A Quick Reference Guide to Elevator Small Talk

The commute, on the whole, is an almost universally loathed aspect of everyone’s day-to-day: the length, the stress, the opportunity cost in time, the $200-a-month parking space that at least once every other week is inexplicably occupied by a construction pickup truck whose owner is never anywhere to be found and yet somehow never manages to get ticketed or towed.  However, the commute’s one wonderful, underrated redeeming quality is that it is totally and completely yours.  Your car is your castle, and you can do whatever you please: catch up on the news, loudly sing Taylor Swift (note: recommended approach), or simply enjoy a few moments of gleeful, glorious silence.  If you take the train, well, you can still catch up on the news, loudly sing Taylor Swift (note: STRONGLY recommended approach), and hey, if you score a seat, you can even doze off for a little bit of sweet, sweet Bonus Sleep!  The bottom line is that however you commute, no one talks to you or expects you to talk to them.  It’s wonderful.  It’s just you and the chance to enjoy a few precious moments of blank space, or, again, “Blank Space.”

Once you make it inside and step into an elevator, though, this blissful silence comes to a grinding halt.  Ideally, you’d keep this vibe going, kick back in your office chair, close the door, and browse Gawker for a few minutes before you remember that, yes, you have some actual work to do.  But those hopes are dashed the moment someone else haltingly catches your eye in the elevator and gives you that knowing, sheepish half-smile, and before you know it, you’ve become another hapless victim of Elevator Small Talk.

Look, I get it.  You share an employer with these people, you see them in the hallways, and you’re around them all day, so there’s a reasonable enough expectation of familiarity.  However, despite that expectation, it’s also entirely probably that you really don’t know that much about almost any of them!  Somehow there is always another guy on the elevator or standing at the copier that you’ve literally never seen before but who allegedly works there, too, and he could could be, for all you know, those corporate spies about whom you were so sternly warned during orientation but that you figured didn’t really exist because who would want your barely functional laptop anyway.   Yet people find the weight assumed familiarity to be so overpoweringly oppressive that they feel the need — the social imperative — to fill that silence.  And the safest way to do so, to resolve the conflict between their need to converse the the one hand and their lack of, frankly, any clue about who you are or what you do on the other, is to settle on talking about…nothing.  And despite your best efforts and most desperate, wildest dreams you are just about powerless to stop it.  To wit:

The weather.

Hot enough for ya?
Cold enough for ya?
It’s supposed to be nice tomorrow.
I hear it’s supposed to snow tonight.

[mournful sigh] Rain.

I’m cringing already.  This is the easiest and most immediate reference point of all elevator small talk topics because both of you, well, just came out of it.  You know perfectly well that it’s hot enough for me: you can see that I’m loosening my collar in vain and craning my neck to get maximum A/C vent exposure.  Or, alternatively, you know  just as well that it’s cold enough for me!  My headphones are frozen into my ears (more on this later) and I’m stumbling around on the two giant ice blocks that were once my feet.  You know exactly how I feel about this weather, thank you.  It is disheartening and unpleasant, and dwelling on it further by reciting our objections to it to one another is just another reminder of that fact.

By far the most heinous of the many crimes of reckless awkwardness that elevator small talkers commit, though, is the non-question that offers you no actual opportunity to respond.  And this often happens in conjunction with the weather.  “Cold.”  “Rain.”  “Hot today.”  Participating in elevator small talk is already an exhausting enough ritual in its own right; being presented with a statement of fact or even a single word leaves you with nothing to work with, and that’s really, really unfair.  Usually your only recourse here is to lamely agree, stare straight ahead, and grimly set your jaw and wonder how in the world these last five floors can go by so slowly.

Talks About Feelings

How’s it going?
What’s up?

Let’s be clear: there are no responses to these question other than, respectively, “good” and “not much,” ever.  And this one really encapsulates the problem nicely; people ask you because they have to say something, but they don’t actually want to know how you are.  They just cannot bear the few seconds of silence that would constitute the alternative.  You would hope that if you respond positively yet noncommittally here, you would fulfill your half of the social contract, but alas, no; an elevator small talker often perceives this response as insufficient and as inviting follow-up, probably about…[shudder] the weather.

I love the idea of answering this question completely honestly and without regard to either the exchange of pleasantries or the short time period available.  “Thank you so much for asking, Dave, that’s really kind of you.  Things are not great.  My wife and I had to take out a second mortgage last month, and I just don’t think our marriage can survive this strain for much longer.  This just feels so good to finally talk about.”  They won’t be able to hit the “Door Open” button fast enough and will almost certainly learn their lesson if you follow them to their office to talk more about your relationship with your parents.  (Aside: I recently learned, horrifyingly, that “Door Open” buttons don’t actually do anything, and you are a powerless worker bee who throws yourself at the mercy of every 50-year-old elevator you ever enter, and how often can they really maintain those things anyway, and sorry for ruining your day.)

Date and Time

Monday, huh?
Boy, almost 5.  Can’t wait.
HUMP DAY!
How is it not Friday yet, right?!

Small talk that has up until recently been based largely on Mamas and the Papas songs and novelty Jimmy Buffet features has officially been eclipsed by a pop culture phenomenon even more grating: Geico ads.  Note that if your name is Mike, and anyone initiatives this line of conversation with you by starting with the “Mike Mike Mike Mike Mike” bit, you are completely justified in smacking that person and calmly exiting without looking back.  No jury will convict you.

