Up in an Elevator With an Ethnographer


It’s the most comical thing, the awkwardness that hits any crowd--even animated ones--the instant it enters an elevator. Chatty friends drop their voices to a hush, and colleagues act like complete strangers. People shuffle into corners, as far away from others as possible and stand motionless.

During the awkward encounters, it’s hard to get fascinated by the science behind them. You watch the numbers slowly counting to your floor, or look at your shoes, which have suddenly grown incredibly interesting in the past few seconds. But for many scientists, elevators become a laboratory for studying social interactions. That’s why one inquisitive PhD student took to the lifts to chart the ethnographical aspects of an elevator ride. Rebekah Rousi rode up and down in Adelaide, Australia, observing and interviewing elevator riders in two high-rises, and uncovering some interesting patterns.

Men tended to stand near the back, Rousi noted, while women hung out more towards the doors. Pondering this, she realized older men lined the back, and younger men filled the middle. Tracking eye movements, she saw men looked more in the elevator mirrors, while women tended to rest their gaze on the monitors. When women rode with other women, however, they would feel more comfortable looking in the mirrors. Without giving a decided hypothesis, Rousi hinted at a hierarchy within the elevator, a reflection of societal norms, or, perhaps, just an indicator of shyness.

Another tendency was people’s mental exaggeration of waiting times. To those outside the lifts, it seemed to take ages for the elevator to arrive. But when Rousi did the math, she realized only eight percent of people had to wait more than 15 seconds for their elevator after calling it. Half – this astounds me – waited less than a second; most only waited two to five seconds.

My brain fails to believe those numbers. I’m pretty sure every time I wait for an elevator, it takes half a lifetime. And that’s not including the slow climb as the elevator visits every floor. If our experiences with waiting times become so colored in our memories, does this mean I actually do wait less than a second outside closed elevator doors before giving up and finding stairs? Or have I only experienced really slow elevators?

Several similar questions bring up the limitations in Rousi’s work. Her research gleaned information from interviews of 50 people and observations during 30 elevator rides in two buildings. Applying her findings to another place would obscure the impact technology and culture has on an elevator ride. In Belgian elevators, for instance, I found myself with other women in the back, having been politely let in first by our male colleagues. An elevator ride in a smaller building where employees know each other well might be less intimidating than one in a high-rise, and eye movements might turn out to be insignificantly correlated with gender.

The extent of unexplored factors makes Rousi’s research so interesting. Science does not stop at the elevator’s mechanical make-up. The people within pose just as many scientific puzzles as the gears and cogs bearing them to their destinations. Patterns exist all around us, illustrating little aspects about the world. Rousi’s observations lay interesting groundwork, and I can tell you, the next time I’m in an elevator, it will be all I can do not to play amateur ethnographer – without making eye contact, of course.


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