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How Elevators Reveal Office Pecking Order

Something new to think about the next time you press the "up" button.

Elevators are strange. They enabled skyscrapers and, in so doing, enabled the modern city. Yet we don't know what to do in them, except pray that we don't get stuck and wonder why Americans don't call them lifts, which is clearly the superior term.

We can safely conclude that elevators themselves are awesome. It's just the people who are in them who are weird—especially when you work with them.

The pitch

Being in a room flying up and down a building that closes its inhabitants in prompts some strange behavior. You get this fleeting communal awkwardness. It's given us the elevator pitch, in which someone summates his or her preoccupation to another, hoping for some sense of mutual investment. You've got a captive audience, why not tell them about your hustle?

But when more people get on board, things get weirder—and by that I mean hierarchical.

The elevator pecking order

You walk into an elevator. Where do you stand? From the research done by Australian ethnographer Rebekah Rousi, it depends largely on the people already standing in the chamber. She recognized a "clear social order" emerge after repeatedly being a fly on the elevator wall:

  • Senior men stood near the back of cabins
  • Younger men stood in front of older dudes
  • And women stood in front of the guys

Strange, right? And maybe also a little predictable? We should note that Rousi did her research in Adelaide, Australia, a town that's known to be relatively conservative. What would the elevator hierarchy maps be like in more liberal places around the world? And the hierarchy stuff probably varies industry to industry—and neighborhood to neighborhood—too. Maybe we need an office anthropologist on the case.

And how do you act?

From Rousi's research, your actions depend on the social setting you're briefly stuck in. A few of her observations:

  • Men watched TV monitors and checked themselves out in mirrors, regardless of who was with them
  • When women were with men, they would watch the TV monitors, but avoid eye contact with others, and not look into mirrors
Some implicit gender-normative stuff is afoot in the elevator, especially regarding the mirrors.

"It was only when the women travelled with other women, and just a few at that, that women elevator users would utilise the mirrors," Rousi writes. "One interviewee even mentioned that she only looked in the mirrors when there was no one else in the elevator."

What to do with entrenched elevator attitudes? It's outside the purview of this article, but leaning in seems to be somehow related to getting to the next floor.

If you would like to hold the door open on elevator discussion (or puns), please do so in the comments.

An uplifting experience—adopting ethnography to study elevator user experience

[Image: Flickr user JD Hancock]

Add New Comment


  • Ervin Ha

    This assumes that the lifts are in buildings with only one company. How will the pecking order work for lifts in buildings with multiple companies where no one knows anyone else?

  • Chipotle2

    In Madrid it was pretty much the same. The partners/senior managers stood in the back and younger people as well as women would tend to stand in the front.

  • Gra8Graphics

    Too funny, I love that the Guys use the mirrors and the Women avoid looking the the mirrors. I personally like to stand in the back, with the senior men.

  • m2

    This is a non-article full of non-information and non-facts.  Do I print it and use it to line an imaginary bird cage? 

  • OK

    Seriously?  It's a fun piece about human nature - observing people is interesting.  Chill. If you have something more interesting to say, why aren't you writing for Fast Company??  Okay then.

  • Carlos

    Try standing with your back to the doors so you are facing everyone.  Drives people nuts.

  • Jearwas

    A very interesting article I came across about a year ago. It explains how people tend to arrange themselves like dots on a dice. I decided I would make an effort to observe this phenomenon after reading the article and what I found was just that. People seem to instinctively arrange in die patterns for some odd reason. Make the effort next time you are in an elevator (probably within the next hour or so) and witness this for yourself!

  • Lauren

    I'm still waiting to read about how the elevator positioning relates to the pecking order!?

  • Mark O'Brien

    I've adopted the tactic of a gentleman for whom I worked many years ago. As soon as the elevator doors closed, he'd say: "I guess you're wondering why I called this meeting." It broke all the ice. All the time.

  • Sara Crow

    As a woman, I would never stand with a man behind me. Poor survival tactics. Unless I know the others in the elevator, I always stand with my back to the wall. 

  • pelsass

    I think it would also be interesting to see if there is any cultural difference in terms of where people stand  with respect to others and how close people will stand.  For instance, I won't stand close to anyone unless I have no choice.  On the other hand, I have had people get on the elevator who immediately stand close to me.  Also, how many people is too many people?  When does the average person say, "No way am I getting on that elevator".  The childlike part of me would love to see how people react based on sociological and cultural differences to a bad smell in the elevator.  Would they look around openly and make faces, or try to act like nothing is wrong?  

  • angela

    if someone wanted to relay make the ride weird put someone in a uniform in there. i work as security for a lot of different hotels and people would rather wait for the next elevator. if they do get in there with me everyone looks around trying not to look. women stand in the back men the older they are stand closer to the door. :) some kids hide other cant stop talking. most of the time people ask who got in trouble and if i get off on the floor with them they just go nuts thinking i'm going to their room.