Small Wonders: How to ride an elevator

Few places offer a more intense view into the makeup of the human condition than the elevator.

Where else in our daily lives are we forced to spend valuable seconds — even a full minute — tightly confined with a group of fellow earthlings in the microcosmic journey to our final destinations?

In my non-columnist life, I work in a monolith to a media giant. My cubicle is on one of the upper floors, so I spend a lot of time sealed in the suspended 6-by-6-foot vertical people-mover chronicling tips and observations about humanity and survival in my 10 to 20 elevator rides per day.

Some might be valuable life lessons. Others may simply get you from one floor to the next without having a minor, unwanted coffee break from sanity. Which is easier said than done:

When boarding a lift, allow the passengers already on it to disembark first. This sounds obvious, and I wish I didn't have to restate it. But, if you are one of the few people I've bumped into because you are too impatient to let me get out of your way first, perhaps it's time you went through with those plans to isolate yourself from the rest of us in a rural Idaho compound.

It's respectful practice to enter the elevator in the order that you arrived at it. My 8-year-old knows how this works; so should the rest of us. The exception to this rule is, of course, “ladies first.” Besides simple courtesy, this helps to prevent the awkward and annoying start-and-stop dance that also occurs at four-way intersections when basic driving rules are forgotten and no one knows who should proceed first.

If possible, move to the back or sides of the car and stand with your back to the wall. Standing in the middle of an uncrowded car or facing the wall just creeps other riders out. I don't really know why. It just does. But the world needs antagonists. So if that's you, just be prepared for worried glances in your direction.

If you enter an occupied elevator while conversing with someone else, you have a choice: pause your discussion so others don't feel excluded, or be open to the unsolicited contributions of others. Either is fine. I've been both the recipient and giver of advice in what amounts to between-floors speed therapy.

There is an appropriate space cushion that exists around all humans, like the Millennium Falcon's battered deflector shields. Respect it, especially after someone disembarks and you find yourself standing awkwardly close to your cabin mate from accounting.

But — and this is very important — provide them with more room without making them feel it's due to odor or dislike. Casually stretch or reposition that sleepy leg in order to widen the breadth between you. Though no one likes their personal space invaded, they also don't like feeling they aren't worth spending close time with.

If the sight of other human beings and the possibility of interacting with them gives you hives, pull out your smartphone and flip through emails or play solitaire. Sadly, it appears that most elevator riders adhere to this rule.

But, never talk on your cell phone while on the elevator. This monologue makes you sound like an idiot: “Hang on, I'm just getting on an elevator and I may lose you. Hello? Can you hear me? I'm on an elevator and have a bad connection. Hello? Hello? I can't hear you. I'm on an elevator. Hello? Damn, she dropped me.”

If you know you're getting off on a lower floor, do not jockey to get in the car first. It's not a free food stand at Costco. Do us the courtesy of getting on last so you're nearest the door.

Pressing the crosswalk button repeatedly never makes the light change faster. Same with elevator buttons. Press it once, then enjoy the ride. It's not a morphine drip or a sentient being that reacts to your impatience.

Also, pressing an already lit button shows a lack of trust in technology and the person who pressed it before you. Life is not going to move faster just because you got on our elevator.

An empty elevator is no place to unbuckle and retuck the shirt or hike up the skirt and adjust your leggings. I promise you, the door will open before you're done, and your co-workers don't want to catch you with your hand down there.

Likewise, and lastly, alone on the poorly ventilated lift is no place to relieve yourself of the routine gases we all suffer. When the doors open and you're faced with the senior V.P. and his entourage, you'll have no one else to blame.

PATRICK CANEDAY can be reached at

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