Elevator Proxemics: Don't stand so close to me

5th Jun 19

Ever noticed how people start to act strangely as soon they set foot in a lift? This quirky little ‘elevator etiquette’ dance we do is in fact a set of predictable moves we make to help us deal with elevator proxemics… also known as people standing too close to us.


What is Elevator Proxemics?

In layman’s terms, proxemics refers to how we organise ourselves in social spaces. We subconsciously follow strict yet unspoken rules about where we stand relative to our fellow man. Proxemics escapes our everyday thoughts, but when you start looking for it, our tendencies become very apparent.

The theory of proxemics was developed in the 1960s by American anthropologist — Edward T. Hall. Using North Americans as his research subjects, he noted four circles around us with increasing radiuses (space ranges). As the circles get closer to us, the group of people we like to have inside them changes.


 elevator proxemics2


Where do we want people to stand?

The diagram below documents the outer Public Space range, the farthest away from the subject is where we attempt to confine strangers to — no less than 3.6m away from us.

The next range is the Social Space range, a ring starting 1.2m away from us. This is ideally the reserve of social partners such as colleagues and associates. No strangers allowed!

To the inside of this ring is the Personal Space range, circling us at a radius of 0.45m. We welcome family and close friends into this closer range.

Finally, things get up close and personal in the Intimate Space range, inside the 0.45m radius. This is a special place we save for… intimate partners. You may have noticed how uncomfortable things get when anyone else enters your Intimate Space.


proxemics diagram - Vestner Australia 


Riding elevators with Space Invaders

There are certain situations that give us no option to organise ourselves into the above space ranges. Dr Layne Longfellow, an American psychologist explained this perfectly in saying, “There are only three times in our lives that we enter a small, windowless, enclosed space that has no ready exit: the womb, the tomb and the elevator. The elevator is the only one we share with strangers.”

As a lift gathers more passengers and we cram in like sardines, others start to invade the space ranges listed above: first Social, then Personal and most people’s breaking point — the Intimate Space.


How do we deal with space invaders?

Elevator Proxemics is the quirky but routine set of moves we complete to ward off a meltdown as we navigate the awkward experience.

To begin, the passengers stand as far apart as possible — the corners are filled first says Longfellow. The fifth passenger to join the party most often stands in the middle, before a sixth person boards and everyone starts to shuffle their feet because they’re not quite sure were they should be standing.

This is where it starts to get intense as an additional set of rules starts to take affect… we avoid body contact and to avoid appearing threatening we pretend we don’t take up any space at all. This involves placing hands by sides, avoiding eye contact (and any suggestion of intimacy) by staring at the floor or focusing on the numbers over the door, ceasing speaking and quietening ongoing conversations.


How to stay cool in an elevator

Longfellow created a list of pointers to abide by while riding the lift. Funny for some, lifesaving for others, they form the elevator etiquette that we should all live and die by.

1. Face forward.

2. Fold hands in front.

3. Do not make eye contact.

4. Watch the numbers.

5. Don’t talk to anyone you don’t know.

6. Stop talking with anyone you do know when anyone enters the elevator.

7. Avoid brushing bodies.

Touting the above-all-else importance of pointer number one, Longfellow said, “Everybody allocates as much space as possible to the lunatic who’s facing the wrong way. If you’ll do something so outrageous as to stand backwards and look at them, god knows what else you would do.”


Vestner’s take on elevator proxemics

To help passengers relax and avoid the effects of elevator proxemics, Vestner invest a lot of time and research in the design features and furnishings of our commercial elevators.

We employ features like clever handrail design; full-length mirrors; nice materials, lighting and imagery to put people at ease in the elevator space.

Learn more about our residential and commercial elevators and platform lifts here, or contact us to discuss your needs.



IMG_3723e’ by dangerismycat under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.


Filed under Commercial Lifts

Written by

As National Sales and Operations Manager, Mark’s role includes building and maintaining business relationships, and managing and overseeing larger projects, all while keeping a watchful eye out for business opportunities.  Having a background in the health and disability sector provides Mark with the necessary understanding to assist clients when considering access solutions for people with mobility requirements.

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