Getting into an elevator with a stranger is one of the most socially awkward situations in life.
Should you make eye contact? Nod briefly? Or maybe just make polite small talk for a few seconds?
Whatever you do or don’t do, it can be quite tense.
Some may say that it is the lack of space that triggers our innate discomfort, while others blame the painful silence.
Maybe it’s both – or the fact that we have no idea how other passengers might react.
Well, the psychologist Dr. Becky Spelman, who works at Sheridan Lifts, and behavioral scientist Araminta Naylor shared why they think we behave so strangely in the common toe-curling scenario.
Severe lack of space
Embarrassment can primarily arise from feeling trapped or even claustrophobic in a tiny, windowless room.
Naylor, from Influence at Work, said: “Elevators are far from an average environment; they are small, cramped, often with no visibility of where you are going or no form of control other than floor selection.”
Dr. Spelman, founder of the Private Therapy Clinic in London, added: “The confined space and lack of escape in an elevator can make people feel confined or claustrophobic.”
“Elevators often involve close proximity to strangers, and the fear of invading other people’s personal space can cause people to shy away from engaging with others.”
No set of rules
Another very simple factor is that there is no defined set of rules.
People actively avoid sitting next to a stranger on buses if there are other free double seats available. On trains, however, the general rule is that you are not allowed to kneel with the person sitting next to you if the person sitting next to you is free.
There is no such standard for elevators.
Naylor said: “As with most abnormal environments, there are no set ‘rules’ to being in an elevator.
“This leaves us unsure how to act.”
Next, of course, there is the strange silence in the elevators, broken only by the “ping” as they stop at each level.
Dr. Spelman said, “The silence of two strangers standing together can certainly add to the awkwardness.”
It’s not uncommon to see people fumbling with their phones – even though there’s usually no reception in elevators – just to relieve the agonizing silence.
Group situations, especially when strangers get together, can cause people to behave strangely anyway.
But if you throw them all into an elevator, according to Dr. Spelman is even worse.
It’s even worse when only two people go up or down together, she said.
“The discomfort of starting a conversation in an elevator can be even greater when it only involves two strangers,” the expert added.
“In a group setting, the presence of others can ease the pressure and make it feel less uncomfortable.”
Naylor agreed, adding that we feed off each other – so the way others act influences our own behavior.
“What do we do when we are unsure?” she asked. “We pay attention to the behavior of others to guide our own behavior.”
The psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini calls this “social proof” – simply that people do what they see other people doing.
“If I get on an elevator with four people who are standing in silence with their eyes on the floor, I feel comfortable getting in and doing the same thing because everyone else is doing it too,” Naylor said.
“But what if you’re in the elevator and someone else gets on? Then the clumsy turtle can lift its head.”
“Since there is no crowd to follow, you can wait and see what the other person is doing and follow their lead or express your preference by either tilting your head and avoiding eye contact or engaging in small talk.
“Often no one does anything.”
Not surprisingly, social norms play a role in our nervousness.
Dr. Spelman said, “Social norms and expectations in the West often prevent casual conversations with strangers, leading to awkward silences in elevators.”
“Society may have conditioned people to be cautious when interacting with people we don’t know – which could be influenced by cultural norms, perceptions and stereotypes.”
Mood and mindset
Brits’ moods can certainly affect their comfort in close quarters with strangers, Naylor added.
“When someone is in a negative or introverted state of mind, they may want to avoid possible social interactions,” she said.
“Our busy lifestyles and long commutes can lead to a lack of energy or a desire for small talk with strangers.”
Dr. Diving deeper into where fears come from a psychological perspective, Spelman added: “Discomfort in social situations like this can also be influenced by various psychological processes, including social fears, fear of judgment, concerns about having a good time “Making an impression, etc. include a lack of confidence in initiating conversations.”
Fear of small talk
A paralyzing fear of small talk or simply not knowing what to say is another important factor, the experts said.
According to Naylor, the lack of conversation can increase self-consciousness and create perceived pressure to break the silence.
“Small talk can be uncomfortable because it seems superficial or forced, and people are afraid of saying the wrong thing or don’t know what to talk about,” she said.
But there’s more to it than that, said Dr. Spelman.
“The fear of starting a conversation with someone in your building (at work or home) is understandable because it can create an expectation to engage on a daily basis, which could lead to potential social obligations that some may not wish,” she explained.
“The fear of coming into regular contact with others could also contribute to this avoidance.”
When you feel insecure at all, it’s easy to react to external cues instead of thinking for yourself, the psychologist explained.
This could be the time of day, body language or how busy a person appears to be, Dr. Spelman.
And relying on others or external factors can make things pretty uncomfortable if they feel the same way.
“These things can indicate whether a person is open to conversation or not,” she added.
“Pay attention to non-verbal signals such as open body language, eye contact or a friendly smile that may indicate willingness to talk.”
But are we ultimately awkward because we just can’t be an ass?
Elevator conversations are likely to be very brief, so many people may feel like there’s really no point in starting a conversation, Naylor said.
She added: “The time you spend in the elevator is so short that even if you have started a conversation, you often have to get out of the elevator halfway through.”
This is related to the Zeigarnik effect, named after the psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik.
This suggests that people remember interrupted tasks better than completed ones.
However, according to Naylor, it can be applied to lift chats.
“We hate leaving things unfinished, and when we do, it often stays in the mind,” she said.
“So not only is there the awkward moment when the doorbell rings and you rush to finish a sentence, stumbling backwards and frantically waving goodbye, you also remember the look on that stranger’s face.”
“That’s enough to put anyone off elevator talk.”