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In the Elevator

The Asch conformity experiments are a series of studies conducted by social psychologist Solomon Eliot Asch in the 1950s. Among them is a famous elevator experiment, which was reconstructed as a part of a Candid Camera episode titled “Face the Rear.” The original clip shows a group of confederate supporters and an individual entering into a simulated elevator environment. The confederates direct their bodies and gestures in similar positions, making the individual passenger confused about how to react further. As it turns out, the authority of the group influences the individual test subject to quickly comply with the majority. The Asch conformity experiment can demonstrate the deployment of force and creation of discipline in establishing the normal as a principle of coercion.

Snapshots of the original Candid Camera episode “Face the Rear”, 1962

The conformity paradigm is always around us in a variety of routine circumstances, while we train, manipulate and adjust our behavior, opinion and gestures to obey and coincide with the norms. Let’s consider the situation of taking an elevator again. Many of us have the experience of riding up and down in these metal boxes every day. We walk in, we press the button and we stand perfectly still (Kremer, 2012). The behavior of people inside an elevator is pretty unique, but also pretty standard. Passengers usually conform to the etiquette of taking an elevator without knowing why and how they behave in these certain ways. According to Barbara Dixon (1998), our actions inside elevators are learned from our parents, friends, schools, religious upbringing, the media, work place and culture. Therefore, the normative pattern of behavior that seems pretty normal to us today, such as facing the door, is a behavior which actually started very early on in our lives. According to Gray (2012), the first elevators that were equipped with benches in the back can be considered as the basis for explaining why people with todays standard elevator behaviors and gestures face the door. In this regard, people with autism often have difficulty developing normal behavior in elevators. Riding elevators in a typical fashion is a skill that people with autism have to learn, otherwise, as Donvan (2012) explains, when the door opens and the person who has autism steps in, they will face the back wall because nobody told them that everybody else in the elevator must “turn around and face the front doors.”

The everyday practice of elevator riding consists of several social scripts: multiple adaptations of body, behavior and perception. The first script for taking the elevator is the rational decision making process of choosing between the elevator and the stairs. A list of indicators can determine this decision, for instance: the length of distance, the direction towards up or down, the number of fellows, travel comfort, optical or acoustical signs on the monitor platform and the physical condition of users. These factors are mainly dependent on the time investment and the aptitude of speed and efficiency. The next concern when entering into an automatic vehicle is precise timing as well as an “adjustment of the motoricity of the body to the motoricity of the automaton” as Hirschauer (2005) cites. The regulation of “turn” is the next consideration that people have to be aware of when they get in. The priority of entrance depends on a series of factors. For example, parents with strollers and seniors take precedence. It is important to realize that the priority of entrance is based on social niceties and the moral concerns of dealing with the time resources of others. As such, a latecomer who is successfully reopens the already closed door steps into the cage as if expecting punishment for stealing time.

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (2001), mixed media. Marion Goodman Gallery

The moment of entering the cabin can be considered as the most awkward part of the experience of taking an elevator due to a quick reversal of roles: turning fellow elevator riders from outsiders to intimates. The forced closeness of elevator travel breaks down the boundaries we all have to create in our lives. If someone else comes in, the single passenger has to move to keep the maximal distance and to protect his/her personal space. The standing position, therefore, relies on two important factors: protecting personal distance and allocating enough space to other passengers. This effort of staying unknown in public settings is an interactional pattern of civil inattention, according to Hirschauer (2005), “Staying unknown consists in an unstable, always ‘threatened’ non-knowledge of names, faces, biographies and living conditions.” However, the cellular form of the tiny box of the elevator does not allow people to comply perfectly with the proximity principles.

Discipline inside the elevator proceeds from the distribution of individuals in the cellular box; “each individual has his own place; and each place its individual” (Foucault, 1977). The standing order in the elevator’s room depends on the selection of the first individual. So, only the first passenger has the power of choice and latecomers can only take other unoccupied spaces. As such, the pattern of distribution and spatial arrangement of bodies are followed by others as moves in a chess game. And here, it has been observed that elevator travelers unthinkingly go through a set pattern of movements, as predetermined as those in a square dance (Kremer, 2012). Kremer explains “square dance,” as being:

On your own, you can do whatever you want—it’s your own little box. If there are two of you, you take different corners. Standing diagonally across from each other creates the greatest distance. When a third person enters, you will unconsciously form a triangle [...]. And when there is a fourth person it’s a square, with someone in every corner. A fifth person is probably going to have to stand in the middle.

The disciplinary technique of the elevator, therefore, is one that, “individualizes bodies by a location that does not give them a fixed position, but distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations.” (Foucault, 1977) The different sections of an elevator’s cabin can affect the pattern or standing order of one single user as well: stopping by the door makes it shorter, leaning against walls gives comfort, and standing in the back offers a better view of the floor indicator. However, this condition might change if someone else gets the elevator, as Hirschauer (2005) cites:

Places in the back allow for the best visual control of the entrance, walls offer backing, protect from some views, and mark at least one side of a territory, places at the door ensure the exit for short distance travelers, otherwise they are avoided, the same place in the middle, since they are in the way of people going in and out, and of gazes directed toward the doors.

According to an ethnographical elevator survey in two office towers in Adelaide, Australia by Rousi, 2013, senior men direct themselves toward the back, while younger men seem to prefer standing in the middle. Women of all ages take up the front space close to the door. According to Rousi, “a clear social order could be seen regarding where people positioned themselves inside the elevators and how they interacted with the design features, such as mirrors and monitors.” Rousi finds that men in particular look in the mirrors to see themselves as well as others. Women would watch the monitors and escape from eye contact with other passengers. She also noticed that women look at mirrors only when they are with other female passengers. One interviewee mentions that she only looks in the mirror when there was no one else in the cabin. The elevator, therefore, creates a complex space that is at the same time architectural, functional and hierarchical.

The spatial distribution of bodies does not seem the biggest challenge of elevator rides. Nothing needs so much space in elevators as looks do (Hirschauer, 2005). Glances are objects in the elevator that need to be placed like bodies. The eyes are usually considered to be the principal means by which we gather information (Hall, 1966). However, people should not overlook the compexity of functions of the look besides conveying information, which can also punish, encourage or establish dominance, as Hall cites. The visual organization of space in the elevator is the way that passengers try to avoid facing each other. Thus, they direct bodies and looks toward the door or the floor indicator. Besides, elevator riders define a certain upflight path for their looks to avoid simultaneous looking, as Hirschauer (2005) claims. According to him, the only moment that a “license to glance” would be issued is when an outsider gets in, and becomes an eye-catcher for all intimates inside the elevator. But, the outsider does not remain the only subject of looks, s(he) has the chance to catch a glimpse of the fellows in order to find a place to stand. This system of visual order works when the number of passengers is limited.

© Chuck Savage / Corbis

While keeping physical and visual distance might be possible in the elevator, “the ear has no chance of turning away” (Hirschauer, 2005). Talking and hearing in elevators can be considered both as an opportunity and an obligation. Nevertheless, in a setting which is so inimical to conversation, there are some well-defined opportunities for talking, which at the same time illustrate the structural restrictions elevators set for their unfolding (Hirschauer, 2005). It is also important to realize that passengers have the right of “conversational preserves” as Goffman (1971) argues; the right not to listen or talk with another person at anytime. As such, elevator users have some avoidance techniques to escape from unwanted elevator interactions: showing they are busy with a smartphone, refraining from eye contact, and communicating with body language to express the lack of interest for both verbal and visual communication.

In spite of the avoidance techniques, all elevator riders have the experience of being faced with the continued conversation of outsiders who enter into the lift without stopping their talk, or of getting in the cabin while intimates are in a conversation. The continuation of the talk depends on some factors, such as the privacy of the topic, or the power of parties involved in the conversation (whether there is one speaker and a silent majority, or vice versa). There are also some basic conversations that are more or less common in elevators, for instance, offering the service of pushing the button for a passenger with full hands. As mentioned before, the most important concern in elevator taking is timing. If somebody starts a chat, s(he) should be able to end it before the exit door opens. So, it requires again a technique of adjustment to the automaton of the machine. Getting out of an elevator is accomplished in a concerted action of moving apart; one could also call it “standing easy” (Hirschauer, 2005). As soon as the machine brakes, passengers look for ways of getting out.
Lanes are formed for people who want to find their way out, before the door closes. Here again, the timing of these practices is considerable. People have to get out at the right time; it is “a correct use of the body, which makes a correct use of time” (Foucault, 1977).

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (2001), mixed media. Marion Goodman Gallery

Despite the above-mentioned universal scripts of the elevator, this complex space remains as a revealing device to identify local practices. A well-disciplined elevator rider has to conform to the specific norms that each society asks for. For instance, according to “OMA architect: cultural cab expectations” (Koolhaas, 2014), the size of personal space in the Middle East is much larger than in some other areas of the world, therefore their elevators are huge, or as a result of Soviet standardization, some Russian residential buildings have a fixed amount of floor buttons, or in Japan, the standing order depends on a different hierarchy: “young persons in companies need to stand in front of [the] control panel and [operate] it. High positions stand in [the] center”. Thus, practices in the elevator can be regarded as “running solutions to general interactional problems of public encounters” in societies, which become more extreme in elevators, according to Hirschauer (2005). The elevator, therefore, is not only a vertical transformation mode, but is also a complex space, in which the practice of riding the elevator provides fixed positions, permits circulation, distributes bodies, indicates values, guarantees the obedience of individuals, and improves an economy of time and gesture.


Candid Camera, “Face the Rear”, 1962 [video online] [Accessed 22 September 2015].
Dixon, B 1998, “How Do You Behave in an Elevator?”. [Accessed 2 September 2015].
Donvan, J and Gray, L 2012, “Why We Behave So Oddly In Elevators”, NPR. [Accessed 2 September 2015].
Foucault, M 1977, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon Books.
Goffman, E 1971, Relations in Public; Microstudies of the Public Order. New York: Basic Books.
Hall, E T 1966, “The Hidden Dimension”, Garden City. New York: Doubleday.
Hirschauer, S 2005, “On Doing Being a Stranger: The Practical Constitution of Civil Inattention”, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, pp. 41–67. Koolhaas, R 2014, “Elevator”, Elements of Architecture. Venice: Marsilio Editori Spa.
Kremer, W 2012, “Why Do We Behave so Oddly in Lifts?”, BBC News. [Accessed 2 September 2015].
Rousi, R 2013, “An Uplifting Experience—Adopting Ethnography to Study Elevator User Experience”, 2 April 2013, ethnographymatters.net. [28 September 2015].
Compression Augmentation