Why Do We Avoid Social Contact In Elevators & Trains?

If you think about it, standing in an elevator together with a bunch of strangers or sitting opposite them in a train is a pretty unnatural thing to be doing.

Standing next to a stranger in a lift for what can seem like a tiny eternity can be especially awkward.

But it’s awkward for a reason.

Train being unnatural environment

We try to avoid any social contact whatsoever in these enclosed spaces for a specific reason.

Dr. David Lewis writes about this in his book Impulse as follows:

“When forced to share a limited space with total strangers, humans respond in exactly the same way as strange monkeys placed in the same cage. surrounded by their unfamiliar fellow primates they send out non-verbal signal designed to defuse any aggression.

They, like us, perceive such crowding as a potentially hostile situation. The anxiety this perception gives rise to causes them to withdraw into themselves and restrict any social contact to an absolute minimum.

In packed lifts and congested railway carriages we behave in precisely the same way.

We avoid making eye contact by averting our gaze, staring at the floor, or placing some object – a book, magazine or newspaper – between ourselves and our fellow travellers. We may resort to some form of displacement activity, such as fiddling with a pen, repeatedly glancing at our watch or, if in a lift, needlessly jabbing the control buttons.

Only if the amount of time we are obliged to spend with strangers is extended for some reason – perhaps due to a signal failure when travelling by train – will the defensive barriers come down as people start reaching out, however tentatively at first, to their companions.”

– Dr. David Lewis, Impulse

We might be extremely social creatures, but avoiding social contact in enclosed spaces is a survival mechanism. Pretty useful millennia ago.

Nowadays it just makes everything awkward.

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