with. I joined - we decided to all have dinner together.

And so it became quite an eventful evening of a very intimate conversation. And as we were leaving the gallery, we went down in the elevator, and he was getting very - kind of almost flustered. And he said, well, you have to understand, before you get out of the elevator, I don't normally travel like this. And he - it was a rainy - just a miserable, rainy night. And I'm an artist, I was on my way to a - sort of a weekly art studio that I went to. So I was dressed very casually. He was in, in Wall Street and very neat with his French cuffs and whatever.

And the doors of the elevator opened. We stepped outside, and there's an enormous stretch limousine out there. And his car service had run out of the regular cars that they normally send, and this was the last car they had available. And so we climbed into this stretch limo, which I had never been in before. It was one with the bar and the TV and the sunroof and all the fancy lights and whatever. And I made a comment that this was great. And he can go to a restaurant anytime, but why don't we get Chinese takeout...

DONVAN: Mary? Mary, can I just step in? This is turning into a little shaggy dog. Where does this story go because you're out of the elevator now?

MARY: All right. Well, we were out of the elevator and went out for dinner, a romance ensued, and we've been married for 26 years.

DONVAN: Ah, congratulations. I want to ask Lee Gray, do you kind of feel that - did you sense that's where that story was going?

GRAY: I would have guessed, yes. The elevator can be a place for a romantic liaison, certainly.

DONVAN: Is there - do you hear a lot of stories of that nature? It plays that role in the movies quite a bit.

GRAY: Yeah. The movies, if I understand what I know about "Grey's Anatomy," that's the primary use of the elevator in that program. And certainly in many, many books, it's used in that way.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks, Mary, very much for your call. And, Jim, you're in Redwood City, California.

JIM: Hello. How are you doing?

DONVAN: We're good. Thanks.

JIM: Good. Some years ago, I was in Macy's in San Francisco on the ground floor. There was four of us waiting for the elevator. None of us knew each other. The doors open, the four of us go in, and one more person shows up so we hold the door for him. He comes in, and everybody's silent. The doors close. The elevator moves, and this man turns to us all and says, now I suppose you're wondering why I asked you all here today. It was hilarious. We all laughed and we all started talking. It was the most unusual and pleasant elevator experience I've ever had.

DONVAN: A little elevator humor. Thanks very much for that - for sharing that story with us, Jim.

JIM: You're welcome.

DONVAN: Speaking of elevator humor, I mean, in researching a little bit about you, Lee Gray, I see that you write for a monthly magazine called Elevator World.

GRAY: Yes.

DONVAN: So there is a whole world of elevator thought out there.

GRAY: There is, and one of the things that I've discovered over the years is that the elevator industry, the whole vertical transportation industry is - has a profound interest in their history and in their cultural impact. And that is an entirely different way to think about this technology, or from the individuals who design and make these machines.

DONVAN: We are talking about elevators and asking you for your best elevator ride ever. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Let's go to Ryan in St. Louis. Hi, Ryan. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

RYAN: Hi.

DONVAN: Hey.

RYAN: So I've got an interesting story. One time, I was actually with a band and we were about to perform in the Rose Parade out in Pasadena, California. So a bunch of my friends and I, we piled into an elevator to go down to the main level. We're about to leave. And a stranger steps in the elevator, and we thought we'd take a little bit different approach instead of just being really silent. And we said, hey, do you like to dance? And he looked up, he smiled, he said, yeah, sure, I like to dance. So we said, let's start a dance party. So we started (unintelligible) and had a little dance party for about 10, 15 minutes on an elevator.

DONVAN: Wow. I mean, did the party grow as you stopped at every floor or did you scare people away?

RYAN: Yeah. We got some - we got a few people in. It was quite a bit of fun, just going kind of up and down. And so, you know, we're inspired from that video where the people kind of turn around and do a little social experiments in the elevators.

DONVAN: Yeah. Right. Ryan, good story. Thanks very much for joining us.

RYAN: Well, thank you.

DONVAN: Let's go to Nancy on TALK OF THE NATION. Hi, Nancy in Reno.

NANCY: Hi. How are you?

DONVAN: We're good. Thanks.

NANCY: My story took place years ago. My dad was a musician and toured with Sinatra. And I flew to Dublin, Ireland to surprise him and waited in the lobby behind a newspaper and followed the band into the elevator. And I went to the back of the elevator behind the newspaper and kicked the back of my dad's shoes. And even though everyone in the elevator was aware I was doing this, no one would turn around. So it wasn't until we got off on the floor they were staying that my dad turned around. I lowered the newspaper. But it was funny. Nobody would turn around and look at me, but everybody saw me kicking him.

DONVAN: You had totally figured out the psychology of the elevator, Nancy.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCY: I actually hadn't, but I thought it was funny.

DONVAN: Oh, OK. Well, inadvertently, it sounds like you did. Thanks for sharing that story with us. Lee Gray, I mean, Lee, we know that some elevators are cooler than others. But in your survey of the world's elevators, do you have, you know, do you know what the coolest ones in the world are?

GRAY: Well, a lot of that depends on the experience you're looking for. Certainly, observation elevators, you know, whether it's the Eiffel Tower or similar buildings where you can see out as you're riding up, you know, offer extraordinary experiences. And then you have - on the one hand, they seem normal elevator rides but something like, you know, some of the world's fastest elevators that - in Taipei 101 in Taiwan, for example, goes about 3,300 feet per second. And it's moving so fast that the elevator car is somewhat - is lightly pressurized just like an airline cabin. Otherwise, you would suffer discomfort in your ears. And some of the fast elevators also have what we might think of as speedometers in them. So a lot of it depends on what you're looking for, going really fast or those observation elevators.

DONVAN: Where would architecture be without elevators?

GRAY: Well, hey, we would probably top out at about four or five stories because that's about as far as we're willing to walk.

DONVAN: So skyscrapers are a product of the development of elevators. Otherwise, we just wouldn't build them.

GRAY: Yeah. And what has been interesting is there's a wonderful relationship between our desire to build taller and elevator technology because technology would develop that would take us, so say to about 20 stories and then our human response is, well, that's great. Can we go higher? And then we would need a different technology. So you could just as easily say that the - our desire to have skyscrapers and to build taller made the modern elevator possible because - and we're still doing that today as we keep pushing the limits.

DONVAN: That was my question there. Are we - haven't we, like, reached the limit on elevator technology? We know how to do it. It is what it is. Or is that changing?

GRAY: Right now, with current, sort of cable-driven, traction elevators, we're pretty much at the limit. And, of course, that's going to be the next big step. If we have an elevator that does not require any cables, then we can, you know, that mile-high skyscraper that Frank Lloyd Wright proposed in the 1950s could well become a possibility.

DONVAN: All right. The sky appears still to be the limit. Thanks, Lee Gray. You're the associate dean of the college of arts and architecture at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. And thanks for talking to us on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, NPR librarian Kee Malesky joins us with a new book full of facts you can sprinkle into conversation. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington.

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