How to ride an elevator

Author: Randall B. Smith ’98Ph.D.

Getting on an elevator alone with a stranger can be an awkward experience. Elevator rides are usually far too brief for an actual conversation, but they’re just long enough to make the silence uncomfortable.

Generally when people are in such close proximity to one another, they make some sort of greeting. Men typically offer the slight shake of the head and the grunt-hello. But once that’s done, what do you say? “Hey, how ’bout them Cubs?” (Probably not the best opening since I live in Houston.)

But let’s say the other person actually loves the Cubs, and we start a conversation. “Oh yeah, the Cubs! This will be their year. I think they’ve got the pitching, and that new shortstop looks really terrif . . .” And at that moment the doors open up and before he’s had a chance to finish his sentence, you’re out and into the hall. That little “nice to meet you” you shout as the doors close behind you probably doesn’t help much.

And if you happen to be the one talking when the doors open, you feel as though you’re keeping the other guy if you try to finish your sentence. Then you imagine him shaking his head, wondering, “Why did that guy try to strike up a conversation on the elevator? What kind of conversation could you possibly have with someone in seven seconds? What an idiot!”

The first time I met Father Ted Hesburgh (the great man himself, president emeritus of Notre Dame) was on an elevator in the campus library. I was holding a large stack of books, and he asked me what I was reading. Since I was working on a research paper, I wasn’t really “reading” any of them, just browsing a little, and I had to look down at the stack to remind myself, “What am I reading?” On the top of the stack, to my delight, was a book by the renowned Jesuit theologian Cardinal Jean Daniélou.

“I’m reading The Bible and the Liturgy by Cardinal Daniélou,” I said with some degree of pride (relieved that I had left Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding behind).

“Ah yes, Cardinal Daniélou,” said Father Hesburgh without missing a beat. “He was a visiting professor here in 1950. Wonderful man. Pope John XXIII personally invited him to the Second Vatican Council, you know.” (I didn’t.) And on he went to describe his marvelous encounters with this legendary French theologian.

It was all fascinating stuff — so fascinating, in fact, that I missed my floor. When we reached the lobby, I climbed the stairs to the second floor so he wouldn’t notice me catching the elevator back up to my actual destination.

“Wow, so that’s Father Hesburgh,” I thought, lugging my heavy stack of books up the stairs. “Great! Why did I have to meet him on an elevator?”

Life has taught me that it’s one thing to engage people in a conversation if you’re Father Hesburgh and quite another if you’re most of the rest of us. Which is why I have concluded that when I find myself alone on an elevator with a stranger I should just keep my mouth shut. I’ve decided an unwritten “social contract” exists for such circumstances, and it goes something like this:

“Look, we don’t know each other, but since we’re being forced by technology and circumstances to be in an uncomfortably close proximity for a period too brief to say anything meaningful, let’s just grit our teeth and get through this. Both of us understand the problem, so neither of us is going to hold the other responsible for what would otherwise be a rude silence.”

This is not the kind of social contract such as English philosopher Thomas Hobbes once proposed that is meant to keep life from being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” No, this is the kind of social contract meant to keep life solitary — but with a minimum of social awkwardness. And for some people, avoiding social awkwardness can be nearly as important as avoiding death.

The social contract, however, involves more than merely agreeing to what would otherwise be a rude silence. There’s still the important question of what to do while you stand there in silence. Where are you supposed to stand? If three people are on an elevator and one gets off, are the remaining two supposed to reshuffle themselves so as to be as far apart as possible? I say yes. But then again, I wouldn’t want the other person to think I’m moving away because, “Eww, you stink.” No, it’s just another part of the social contract. That’s all. No offense intended. Really.

The questions don’t stop there. Should you stand near the elevator buttons or not? If you stand near the buttons, then everyone who gets on has to ask you to push the button for their floor or stretch past you to reach the buttons. Both are awkward. But if you stand away from the buttons, you will likely get strange looks when other people get on, as though to say: “Are you really going somewhere, or are you just riding up and down on this elevator?” That’s because, when you’re found alone on an elevator, the odd presumption (even though we all know it’s not true) is that you’re supposed to be “operating” it. No one wants to board a runaway train. And if you’re a man, you’re supposed to want to push the buttons just like you always want control of the channel changer. So if you’re not dutifully manning the buttons when other people get on, it’s weird.

Still, even if you are dutifully manning those buttons when someone else gets on, do you ask, “What floor?” I do that and as often as not the person just reaches in front of me and pushes the button anyway, as if to say, “Dude, I can press a button by myself; I’m not completely helpless.”

And where are you supposed to look? Do you look at the other person? If you do, he or she may think, “Why is that guy staring at me? Stop staring!” Looking down isn’t much better because then the other person wonders: “Why is that guy staring at my shoes? What’s wrong with my shoes? Just take a look at his stupid shoes.” So let’s say you purposefully look away. Now it’s, “Why is that guy hiding his face? Is he guilty of something? Is he running from the police?” Or else they’re staring at you wondering “Would it kill this guy to make a little eye contact with another human being? Why are people so rude these days?”

Pretending you’re doing something else doesn’t help either, although I’ve seen people try it. No one believes you’re so engrossed in reading a book or looking at your cell phone that you “just didn’t happen to notice” that 6-foot tall, 200-pound human being standing no more than two feet from you.

It’s also pointless to pretend you’re rummaging around for something in your purse or backpack. I’ve seen people try that one, and I always think: “What’s he looking for? Doesn’t he know the door is going to open up in, like, two seconds, and it will be awkward to keep fumbling around in that bag while he tries to get out of the elevator. I mean, what can’t wait two seconds? His cell phone? C’mon, stop pretending! Everyone knows you can’t get cell phone reception in an elevator.”

I’ve also seen other people who think they’ve solved the problem by playing music from their iPod through those little white earbuds. Yes, that’s fine for them. But now you’ve got to listen to that little buzzing noise sound that bleeds out of their earphones. And that’s just about unbearable. I always want tap these people on the arm and shout: “Hey, you know we can all hear that, don’t you?” But of course, we can’t really hear it. If we could really hear it, the music might be pleasant enough, but all we can hear is that annoying buzzing noise out of the earphones which, when you’re forced to listen to it, is like being force-fed scraps from someone else’s dinner.

The fundamental problem, therefore, is this: No matter what you do in an elevator, it can be awkward. So I suggest when we find ourselves alone with another person on an elevator that, in order to avoid embarrassment, we both agree in advance to the basic principles of the social contract: No talking unnecessarily. No staring at each other or looking around awkwardly. And no sudden or threatening movements. We agree we’ll both just stand there, saying nothing, doing nothing, staring straight ahead or up at the lights. Like we were frozen in time. Until those doors open up again and let one of us back out into the world of moving things and real air and authentic friendliness.

And if those doors don’t open up? Well, then, we’ll just have to keep standing here like this — silent, unmoving, like two statues in an empty museum — for all eternity if need be.

Nothing personal, mind you. It’s just the social contract.

Randall B. Smith is an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.