An unwritten law about riding in elevators is that passengers will not look directly at nor get too close to one another.

Most of us get in, push the button for the appropriate floor and then stare at the lighted changing numerals above the doors as the elevator travels, mindlessly counting the floors.

If someone looks at us, we look away or return an embarrassed half-grin and then stare at our feet. If someone gets too close, we move away.

While we are obliged to use this little moving room to get from place to place, we are certainly not obliged to communicate, particularly when we do not choose with whom we travel.

Once in a while, a stranger on an elevator will attempt to engage us in conversation. “How’s it going?” someone will ask.

“Fine,” we reply, and stare at our feet so we won’t have to put up with any more of this familiarity.

And we never look directly at another person’s face or into his/her eyes for longer than an instant, even though that is what we want to do and it might be very pleasant indeed to exchange glances or even a smile with another person.

No, elevator etiquette requires that we get on and get off with as little interaction as possible.

Almost no one waits, when the elevator stops to let passengers off, before trying to get on.

There’s always a lot of jostling and “excuse me’s” boarding and leaving elevators in a crowded building.

And some people never seem to notice whether the upper or the lower light on the outside is illuminated, telling whether the elevator is going up or down.

The elevator stops, the door opens and the person outside the elevator says, “Going up?” One is sorely tempted to say, “No, we are going sideways.”

Once in a while I enter an elevator that’s going up when I wanted to go down (I didn’t properly attend to the directional light on the outside).

I always pretend that I really wanted to go up, and when the elevator finally stops at the top and the door opens, people stand there looking at me like I’m a fool because I don’t get out. I just say, “Going down?”, and they figure it out and get on.

Many little acts of kindness are performed in hospital elevators. Once in a while, when a transportation orderly and a patient in a wheelchair get on, the people in the elevator will smile at the patient and even say “Hello.”

I like it when a nearly full elevator stops and the EKG technologist, with machine, wants to get on. There’s barely enough room, but everyone makes way so the technologist (and the patient) will not have to wait.

I am pleased when passengers hold the elevator for someone who is slow moving, and I hate it when someone calls out, “Please hold the elevator!” and no one even makes an effort to find the “open door” button.

I’ve only been trapped in an elevator once, as I didn’t like it at all. I rang the emergency bell, and in a couple of minutes a voice came over the speaker system to ask what the problem was.

I answered, and within 10 or 15 minutes we were rescued. It seemed like an hour, and I was a little bit frightened despite being in a familiar place with relatively nonthreatening people. We endlessly reassured one another that everything would be OK, and it finally was.

The apprehension associated with riding an elevator with strangers probably has to do with the uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability we experience when we are not entirely in control.

We stay to ourselves and avoid contact to avoid unpredictable encounters which will make us feel ill at ease.

We don’t want to expose our limited ability to respond to unstructured social situations. But

we’ll do anything rather than walk the stairs.

Melvyn Schreiber is a physician at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Melvyn Schreiber’s essays are now available as a paperback book (without the book reviews and opera reviews). If you want one, send $15 to him at 12 E. Dansby, Galveston, TX 77551, and he will mail a copy to you. It’s not heavy enough to press your trousers with, but it may please you in other ways.

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