Banter in lifts is one good reason to take the stairs

It’s just not believable that Goldman Sachs bankers say anything of interest in the lift

“It’s perfectly plausible that Goldman bankers say odious things . . . but what isn’t plausible is that they say them in lifts.” Photograph: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

“It’s perfectly plausible that Goldman bankers say odious things . . . but what isn’t plausible is that they say them in lifts.” Photograph: Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Mon, Apr 22, 2013, 06:00

I realise 426,127 people got there before me, but I have started following GS Elevator gossip on Twitter. Things said in the Goldman Sachs lifts do not stay in the Goldman Sachs lifts: they get tweeted for us all to enjoy. Thus in the past week or so, bankers have allegedly been overheard saying: “If there really was a glass ceiling, we’d let all the women work above us” and “I would agree with you, but then we’d both be f***ing wrong”.

The main problem with these tweets is that they are unbelievable. It’s perfectly plausible that Goldman bankers say odious things like this, but what isn’t plausible is that they say them in lifts.

To make the point, I’ve just set up a rival Twitter account called GO Elevator Gossip, which stands for Genuine Office Elevator Gossip. Collecting examples has been an exceedingly slow business, as what people mainly say in lifts is nothing at all. My maiden tweets go like this: “Can you press ‘ground’ for me?” and “# It’s cold out.” So far I have zero followers, which doesn’t surprise me given the poor quality of the material.

The average office worker must take the lift about 50,000 times in a lifetime, but never learns to relax in them. Strangers don’t speak; conversations between people who know each other are stilted.


Sinking feeling
At Goldman Sachs, elevator banter apparently goes like this: “#1: Did you forget your belt today? #2: I don’t need one; did you forget to get your suit tailored?” But according to my research, what people actually say is: “Good weekend?” “Yeah, quiet. You?” “Yeah, not bad.”

This reticence can’t be explained by a fear of being overheard: we are overheard all the time in offices. It is more as if the sliding doors squeeze all life out of us.

I had visitors in the other day, and we chatted amiably until the lift doors closed. Then, to break the silence, I found myself asking a question of sublime dullness: “Is your office still in Holborn?” “Yes,” came the equally dull reply. “It’s such a convenient location.”

On the rare occasions on which someone breaks the unwritten rule and says something of note in a lift, everyone else has to pretend to be deaf. So when one young woman told another how she had got drunk and fallen downstairs, the rest of us studied our shoes assiduously.

The other golden rule is that the minute you get in you must turn 180 degrees to face forwards (or at a pinch glue yourself to one of the side walls). There is no surer way of upsetting colleagues than to stand in a lift facing the back of it. In a Candid Camera clip on YouTube from the 1960s, an unsuspecting man in a lift is joined by three actors who get in and don’t turn round. Hideously uncomfortable, the first man ends up swivelling round so that he is facing backwards too.

Beyond that, lift etiquette turns out to be rather complicated. According to elevatorrules.com, a website entirely given over to the subject, it is bad manners to press the call button if someone is already waiting. To do so shows either that you don’t understand how lifts work, or that you consider the other person too dumb to have pressed the button themself. It is also rude to take the lift if you are only going one floor; if you are ill you should wait for an empty lift and then wipe the button with a tissue if you’ve touched it with your germy finger.

Not only are the rules many and complicated, some of them are highly controversial. If you are in a lift and someone is running to catch it, the website advises holding the doors only if you are alone, or if the others agree that they are prepared to wait. The heated debate in the comments underneath shows this to be a moot point, with a pro-door-holding lobby arguing that the running person should take precedence.

There are further elevator issues on which people hotly disagree. Once inside, is it better to lunge for the button yourself or to ask the person standing closest to press it for you? If you enter the lift with someone more senior, should you let them control the buttons, or should you show leadership and do it yourself?


Lift in translation
As if all this wasn’t bad enough, the etiquette is different in different countries. In France, office workers getting into a lift full of strangers say “Bonjour” at the beginning of the ride and “Bonne journée” at the end. If they get into a lift later on in the day, they have to remember who they greeted earlier and have a “Rebonjour” ready for them.

Most difficult of all is conducting office politics in a lift. Being trapped in a small metal box with a superior, especially if there are others present to witness any fawning, can be positively traumatic. My advice to anyone who finds themselves waiting for a lift with their boss: take the stairs instead.
– (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013)