When is the last time you walked into a crowded elevator, pressed the 7th floor button, and turned to stare down your fellow humans?
During my undergraduate years, our psychology professor challenged the entire class to do just that. We were given the assignment to search out a crowded elevator, step in, and turn to face the group of strangers.
We were asked to examine the facial expressions and reactions to such intrusive and startling behavior! Imagine looking into the eyes of perfect strangers while they did all in their power to evade contact. We all know the drill – step into an elevator, press your button, and your fellow riders cautiously move to the back, stoically affixing their eyes on the above-head panel of illuminated numbers. It’s as if they were mesmerized by the lights as they flicker from floor to floor. Or you will catch them gazing downward toward their shoes, as if something of interest lay at their feet. If the elevator is exceedingly crowded, you may inadvertently graze against another’s arm, hand, or shoulder. This is the ultimate transgression, equal to, if not surpassing the eye contact offense.
While I am a Type A personality and am considered to be an extrovert, I admit that the notion of staring down unassuming strangers in an elevator left me rattled. However, determined to complete the assignment, I wasted no time tackling the task. Predictably, as I stepped on a crowded elevator and turned to face my fellow riders, all eyes gazed upward or downward to avoid the aberrant behavior. But I held my ground, searching for acknowledgement, human contact in any form, a sign that I was not invisible! I wanted to speak out, “How ‘bout a little human contact here? We are not robots!” , but instead I kept my inner voice in check.
That assignment in Psychology 1101 was about 31 years ago. Since then I’ve become more confident, more courageous, and less reticent. I recently re-enacted the elevator experiment and was disheartened to see that nothing had changed much, except that this time some of the riders were staring at their phones instead of their feet. I smiled as I faced my evasive crowd, and even allowed my inner voice to make small talk. And then, something miraculous happened! A pretty young woman smiled back, and spoke, telling me to have a nice day as she exited the elevator. And a thread of hope in the human race was restored.
So, this is your assignment. Step into a crowded elevator and turn to face the crowd head-on. Challenge yourself! Make eye contact, smile, start a conversation, and see what happens. Go for it!