Saturday, September 06, 2008

Elevator Etiquette

He was on the phone as he entered the elevator. It was just the 2 of us. He hung up and both of us watched the floor-display like our lives depended on it. As his floor arrived, he stepped out briskly, but not before smiling widely at me and saying "Have a great day then." I was taken aback and said "fjghafklgh" with a feeble smile but by then he had left already.

Our Bombay apartment had one of those old-fashioned, sliding grill-door lifts, which had a one-track mind. So if Floor 5 called it, and on its way from Floor 1 to Floor 5 it also registered a request from Floor 3, it would ignore it happily, gliding in its transparent empty splendour, mocking the waiting passenger on Floor 3, before drawing up - a worthy, loyal chariot - on Floor 5. Floor 3 and 5 would then play a game of one-upmanship. Once Floor 5 got in and slid the door shut, the lift was fair game for everyone. So if Floor 5 hesitated even a second before hitting the "G" button, and Floor 3 hit the "call" button first, the lift would forget all about the Floor 5 passenger standing in it, and fly off to Floor 3. Of course, if Floor 5 hit "G" first, Floor 3 could "call" the lift endlessly, but the lift wouldn't deign to go to it before safely depositing Floor 5 at G.

So when you come from a place where the person in the lift is your rival, and has established their superiority by winning at "First-press-first-serve", politeness in lifts is a bit alien!

Elevators are funny places. Everyone tries to find a little space for themselves on the ride. Of course, it's the four corners that get occupied first. Then the middle, then the middle back, and then middle front. Anyone who comes in after that destroys the balance and necessitates a collapse of public space boundaries that most people find uncomfortable. (Of course, if you've done 5 years of higher studies hanging in a DTC then elbow room is a luxury, so I'm more relaxed than many.)

But what I find even funnier in elevators in Dubai, and elsewhere outside India, is the social code. The Westerners usually nod/smile/say good morning. The Indians rarely bother. The Arabs never do. The others fall somewhere / anywhere in between. And so, I am never sure whether to say it first. I have on occasion brightly smiled and met with a blank face. I have tried to strike up conversations and realised language was a problem. And then I feel really stupid. Like, who tries to make friends on a 15-second elevator ride anyway? And come on, isn't it totally mechanical to do this anyway? I don't get the whole smile-when-you-get in/stare-at-your-feet/ watch-your-phone/stare-at-the-floor-display /inspect-your-nails/smaile-when-you-get-out funda. I mean, really it's just a half-hearted social thing to do. In India, with how many people and for how long do you just smile and move on? Sooner rather than later they will find out whether you had an arranged marriage and where your family is from.

Here, you could smile at the same woman in the lift everyday and never go further than that. And I am never sure what the other person expects. I guess this comes from my whole personality flaw of always wanting people to like me. So if I decide to smile and the other just looks taken aback, I feel silly. Or if I decide to just look at the wall the other will turn out to be a social butterfly and give me a happy grin and make a general remark about the weather, and then I look anti-social. Me anti-social? ME? ME? I am then seized by the urge to restrain them from leaving the elevator, talk to them about a while to establish just how social I am, and then let them go their way. Thankfully I have not tried it yet.

Too much pressure. What do you do in the lift? I know, I know, all you sane people out there will say, just smile anyway. Reminds me of that T-shirt "Smile at a stranger, it'll scare them silly." I'm not sure I really want to practise that.


dipali said...

I just loved this post! These are our everyday dilemmas, part of the 'modern' world. I remember insisting on smiling at a woman on my morning walks and her not smiling at me.
Blogged about it here

Goofy Mumma said...

Hey, I so understand this confusion thing. And the UAE has such a hugely mixed population, its difficult to find a regular protocol, but I think you can be more pro-active than reactive. Pick your way and stick to it. That's what I have done. I smile, no words, just a smile. If someone speaks to me, I respond that's all. Here there are the politest people and the most rude ones too, so I guess we just need to pick our own way and stick to it.

Suku said...

quite a dilemma ha?
fortunately in th US, it is common for people to smile, acknowledge the other and sometimes even go to the extent of saying-hi, how r you doing? in my 8 yrs here, i have come across only maybe a handful who havent-which now that i am so used to the cordiality, that i find it absolutely rude when people dont smile or respond.
but in your case there is no consistency. i would say, just play it by ear.
i liked reading your take on how the elevator gets filled-very observant , i must say.

Thinking Cramps said...

Dipali: So did she ever smile back? Am going to read that post and check!

Goofy Mumma: Agreed. I think I should just do that. Though my childhood shyness resurfaces at times like this and I worry about not getting an equal response!

Suku: Uh oh, I better start smiling, in case it's YOU I meet in the elevator someday!

~nm said...

I also get very conscious in lifts! Thankfully I don't have to use lifts frequently. Rather make it I need to use then RARELY.

Goofy Mumma said...

Don't worry so much about it, its not such a big deal anyways. I on my part just want to be polite and well-mannered, a smile never hurts you know!

chandni said...

try humming and tapping the foot.
I do :D

Anonymous said...

Well, hello TC, have been lurking || RL has been a lil' irking || But, i raise many toasts || To your delightful posts || Clearly you haven't been shirking!........Love and hugs:-) Aunty G.

Mystic Margarita said...

Like Suku commented earlier, it's very common for strangers to smile and exchange pleansanteries in the elevator or even while passing each other on the roads. Many Indians, however, will just ignore you or, worse still, look away to avoid eye contact. This irks the hell out of me. Wrote about it a while back. But that's here. Differnt places/countries have different social norms and ettiquetes.

eve's lungs said...

What happened to my comment ?Or rather what is happening to my comments ?? sob.

Thinking Cramps said...

NM: Seeing you here after ages! Welcome back.

Goofy Mumma: Thanks. I smiled at the guy who got into the lift today. He responded :)

Chandni: Thanks. Next time :)

Aunty G: What's RL?

Mystic Margarita: Will go look up your post. Yeah, it's a totally cultural thing I guess.

Eve's Lungs: I think we have resumed transmission :)

A very cool cat said...

The ratty old elevator in the apartment we're staying in now behaves in exactly the same manner as the one in your Bombay days. I never dare venture in without K (the one time I did, I ended up going all the way up and down two whole times before I could escape, so I figured that if I HAVE to look silly, I may as well have company), and one of us drags the doors open while the other rushes in and hangs on to the proper button for dear life - and we flash evil grins as we pass the slowcoaches waiting on other floors.

I usually end up staring into space in elevators - but then Indians aren't a friendly, social bunch anyway, so it doesn't matter.

A Muser said...

Hehehe! Great post! I tend to smile briefly, then look at the floor with great interest just to reassure that person that s/he needn't smile back, it's all cool, yada yada... Weird, hah?

Aunty G said...

Real Life, dear. Love and hugs:-)

OrangeJammies said...

Based on a solitary meeting, I can say you're a delight to be around. So I wouldn't be so worried, only the hard-hearted or the legally blind wouldn't smile back. And really, the world has more self-conscious people than you think. We're all wary of making asses of ourselves but we end up doing it anyway! :0)

Thinking Cramps said...

Cool Cat: I can't imagine you grinning evilly!!! But that was a super description - hanging on t the button for dear life!! Ha ha ha ...

A Muser: :) I really know where you're coming from. I so do!

Aunty G: Oh!

OJ: Yeah (note I accept the compliments!! But with you I had 2 hours to prove it - here it's just 15 seconds. Too. Much. Pressure.