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Thursday

new theories of elevator etiquette

I can't remember where I first heard about that feature of elevator etiquette which stipulates that in order to best allow your fellow passengers to maximize their personal space, as more people enter those already inside should alter their position to approximately the furthest distance possible from all others, as if the humans were similarly charged particles all repelling [/ repulsive to] each other. This is common folk wisdom and probably first articulated as a short comedy routine, illustrating the mechanical aspect of etiquette: we naturally hover away from each other, without thinking. If there are two people, they should occupy opposite corners; if there are five, each gets a corner and the last entering gets the uncomfortable center...

What I have recently noticed is that this sort of subconscious jockeying for greatest etiquette display* extends well beyond the simple positioning of your center in the space. The elevator box is three dimensional, and our brains understand this; so it's unconsciously considered good form take a completely different attitude from everyone else in the box. If one person is standing straight in the air at attention, watching the numbers on the hip-level controls, the other should slouch against a far wall, look up at the display over the doors, and fidget slightly. Their torsos should not be pointing in the same directions, or at exact right angles, but produce more pleasing random angles, which soothe the brain shut in these unpleasantly straightjacketed confines. This also reduces the danger that we might breathe each other's exhaled air.

If, on entering, your brain detects the other rider not examining your face, you should examine theirs [as briefly as possible]; in large groups, it is polite for the person stationed closest to the buttons to smile fleetingly, and the last person to enter should scowl ingratiatingly as they eke out an awkward habitat in the barren center zone. This monkeylike grimace signifies their regret at having to bare their back to one or more of the passengers, obviously; but it also helps equal out the emotional spectrum of the elevator.

And on and on. Your brain will cue your body to make little noises like throat clearings or shoe squeakings, if it is too quiet - or if you have a companion, you will mumble something meaningless to her, without realizing why. Presumably, if the elevator ride were to last for a long enough time [several generations], music would be re-invented in this way. I wonder too what happens during rocket launches, is the etiquette similar?

The elevator is a luxurious ritual for the brain because it is so rigorously similar in each enactment [yet usually shorter than church], allowing the brain to competently improvise along basic patterns, and ignore all status markers beyond the most basic ones [sexual and tribal]. Contrast this with the difficulty so many adults have in walking around others who are approaching: this is a trajectory problem requiring considerable calculation made so difficult precisely because it involves a declaration of one's status and evaluation of the other's. To what extent will I give ground, to the left or the right, leading my curve with my far shoulder [and so facing my opponent] or with my near shoulder [and slightly turning my back to my dance partner]? I do not understand why it is that walking past someone is a struggle for dominance, while riding an elevator with them is not; but such is my obversation.

The elevator is special for other reasons less dear to me... It is the third smallest urban microverse [after the bathroom stall and the taxi backseat, omitting the now archaic broom closet tryst node]. It is a sort of no-man's land between different zones of activity, and clears the mind so much better than a hallway or stairs. As terrifying as it is to be shut up in this box, working the insultingly big buttons on a sluggish computer, suspended by wires or a more abstruse corner-gripping apparatus, lacking the fireman's key, and confronted by accusatory braille, the interior designers of elevators eschew comforting touches and favor harsh hazy metals, sinister lighting and gloomy earth tones with a pointed lack of anything to gaze upon other than the floor numbers and weight limit [and, as I say, possibly each other for achingly brief snatches]. Well, thank goodness for that, that they aren't gaily painted, stuffed with inflight magazines and a disco ball.

*Note how this link encourages passengers to leave the car "in numerical order"
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