Keep it Professional

What are you working on these days?
How is the new account coming along?

A significant complicating factor with Elevator Small Talk is that while people feel the need to start a conversation, an elevator trip is almost never enough time to stop it, much less to have any sort of meaningful interaction in between those two points in time.  In other words, people need to talk but have no time in which to actually do so.  Thus, a cardinal rule of these awkwardly truncated conversations is that you both must do your part to ensure that the entirety of your interaction, whatever form it takes, absolutely does not go on longer than the ride itself.

Substantive questions about your work, then, pose a particular challenge, because they can almost never be answered truthfully in the ten floors you have to go.  “Well, I’m working on a particularly interesting patent matter in which we represent a class of plaintiffs who allege that defendants did willfully misapprop–” DING.  Now you’ve broken the one rule of elevator small talk and suddenly find yourself in the catastrophic danger zone where you’re desperately trying to think of something to say that neatly wraps up this conversation, but you just can’t do it cleanly, and then the doors start to close and you smile apologetically but breathe an internal sigh of relief, and then OH GOD NO the person actually holds the door open and prolongs this torture to give you another chance to end it, and how has this not reached its sweet, merciful end.  We’ve all seen this happen and it invariably makes you want to climb out the top of the elevator car and take the stairs everywhere for the rest of your life.

The Reality Check

Do you work here?
How is your internship going?

Just your occasional friendly reminder that you 1) look for all the world like an intern and 2) are totally, completely, and unapologetically replaceable.

The Weekend

Got any big weekend plans?
How was your weekend?

Yeah, I have important weekend plans, Tom: NOT WORKING.  My plan is to do what I want to do, which certainly entails not being here, and honestly, even telling you about it kind of involves you in a weird way, and by extension work is now involved in my weekend too, and I simply will not stand for that.  Also, once someone asks, there’s suddenly a certain pressure to have cool weekend plans so that you can talk about them, and suddenly your dreams of making a Hot Pocket and watching Season 2 of “Game of Thrones” for the third time seem woefully insufficient.  This exact situation is what causes you to blurt out something dumb but important-sounding like “theater” only to find yourself excruciatingly fabricating the details of a nonexistent play to your suddenly very enthusiastic elevator small talk partner who happens to be a dedicated patron of the arts.

Or, even worse, if your weekend plans actually are going to the game, and lo and behold your elevator buddy is too!  Now they want to know where you’re sitting, and suddenly you’re stuttering ultra-tepid responses to their suggestions to meet up during the fifth inning for hot dogs (“Sure, maybe we should consider possibly looking into exploring the option of doing that!”).  Heaven help you, too, if you have reservations at the same restaurant they’re going to and have to talk your way out of getting a drink beforehand.  And the thing is that they probably don’t actually want to do that, either!  But, again, since workplace familiarity is both valued and assumed, the halfhearted words are out of their mouths before they even know it.

The best move here is to keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and your weekend plans closest.  Let them imagine you jetting off to a private island while in reality you’re probably going to consider getting groceries before deciding that the store is too far away and instead choosing to subsist for the week on peanut butter and Klondike bars from CVS.

Power Move Responses

  1. Stare at your phone.  Such an easy crutch to lean on given the facts that 1) work email that never leaves your pocket and 2) everyone knows it because theirs never does, either.  Furrow your brow, look concerned, maybe even wince a little while you shake your head.  No one has to know that you’re just aimlessly locking and unlocking your phone and swiping through apps.  Your fellow passengers might not feel as much of a need to talk to you if you’re busy and wouldn’t engage.  And if they do anyway, respond haltingly and distractedly and offer a halfhearted, smiling apology for being just so busy.  If you do it right, by the time you get the point where you have to explain what’s so important, DING, the ride is up and you can go back to Tinder in peace.
  2. Shuffle papers.  Ooooh, even better!  Because if it’s important enough to print something out, they know you’re definitely about engrossed in the task at hand and can’t be bothered.  No need for small talk when you’re in a rush to get to your Important Business Meeting!  Sometimes I carry a manila folder around just so I can flip through it furiously if anyone gets on the elevator with me.  Bonus points if you make a big show of shuffling papers with one hand while simultaneously checking work email (CANDY CRUSH) with the other.
  3. Sunglasses, headphones.  The most powerful power move of all the power moves (again, Taylor Swift is the strongly recommended approach).  No eyes, no ears, and two huge hurdles for even the most dedicated small talker to clear.  You force them to really think about whether they want your input on the projected high temperature for the day.  In fact, sometimes I just put in headphones when they’re not even plugged in to anything for this exact purpose, except for the one time when someone asked me something anyway (in blatant violation of social norms, but I digress), so I pretended like I didn’t hear the question in the hopes of making it to my floor before having to engage, but when that didn’t happen I slowly and deliberately reached up to remove the headphones, and the unattached 3.5mm jack damningly slipped out of my pocket and revealed that my inattention up to that point had been a giant lie.  Longest two floors of my life.

One day, perhaps, we’ll live in a world where no more is ever required of you on an elevator ride than to pleasantly nod to your co-passengers (I’ll even go so far as a pleasant hello!), press the button, and stand together after that in easy, content silence.  But until that time, friends, elevator small talk will be a fact of life.  Know that while the struggle is real, you are not alone, and remember that if you have just a floor or two to go, maybe the stairs are a good idea after all.

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