Through extensive national and international research, I can conclude with near certainty that the phenomenon of being awkward in the elevator is not only a US trait but an internationally shared custom.
Tight spaces and close quarters is not something that is an isolated social situation for most, it is relatively common in communities nowadays. With our ever-expanding urban centers and overcrowded public transportation systems, being in tight spaces with individuals you have never met before is a frequent occurrence for many. But it seems this has little impact when surrounded by four (typically metallic colored) walls in a box that goes up and down.
At first postulation, I thought that perhaps those from the United States were especially awkward in elevators due to their desire for a relatively larger personal space bubble than those from most other countries. But this theory was quickly disproven when I arrived here in Vienna. In an international institution which employs those from all over the world, seemingly all of them throw all forms of social poise out the window when they step into an elevator.
I will not be as bold as to say that I could determine the root cause of this unique and slightly baffling phenomenon, but I will outline a few of the common characteristics I have identified in this specific form of awkward human interaction.
In most cases, conversation stops when inside the elevator. For some it may be the desire to keep whatever they were discussing private, for some it might be the belief that they are disrupting the calm of others, and for others (possibly just me) they know that whatever they were talking about will probably be judged when heard by normal people due to the topic’s ridiculous nature. At times there are a few brave souls that attempt to maintain their conversation when in the elevator, but it is usually strained and not always wholeheartedly reciprocated by whoever they were talking with.
This is one I have taken great interest in, it does not always make sense but there are many unspoken rules in elevator formation etiquette.
The exact formations vary, but they typically follow two general rules: The maximum amount of space from others is attempted as well as you never face your back to the elevator doors. Typically one tries not to have your back facing others in the elevator, but when there are too many for this to be accomplished the rule of not having your back to the elevator doors takes precedence.
When others leave the elevator, most will move to return to the ‘maximum distance between’ principle.
How to exit:
Now, this seems to be different depending on the situation but commonly it’s a balance between gender dynamics and age hierarchy. In most cases, men will wait for the women to exit first. This sometimes leads to a lot of awkward pausing and stumbling when the guy is clearly closer to the door and you don’t know he is waiting for you because it’s not like you have even made eye-contact the whole trip down. Additionally, if the other passengers are clearly older/in a more important job than you (that’s all of them since I am an intern) then you let them leave first.
Obviously, these are mere observations, and in the true nature of it being a social situation that magnifies awkwardness, they do not ring true every time. It wouldn’t be nearly as awkward if you knew the rules to go by now, would it?
My research is ongoing, who knows what revelation the next awkward elevator ride will bring me.