Rules for elevator behavior

It is interesting how conventions quickly develop for situations where people are put in close proximity, such as in elevators. There is even a name for the study of how people relate to others in public spaces: proxemics. This post looks at what we know about elevator behavior, such as how people arrange themselves as they enter, that people look at the numbers, possibly as a way to avoid eye contact with others, and that “Men leave more space between themselves and other men than women do with other women”.

A psychologist named Layne Longfellow distilled the conventions into seven rules.

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

Maybe it’s a Midwestern thing but people here in Cleveland tend to first make eye contact, smile, and even exchange a quick greeting before they settle into the standard pattern.

Naturally there have been efforts, often with humorous intent, to see what people would do if they are confronted with situations where others seem to be violating the norms. Here is a video of one such experiment.


  1. John Morales says

    This is badly framed; they’re not rules that are being followed, and they’re hardly specific to elevators; they apply pretty much wherever strangers must briefly congregate, such as queues or other forms of public transport.

  2. chigau (違う) says

    Face forward.
    ~ Face in the direction that allows you to hang onto a strap and text at the same time.
    Fold hands in front.
    ~ See above.
    Do not make eye contact.
    ~ Unless you are skypeing instead of texting.
    Watch the numbers.
    ~ This one works. Pay attention to “The next station is …”
    Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.
    ~ Talk? I’m texting.
    Stop talking with anyone you do know when anyone enters the elevator.
    ~ That’s just weird.
    Avoid brushing bodies.
    ~ brushing cannot be avoided. Maintaining contact is inviting self-defense from your victim.

  3. says

    Thing is, when you’re the only one facing the other way, you’re now uncomfortably in other people’s personal space.
    We usually cram into the elevator so the whole family will face in whatever direction our little Game of Tetris put us.

  4. says

    I’ve always wondered what would happen if someone walked into an elevator and just kept looking at the back, but never thought about an experiment with everyone doing it.

  5. A. Noyd says

    I took a full elevator today where people were facing every which way and having conversations. And this was in Japan where social conventions are usually more rigorously observed. But it seems that the primary rule of elevator conduct here is to make sure someone volunteers to manage the button panel to facilitate people getting on and off. That also lets you pack way more people onto a single car since the button manager will see to it the doors stay open till everyone gets in or out completely.

    Alas, being visibly non-Japanese, most people don’t trust me to be the button manager.

  6. Onamission5 says

    Kids and I used an elevator last week that had functioning doors on two opposite sides, so that we were facing the doors (or so we thought) after we entered, but when the elevator stopped at our floor the doors opened behind us. It was a little strange going up; going down the doors opened at our backs again so the people in queue had to wait for us to go “oh yeah!” then turn frontward.

    New custom: Rotate 180 degrees upon entry!

  7. blf says

    The mildly deranged penguin, when she is lazy and doesn’t just fly up (or fall down) the elevator shaft, gets annoyed at all the people staring at her. So she usually lets out a LOUD and very smelly fart, typically causing an exit stampede as soon as possible. On the rare occasions that doesn’t work — and people are definitely starring at her now, often wearing biohazard suits — she bites their ankles on the off chance they are actually cheeses.

  8. says

    Honestly, there are only two bits of lift etiquette that I care about.

    First, disabled users should take precedence — we do not have the option of taking the stairs, please take us into consideration when deciding how to get from floor A to floor Z. (PS: A little exercise is good for you, too!)

    Second, when sharing the lift, or any space, really, with a person on wheels, keep your toes clear of our wheels, and please watch where your elbows are going — our upper bodies tend to be right around your elbow level, and nobody much wants an elbow to the face or chest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *