Or is it IN the elevator?
Elevator Etiquette in New York City
One of the “unspoken” rules in NYC is no talking in the elevator (no pun intended). Most of the world doesn’t ride on long elevator rides several times every day. Elevator rides outside of NYC are likely quite short in duration so NYC elevator etiquette is not a well known topic. It’s not even discussed in NYC, we just do it.
The Steel era enabled the first “skyscraper” in New York City. This was the Woolworth Building. But they could not have built a skyscraper without the invention by Elisha Graves Otis, of the elevator.
Nobody likes to get on an elevator and overhear a one-sided conversation from someone yacking on the phone. yuck. Nobody wants to hear you talking to your colleagues about business stuff, and doctors are not allowed to talk about cases in elevators (that was a problem when HIPAA was first enacted). Surely no one wants to hear you talking to your lover or your spouse.
The thing is, on an elevator you’re trapped with strangers for some indeterminate amount of time. No one wants to be trapped into dealing with the personal interests of a stranger. The default etiquette is you just don’t talk. It’s safest that way.
Several years ago a dear friend was visiting from another coast and was very excited about something he’d seen just before getting in the elevator. He talked to people in the elevator about it and got zero response. “what was that all about?” he asked. I explained we have a rule here – no talking in the elevator.
I like to push the envelope. Since that time I have made it a point to talk to people on the elevator to see what exactly the boundaries are.
This reminds me of the Dahli Lama-ism “Understand the rules so you can break them correctly.”
- If someone is wearing earbuds/headphones or has their attention on a cell phone or something else, they don’t want to talk.
- If someone is staring at the numbers, walls or doesn’t acknowledge you, they don’t want to talk.
- If you are going to say something, for gods sake don’t make it personal! Telling them their food smells good, or you love their shirt (unless it’s a t-shirt with a message – which is ok) is creepy. They’ll think you want some of their food or are trying to pick them up for elevator sex.
- Don’t offer up your opinion, no one wants to hear it.
- Don’t ask them a seemingly innocuous question. Every scam in NYC starts with an innocuous question – you’ll just get a blank stare and be ignored.
In general you just don’t talk to strangers in an elevator, it’s just too hazardous.
I understand this rule and through much experimentation I have discovered behaviours that allow me to break it. It’s fun to break and it’s important to have fun with the strangers on the elevator you break it with. There are DO NOT’s and there are DO’s when talking to strangers in an elevator.
- DO offer something free (remember though we’re suspicious of scams here). A non-threatening thought that requires no engagement and is common would be a good place to start.
- If you’re going to say something in an elevator DO NOT confront people with a question that demands engagement, personal opinion or an answer.
- DO make observations to the air (DO NOT address someone personally).
- If they have a dog – you may make a non-critical comment about the dog. but remember until they’ve established they want to talk – it is inappropriate to ask a question like “what breed?”
- My favorite thing to say if the dog is a petite little thing is “OMG, Look, a ferocious beast!” and smile.
- Asking the dogs name or saying it’s beautiful, while personal, also seems within the realm of acceptable, once you’ve established they are willing to acknowledge you.
- I used to ride the elevator with my Dudley cat. If it stopped at a middle floor someone would often ask me: “isn’t he going to run out?” to which I always replied: “He knows which floor he lives on, don’t you?” and Dudley did know.
- Many residential buildings don’t have crowded elevators. It’s unusual to actually find yourself in an elevator with someone else. This is a fair topic to speak to. I will say to the air: “it’s so unusual, usually there are no other passengers in this building.”
- In the office building I work in it’s normal to wait a long time for an elevator. Then they tend to be crowded and stop at like every floor – which is frustrating. Also, when you do get an elevator and get in, the door takes a long time to close and just as it’s closing another person stops it and you have to wait again for the door to close. Not a good experience. This morning the door was opened, the elevator was waiting and empty and three of us got in and were all going to the same floor. The door closed without interruption. We had the the fastest elevator ride that is possible. I looked at the woman next to me and said “That never happens.” She said: “no it doesn’t.”
- The other exception to the rule is when you’re in the elevator with tourists and non-New Yorkers. If they look at you and say “good morning.” it’s perfectly acceptable to respond with “good morning” and even strike up a conversation — observing the rules above. They haven’t learned the primary rule yet about not talking in elevators.
- Finally, If you are a New Yorker and a tourist says: “good morning” to you, this is the one time it would be impolite to respond with the common two words New Yorkers greet each other a good morning with.
Don’t talk in elevators. But if you do, do not say anything that demands a response or is personal.
There will be at least one more elevator blog in the future!