The Annotated Guide to Modern Elevator Etiquette

Apparently, 21st-century society needs behavioral instructions for everything.

On Monday, I published my investigation into Pennsylvania elevator safety, which questioned the state’s inspection process through which elevators in Philadelphia are certified as safe to ride. You’re putting your life and well-being on the line every time you step in. Accidents do happen; it’s out of your control.

But what you can control is how you behave in an elevator, making the possibly perilous experience at least more enjoyable for everyone in their final moments. I reckon that I’ve ridden the elevator at the Philadelphia magazine offices well over 10,000 times, which pretty much makes me an expert in elevator behavior and psychology. So here, I share some basic rules for how to behave in and around your own elevators.

Elevator Etiquette Rule #1: Shut Up
A trip from the top floor to the lobby takes, what, maybe 30 seconds? OK, 45 seconds with a couple of stops 1. And yet, people—and by people, I mean secretaries, first-year law associates, middle-management types, paralegals and IT guys—feel the need to carry on annoying work-related conversations all the time. They tend to go something like this:

Stan: Hey, Brian. Did you get a load of the new DM4-990 protocol 2 that came in from the Chicago office today?

Brian: Yeah, I’m going to be in the office all day on Saturday implementing that one, right after I deploy the patch for the OM2-340, the 2.1 version, natch. Do you think that Roger will find out if I cross-bridge the trench mount on the ABACON relay?

Stan: [Laughs] Yeah, don’t get me started on Roger.


Michelle: Oh my god. What is his problem today?

Sheryl: I know, seriously. Don’t take it personally, though. He blew up at Missy this morning, too. I think it has something to do with the Pinsky 3 file.

Michelle: Oh. Right. Missy. Did you see what she was wearing? Ugh. That girl needs to look in the mirror.

Sheryl: Or maybe it’s the Derbinder file.

Michelle: Did she say she has her associate’s degree 4?

Sheryl: Damn, I forgot my cigarettes.

Or there are also those groups of elevator riders, usually young guys all wearing the same suit-and-white-shirt combos (or the real jerks with the colored-shirt/white-collar 5 thing going on), who carry on annoying non-work-related conversations. They usually go something like this.

Mike: Duuuuude. I drank my face off last night. We played beer pong at the Bayou in Manayunk until, like, 2:15. You shoulda come out with us.

Craig: Yeah, well Goob wanted to stay in Old City 6. There’s this chick at that bar. What’s that bar’s name? Anyway, she was smokin’ hot, but Goob was an epic failure.

Mike: Yeah, I drank my face off. Duuuude.

Just shut up. No one wants to hear your stupid conversations.

Elevator Etiquette Rule #2: Chivalry Is Not Allowed
I’m a big fan of chivalry and gentlemanly behavior, but generally speaking, an elevator is not the place for this, save for escapes from trapped elevators, for which the old “women and children first” protocol is still applicable.

Earlier this week, I was on a jam-packed elevator headed toward the lobby. There were two ladies against the back wall. Other than that, it was a bunch of suits and me. When we arrived at the lobby, the men at the front didn’t step out. Instead, they moved to the side, making a big point of letting the women out first and forcing everyone else on the elevator to squeeze against the walls and make a path, like the parting of the Red Sea.

Don’t do this.

It’s totally impractical. And don’t give me the hairy eyeball, guys, when I violate your little code. This Saturday night, when you’re having dinner at the Cheesecake Factory, will you rise when your lady leaves the table for the powder room?7 Of course you won’t. If you want to start practicing chivalry, start there. An occasional “God bless you” would be nice, too. 8

In case this point is still unclear, I asked Philadelphia comedian and designer Doogie Horner 9 to create a diagram to help.

Elevator Etiquette Rule #3: Don’t Talk on Your Damn Cell Phone
This is, perhaps, the most obvious elevator etiquette rule that there is, and yet, ignorant types choose to violate it daily. I am, of course, talking about the basic tenet of elevator cell phone etiquette, which is, quite simply, that your cell phone should not be in use on an elevator, other than for silent purposes, like texting or browsing. Of the many elevator cell phone conversations I have witnessed, not one has met either of the following conditions:

  • a phone call with a surgeon just after some life-saving operation of a parent.
  • a desperate attempt to reach a loved one in the event of an impending asteroid impact with the Planet Earth.

If you’re on an elevator with some idiot who insists on carrying on some pointless and loud cell phone conversation (scientific fact: elevator cell phone talkers speak louder than non-elevator cell phone talkers 10), I would recommend one of four things:

  • Shame the person. Make it clear that their behavior is socially unacceptable. Imagine it’s the 1940s and you’re an old woman with a walking stick whacking some ne’er-do-well in public for bad behavior. That’s the attitude you want to take.
  • Treat rudeness with rudeness. Start talking loudly to a fellow rider (for pointers on what to talk about, see Elevator Etiquette Rule #1 above) in an effort to thwart the attempted cell phone conversation. You could also fake your own cell phone conversation, 11 repeatedly yelling, “Sorry, I can’t hear you. I’m in an elevator” over and over again.
  • Enlist that cell phone jammer-brandishing bus passenger.
  • Or make like the phone-smashing Thai schoolteacher in this viral video.12

But whatever you do, first ask the perpetrator who their provider is and let me know. My reception in this building sucks.

