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Marks My Words: Pushing the Right Buttons

It was one of those spur-of-the-moment decisions. I had to get to the fourth floor of Sweet Hall where I was late for a meeting. But did I want to stumble into the room gasping for breath? I’m no marathon-runner, but I knew that if I ran up three flights of stairs right before a meeting, I wouldn’t make a good impression. There was only one other choice.

I looked over at, yes, the elevator. I cringed. The environmentally friendly culture in the Bay Area has taught me never to do something with a machine that my own muscles can’t do. Thanks to my time at Stanford, I get uncomfortable when I’m in a car because 50 miles really shouldn’t be too far to bike, right? But this particular situation seemed too dire.

I prepared myself for what would come next. Elevator conversations are uniquely different from any others; you’re stuck in a tiny, tiny space with a stranger, but only for a couple minutes. It’s not like an airplane, when you both know that you’ll get to rub elbows for a few hours. It’s not passing by someone on the street because in that setting you could both be going anywhere or doing anything.

But if you’re in an elevator with someone, you have something in common by default — you’re in the same elevator. That might mean that you’re in the same hotel together, you’re visiting the same office together or maybe you live in the same apartment building. The commonality that you share places some conversational pressure on you.

This pressure to make conversation is at the same time countered by your knowledge that, if this person gets off at the next floor, you want the conversation to have reached a natural end. At the same time, you don’t want to have a pleasantly abrupt exchange followed by another minute of silence while you both realize you’re going to the highest floors of the building. As some might say: awkwaaaard.

As a result, sometimes it is far easier not to talk at all. And that’s why I usually stare at the wall, or at the panel of numbers in front of me, or at a spot next to my feet. Sometimes small talk just isn’t really worth it.

I’ve tried it before. And unfortunately, Sweet Hall has been the site of some sub-par elevator encounters for me. One time, I knew I had a meeting somewhere in the building, and I suspected it was the fourth floor. I waited with another student, we got in the elevator together and it was soon obvious that we were both traveling to the 4th floor. Since I wasn’t sure where the meeting was, I opened first.

“Hey, are you here for the 6 p.m. meeting?” He was too! No way. “Do you know where it is?” He thought it was on the fourth floor. By the time we’d gotten through those few lines of conversation, speaking slowly and with naturally drawn-out pauses, the elevator arrived at the fourth floor.

What happened next was that we ended up taking two more elevator rides together. The meeting was not on the fourth floor. So we rode down to the second floor, his next guess. The meeting was not there either. And lastly we rode up to the third floor, where we finally found our meeting. At this point we’d had several less than ideal exchanges along the lines of, “So, what year are you?” Insert answer. “Cool.” “So, what’s your major?” Insert answer. “Nice.” Not knowing when our conversation would have to be over, we instead had a bunch of mini conversations, none of which were particularly satisfactory. It was rough.

But the other day my fortunes turned. I entered Sweet Hall and, too daunted by the stairs, turned to the elevator and the guy in front of it. “Hey, are you going up?” “Yup!” We wait, and the elevator took an oddly long time to arrive, so we shot each other some questioningly amused glances. “Is it coming, or should we take the stairs?” we both seemed to say to one another, but finally the elevator doors slid open before us.

Once in the elevator, I pushed four and asked him for his floor. He said three. I tested the waters. “Oh okay, floor three…that’s fine. If you were going to floor two, I would’ve judged. Can’t you walk up one flight of stairs?”

It was a pretty loaded comment, but he responded with a laugh and agreed that you’re only justified in taking the elevator if you’re going up at least two flights of stairs. I laughed too and told him that I couldn’t risk getting to my meeting if I were panting like a dog. Laughs all around, and soon enough he got to floor three and departed.

Our exchange was perfectly timed. It took up the precise temporal duration of the elevator ride. It was friendly and thankfully lacked the strained undertone of some small talk. And it actually left me wishing that not all short-lived elevator conversations had to end because great people pop up in all types of places, elevators included.


Miriam hopes you won’t give her article the shaft. Please rise to the occasion and email her your feedback [email protected]

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