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What Does Body Language in Elevators Say? Nonverbal Cues of Boredom, Interest, Anxiety and Aggression

Recently I was interviewed as a body language expert in Business Week Magazine on body language in elevators. The full article is below.
By Tim Murphy

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Every day in New York, people take 30 million elevator rides in 58,000 elevators, according to the trade group National Elevator Industry. It’s a weird nonmoment in which strangers share a tiny space. “We silently agree that the other people don’t exist,” says Tonya Reiman, author of The Power of Body Language. According to Dario Maestripieri, a University of Chicago behavioralist and author of the forthcoming The Biology of Everyday Life, this instinct is deeply rooted. “Being in a restricted space with strangers is tension-provoking,” he says. “So we do unconscious things to minimize the risk of conflict, like not making eye contact. If you put monkeys in a small cage, they avoid each other.”

How we behave in those seconds of entrapment says a lot about us. What follows is a survey of elevator-rider behavior based on research conducted in 10 Manhattan office buildings. Bloomberg Businessweek categorized the behaviors of more than 100 riders into 10 groups, which appear below along with explanations from a panel of experts: Reiman; Maestripieri; Patti Wood, author of Success Signals; and Marilyn Puder-York, author of The Office Survival Guide. Think twice the next time you fold your hands in front of your pelvis. We know what you’re thinking.

Awkward Cell-Thumber

Percent of riders observed: 41%

“A lot of those people don’t even get a signal in the elevator,” says Reiman. “They’re giving the impression they’re busy, and saying, ‘Don’t worry about having a conversation.’” According to M The Arm-Crosser

Percent of riders observed: 14%

“This mini-hug makes people feel better about the elevator ride. It says, ‘I’m not open to conversations,’ ” says Reiman. It isn’t necessarily an aggressive position, though. “A person with arms crossed is saying that they’re harmless by creating a softer, smaller silhouette,” says Wood.
aestripieri, this “displacement activity” is a self-distraction in “a tense situation.”

The George Costanza

Percent of riders observed: 12%

Going through a bag or ruffling up a newspaper is a classic distraction technique that puts up a wall against engagement. “It shows anxiety,” says Wood. “It’s a form of self-comfort. Also, when we’re anxious the nerve endings in our nose begin to twitch.”

The Mumbler

Percent of riders observed: 6%

Talking to oneself is, says Reiman, “a kinesthetic move. [Mumblers] start going through their day, ‘What did I do? What do I still have to do?’” Mumblers are also shoe-gazers. By avoiding eye contact, according to Wood, they’re saying: “‘I’m not here to threaten or challenge you.”

The Yoga Master

Percent of riders observed: 6%

With their heads up straight, arms down, and feet planted firmly, some riders are the picture of contentment. “These people are very self-aware,” says Reiman. “We can become that way when we’re forced into proximity with another person.”

Hands-in-Pockets Guy

Percent of riders observed: 5%

A generally male profile, experts say, since more men wear pants with pockets. “You’re demonstrating insecurity, even if you’re not insecure,” says Reiman. According to Wood, “It’s a bit scarier, guy to guy, when one guy’s hands are in his pockets. Does he have a weapon?”

The Adam and Eve

Percent of riders observed: 5%

A number of men unwittingly ride in the elevator with their hands clasped in front of their crotches, a protective gesture known as the fig-leaf position, signaling vulnerability. “Women in elevators put their paperwork or purse up around their chest,” notes Wood.

The Door-Gunner

Percent of riders observed: 4%

This rider signals that he or she needs to be the first out when the doors open. Says Puder-York: “That’s a Type-A person. It shows a lack of caring.” The guy with his hand on the door the whole time? He’s thinking, says Reiman, “If I hold it, I will get there faster.”

Mr. Uptight

Percent of riders observed: 4%

Some people make the trip while standing straight, like choir boys with bladder problems. “They want to keep their distance from you and have the exit as close as possible the minute the door opens,” says Reiman. “They’re guarding the entry of the cave,” says Wood.

The Wall-Leaner

Percent of riders observed: 3%

Wall-leaners often work on higher floors, allowing them extra time to lean. Says Reiman: “They’re more relaxed, but they don’t want to get involved.” According 
to Wood, the lean is more calculated: “That says either ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m not showing any need for power cont

Other Noticeable, Yet Less Common Elevator Behaviors

Serial Hummers / Wood: “It’s a way of getting stress out—or signaling you’re harmless.”
Big Exhalers / Reiman: “It’s a relaxation tool.”
Pigeon-Toed Standers / Reiman: “This is a vulnerable, child-like position.”
Stretchers / Maestripieri: “Some people have weird manners.”
Convex Pelvis Riders / Wood: “Definitely a sexual come-on.”
Pivoters / Reiman: “They have little concern for the bubble we’re sharing.”

If you want to see drawings of the people using the different cues can link here.