Elevator Etiquette Rule #4: It’s OK to Say Hello
The other day, I met Susan “Susie” Burgess, a tall blonde import from California who works at ARAMARK’s Philadelphia headquarters as a business analyst. She’s only been in Philly two months and says that every day, when she gets on the elevator, she smiles and says “hello” to any passengers already on board. And when she disembarks, she offers a valediction, such as, “Have a good day.” She says that almost every time, she gets no response and that people actively avoid making eye contact.

I’ve seen this time and time again, and I don’t quite understand what’s going on here. It seems that when someone we don’t know makes eye contact with us or greets us on an elevator, even if they’re a comely California girl like Susie, we treat them like a serial killer or at least a potential leftover Occupy Philly member. If you see Susie on your elevator and she says “hello,” it’s perfectly OK (and proper) to say “hello” in return. Anything else would be rude. 13

Elevator Etiquette Rule #5: No Eating
Who the hell eats french fries on an elevator? I have never actually witnessed this appalling, slovenly behavior, but I have smelled the oily aroma, felt the greasy film on buttons and other surfaces, and seen the bits of fries that you didn’t manage to shove into your mouth and that fell onto the floor. Again, we’re talking about maybe 45 seconds of your life here. If you can’t resist the urge to scarf down deep-fried food for 45 seconds, might I suggest you go here.

Elevator Etiquette Rule #6: Beware the DOOR CLOSE Button
Waiting for an elevator’s doors to close in the lobby can seem like an eternity. (If your DOOR CLOSE button actually works, let me know. 14 I want to move to your building.) So if you are walking through the elevator lobby and see an elevator whose doors are about to close, don’t run to get it and don’t stick your hand or foot out to stop the doors from closing. No, it’s not a safety issue. It’s just being a good, right-thinking human being. Another elevator will arrive momentarily, and you can board it like a civilized person without holding up your fellow man. Note that bicycle delivery people are excluded from this rule, both because they have a legitimate reason to be in a hurry and because, well, they can kick your ass.

Elevator riders, you have the choice of using the DOOR OPEN button (why does that button always work?) or not when you see a body moving toward the closing door, though if you are on the elevator with others, it’s important to take their feelings into account as well. Sure, you may get a “thank you” out of the person for whom you pressed DOOR OPEN, but the other passengers will secretly hate you. It is perfectly appropriate to feign an attempt at DOOR OPEN-pushing, a method that can be especially useful if the person approaching the door turns out to be a colleague, superior or attractive member of the opposite sex whom you might like to bump into again. They’ll recognize your effort, albeit a fake one, and you’ll make no enemies. It’s a win-win.

Editor’s Notes:

1 According to this New Yorker elevator article, on average, an elevator holding 10 people and covering 30 floors will actually stop 9.5 times, not counting “the exasperating phantom stop, when no one gets on or off.”

2 The DM4-990 protocol is a wholly fictitious technical term (as are all of the technical terms contained in the relevant section) but one that Comcast will, nevertheless, likely claim as a patent of their own.

3 The author had indicated to the editors that the names on all legal files referenced were of his own creation and that any resemblance to any real persons, living or dead, was purely coincidental. But upon further review by the fact-checking department, it turns out that “Pinsky” is the last name of an attorney—specifically one Michael Pinsky of Westmont, New Jersey—who represented the author in a juvenile criminal case in which he was charged with making a bomb threat to a school-related concert that featured Christian singer Michael W. Smith. All charges were dismissed with prejudice. True story.

4 This is a semi-accurate transcription of a conversation that occurred recently in an elevator at 1818 Market Street in Philadelphia. It in no way is meant to ridicule the educational efforts of those with associate’s degrees. The fact-checking department has further learned that the author has no college degree of any kind.

5 The colored-shirt/white-collar combination apparently has an official name: the “asshole collar.” It was, memorably, the clothing of choice of boss Bill Lumbergh in Office Space.

6 Old City, frequently misspelled Olde City, is a neighborhood in Philadelphia that is home to some of the country’s most historic sites as well as girls in hooker heels puking flavored vodkas at 2:30 a.m. and the Ed Hardy-sporting gents who refuse to hold their hair back but still expect oral copulation after emesis has completed.

7 Although you probably haven’t seen anyone do it in some time, the manner experts with whom the fact-checking department consulted confirm that the rules haven’t changed: A gentleman must rise when a lady makes her leave from the dinner table. Note that this only applies to social settings and does not carry over into business luncheons or dinners.

8 The Culture Wars have not yet infiltrated the obligatory sneezing response. You may not be able to have an office Christmas party, but you can damn well still say, “God bless you.”

9 Doogie Horner is a Philadelphia comedian and designer for Quirk Books. He hosts a monthly comedy event, The Ministry of Secret Jokes. And he makes flowcharts.

10 The fact-checking department has determined that this is a lie. While we cannot negate the veracity of the conclusion, there has been no scientific study that has reached said conclusion.

11 Faking a cell phone call is a handy technique and one that the author frequently employs on the street to avoid unwanted conversations, particularly those with clipboard-carrying Greenpeace solicitors.

12 Upon further research by the fact-checking department, it has been concluded that this viral video is not what it appears to be.

13 Before anonymous readers start leaving comments assaulting the young lady’s character and pulling the classic hatred of non-native residents attitude, we feel it is important to clarify that Ms. Burgess says that she generally finds Philadelphians to be polite and much more mannerly than citizens of her former home of California.

14 According to the aforementioned New Yorker article, “In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works.”

[Credits: Elevator photos via ThinkStock; diagram by Doogie Horner; LinkedIn profile photo courtesy Susan Burgess.]