Smile Politely

Space Invaders

I spent the week at a conference in Madison, and with a few other deviants I met, decided to take advantage of being a stranger in a strange land by conducting some interesting social experiments. The term “conference” immediately connotes stuffy, boring, meeting-filled days. To keep things interesting, we found it important and rewarding to mess with our fellow conference goers, as well as the general public. Basically, we lived our lives like we were in one marathon Seinfeld episode. But by the end of it all, I wondered how many more people were out there doing the same things to us.

I’ve always been fascinated by elevator etiquette, and was particularly inspired this week to push the limits of what’s appropriate while engaged in vertical travel. My favorite way to make people uncomfortable is to stand with my back to the doors, facing the other passengers. But this week, a new idea came to me after an incredibly awkward experience. Some people are of the philosophy that the person standing nearest the buttons should ask where others are headed, and manage all the controls. Others select their desired floor and then step back, allowing for the rest to do the same. But what happens when two dominant riders meet? I know the answer to this. Because it happened to me. It turns into a “Battle for the Buttons.” 

As the first passenger entering the hotel’s lift, I moved to the wall nearest the panel. I was immediately joined by a few others, but one man in particular who practiced the do-it-yourself model of floor selection. As we both reached for the buttons, we simultaneously crossed hands and lower arms, and then retracted them in what seemed like the same instant. Then, as one waves on another driver arriving at a four way stop at the same time, we both paused, letting the other go ahead. Waving each other on, we again reached for the buttons, reenacting the previous move, and increasing the level of discomfort. Thinking that words might help us get the job done, we both offered the other a verbal opportunity to proceed. And falling for the same thing again, stretched out our arms in unison. Eventually, we completed the task, but the next several seconds were filled with palpable unease.

To avoid this scenario from happening in the future, I’ve decided to become a passive rider. From now on I will move to back corner and wait for someone else to handle the button pushing. The only risks associated with passivity are, of course, if I should find myself alone on the vehicle, in which case I suppose I would have to wait until someone else needed to use it. Another extreme act of submission would be to respond, when asked which floor, “Oh, it doesn’t matter.” Or, “You choose.” But my favorite elevator humor this week came in the simple form of a third, new philosophy, which can be summed up by the following quote: “You going up? Then I guess I’m going down.”

The other major experiment conducted this week involved displacing three fellow conference members from their preferred seats each day. On the first day, 22 of us sat around in a large, rectangular shaped pattern. For some reason, perhaps territorial, people like to return to their selected seats over the course of the following days. Intentionally trying to threaten routine, three of us arrived early enough each day to randomly sit in other people’s chairs. When someone whose seat we had taken walked in, mild panic followed by glaring disdain appeared on the visages of the expatriated. 

By about day three, I noticed people getting to class earlier and earlier, trying to secure their turf. This group shot “bitch-better-not-take-my-seat-tomorrow” looks in our direction throughout the day. Those unfortunate enough to make it to class after we did angrily found a new home. And the ones who sat closest the instructors knew better than to fear our wrath.

It feels good to be back home tonight, but interrupting shared space with strangers offers exciting rewards. I invite you to challenge society’s norms. Take a piece of food off a stranger’s plate. Stand too close to someone in an enclosed space. Or make up random facts about your hometown. Basically, take advantage of the thrilling shit you can get away with when surrounded by Others.

More Articles