As a sociology student I’d like to feel that I’m pretty aware of the intricacies of multiple social situations, and conscious of the ways in which our culture manifests itself in our public habits as we go about our busy lives. As my culture and cognition professor would say, “Our social interactions are based on efficiency.”
I mean think about it for a second. When you’re out shopping at Walmart or placing an order at Starbucks, your brief interaction with the cashier is based on small talk at most, then it’s down to business. “Hi, how are you? Is that everything? That’ll be $12.21. Thanks very much, have a great day!” You don’t stop to think about that person serving you as a human being with a life outside of that environment, or even someone who may feel slighted if you are a bit short with them. And the truth is, as a cashier, even they don’t take your rudeness personally, and may not even see you as another human being either; you’re nothing but a social stereotype that has the potential to throw a temper tantrum if the line doesn’t get moving along in a timely manner.
We accept and even unconsciously embrace these social encounters because we don’t have to think about all the other contexts in which they play out. We all have multiple layers of complexity and role demands elsewhere in our lives, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to keep certain social interactions as basic and as simple as possible. At the end of the day it’s easier to know what to expect, and everyone seems happy with that.
One such social situation that I find very conflicting is the elevator scenario. Last night I’m walking into my building, arms full of groceries and this nice guy holds the door for me, asks me which floor I’m going to. I smile appreciatively and tell him. The rest of the elevator ride is spent in silence and is slightly awkward, as most elevator rides with strangers tend to be. When the guy gets off before me he smiles, makes eye contact with me and says “Bye have a nice day.”
It’s a situation I’m sure many of us are familiar with. But I guess with my critical eye for everything I was struck all of a sudden by why we accept these situations as being so normatively awkward and uncomfortable, and the fact that there’s no conversation or acknowledgement allowed besides the beginning and end of the ride is all the more weird. Why is it that we have some sacred, unspoken vow of silence during elevator rides?
An article I read via the BBC talks about odd behavior in “lifts” (their term for elevator) and attributes our awkwardness to space constraints: people don’t like to be enclosed in small spaces for extended periods of time and there’s also the concern of asserting one’s personal space. Check out the article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-19846214
–> Elevator etiquette and spacing
This brings me back to my discussion of culture. Especially in North American society we are obsessed with maintaining our sphere of personal space and when someone enters too close for comfort it is an immediate concern, something we notice right away. Elevator rides I feel also keep us from interacting out of efficiency…we know that there is no point in striking up a conversation for 30 seconds, and we are also aware of the time constraints other people face. If the conversation doesn’t begin to die down when that person gets off, it’s inefficient to hold the elevator for the sake of finishing it.
I’m sure there’s a lot more complex reasons why we are so weird in this kind of situation but I think culture ultimately plays a huge role, and I’d be interested in finding out if different countries have different customs. I mean it’s common in some European countries to just bump into each other on the street, and people from Southeast Asian countries move to the left instead of moving to the right of someone like we Westerners do, so I’m sure this specific awkward social situation is not universal.
But for now I don’t see it changing, which is unfortunate because I think I will forever be a city slicker, and forever trapped in some uncomfortable elevator or another.