Elevators and Intimacy

The fear (and desire) of being known

Other than walking down dark alleyways at night, I never have a greater sense that I am about to get murdered then when stepping onto an elevator with a stranger. The question, “What floor are you going to?” Feels like a trap. I am going to whatever floor gets me out of this situation the fastest! Says the voice inside my head, while I instead have to confess I am going a floor above the one he has already clicked for himself. Confined within a small metal box with what I can only assume is a sociopathic murderer I ponder my relatively short life and prepare to meet my maker.

The silence only adds to the pressure with its palpable presence overlaying the scene like the whistling of a piping hot kettle. I now understand why elevators typically have casual music, it is to ease the tension. He reaches into his pocket to “check his phone,” a nervous tick that demonstrates that this whole situation has him just as uncomfortable as me. I content myself with watching the floor numbers tick by. 1. 2. 3. Finally the doors open and he walks out. The whole ordeal lasts no longer than a minute but for those long sixty seconds I feel a part of my soul slowly die. I take a deep breath as the door closes again and I have the space to myself. This is freedom, no other people, but given enough time, this is Hell.

I’m convinced that people were not meant to live alone. This is no new idea; it is a well-known and documented fact that humans are social beings. But, the discomfort of elevator rides is what really sells me on the idea. Where I live in the Pacific North West we feel obliged to a certain amount of space. As though in the “Declaration of Independence” there is a part that says we have inalienable rights to, “life, liberty, freedom, and not having to stand closer than five feet from a stranger.” In general we are not comfortable with being squished up against other people or crammed into tight places. We love wide-open fields and mountaintops, where we can observe and keep everyone at a distance.

Now of course there are people who are the exception, who insist on standing no less than a foot away when talking to you. These people are the worst. You can’t even focus on their whole face from that close, you have to content yourself with just looking at one part of their face. Either their mouth or their eyes, or finding the happy medium of staring at their nose all while they slowly back you into a corner. But I digress.

There is an unspoken rule amongst humanity that we seem to intuitively understand about proximity. The physical distance you are to someone in relation to the number of other people and objects between you, should equal the emotional intimacy between you.

What I mean by this is, if you are pressed up against someone else’s body at the front of a packed concert it might be a little awkward but in general this seems normal and fine. You are there to watch a band and are surrounded by hundreds of other people doing the same. The number of other people allows you to feel comfortable being that close to a stranger. If you were standing that close to someone in the Starbucks line to get your coffee however you might get pepper sprayed in the face, because with less people it is considered highly inappropriate to be that close. If you are alone in a meeting with your boss and there is a desk between you it might feel more formal, your boss appear to have more authority and distance. However, if you have that meeting with your boss and there is no table or desk between you, you might feel your boss is more open and inviting, or on the flip side he might appear intrusive and intimidating. The objects present or absent in relationship between you and another also plays a key role in perceived emotional connection.

We draw boundaries around what is and is not comfortable to do with others. How close you can be, what form of greeting (hug, high five, handshake, ect) is appropriate and so on. But (because life is confusing and complicated), everyone has different boundaries. This is why on meeting your future in-laws you might have that uncomfortable moment when they go in to give you a hug and you stick a hand into their belly, as though giving their tummy a quick shake is a normal everyday greeting.

It seems to me that sex is as intimate as humans can physically get. Lovers will be together with physically nothing between them. I think this is one of our core desires as humans, to be able to be fully and authentically seen and known and to be accepted in that moment. We desire this so strongly that we fear the rejection we might experience if when we allow ourselves to be seen, and therefore put up safety nets to ensure that when we are most intimately known we will be met with acceptance.

I think that is why people get married. In terms of reproduction it is far more profitable to sow your wild seeds rampantly amongst many farms (to use a somewhat uncomfortable analogy). Television and movies often depicts the idea that everyone is constantly sleeping around and that it does nothing to the persons psyche, but looking around it seems that most people innately desire a single well-known partner. To be fully and earnestly known on the outside as a reflection of the intimate knowledge of the inside.

So we return to the plight of the miserable elevator ride. To sit in companionable silence is something only intimate relations can do. To ride in an elevator is to be, for prolonged time, in a two to three foot radius with one other person, in complete silence. In my mind there is only two ways to find comfort in this situation.

  1. Your elevator ride partner needs to be someone you are intimately close with. A person you feel you have already shared all the juicy tidbits about your life and your day with and that you feel okay with having nothing else to tell. A person you are fully content in being known as much as possible by this person.


  1. Fake it. Pretend that they are a friend, or see them as a future friend, someone you want to get to know. In that way it is somewhat like a first date, a mysterious stranger that some day might just be a close friend.

These are the only two ways I can see of making these elevator rides less awkward. Of course you could just pull out your phone and make yourself busy, but lets be real, living in the present will always be more satisfying then living in the pictures of someone else’s past.

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