Monday, February 24, 2014

The working life: Stuck with the Big Kahuna in the elevator, then and now

Years ago, when I was working for Big Paper Company, I accidentally wandered into the elevator that was also holding the CEO and his aide de camp, both of whom worked out of the company's New York office, an office that held about 17 employees who couldn't bear the thought of living in Memphis with the hoi polloi. No, New York is where they'd rather stay.

It was the three of us. I couldn't walk out again - that would look too weird. So I stood as far from the both of them as I could - have you noticed how people automatically, almost unconsciously, optimize the space between them in an enclosed area like an elevator? Is this culture specific? Are there cultures where people will stand close to a stranger when there is room to be far away?

When I was in Chile, I used to go to the movies almost every Sunday afternoon, unless they were showing The Lion King, which they did one year for nine straight weeks. The theater was almost always near empty, as most Chileans spent their Sunday afternoons eating a long leisurely lunch together. But there would be a few of us at the movies and invariably, people would sit clustered together. Not people at the movies together, but random strangers would walk in, see someone sitting in spot x and think, "Look! Someone is sitting in spot x! That must be a good place to sit. I shall join that person."

I often had to move because people would come sit right by me. I later found that there was the additional factor - in addition to a desire to cluster - that a woman alone at the movies was surely looking for a man and I was almost wearing a neon sign that said, "American woman! Will sleep with anyone!"

So I was in the elevator with the CEO and the ADC, scared to death to say anything. I could derail my career - such as it was - with one stupid comment. So I pressed my lips together and looked at the floor. That, surely, impressed the CEO.

The elevator stopped at 4. I moved to disembark but the ADC almost knocked me over on his way out. My jaw dropped - this was the south. In the south, men let women get off the elevator first. Yes, yes, yes, I know we were at work and the men/women rules shouldn't apply, but the reality was that they did. Plus I was closer to the door than the ADC was, so just logic should have let me leave first.

The CEO saw my shocked expression (perhaps the same one I had yesterday when a friend said that her parents had told her she would have to get her cat declawed before the cat could go into the parents' house). I tried to recover but really, it takes more than a second or two to recover from the shock of being run over by a 6'2" man.

He said nothing, but he held the elevator door with one hand and gestured for me to precede him out with the other.

The CEO was from the south. I hope he explained courtesy to the ADC.

Now. More than ten years later. I arrive to work, just left the bus. Wearing my winter coat and my sweatpants over fleece-lined tights. No makeup yet because I put it on at work. I don't put it on before I leave home because 1. my eyes are always too puffy that early out of bed and 2. the cold always makes my eyes water and that washes everything right off.

I do not look glamorous. I don't care. I don't have a "career" any more. Right now, I just want a job so SH and I can afford a new roof and our property taxes.

The new chairman of the board is waiting for the elevator. He has arrived from out of state for a board meeting. We get on the elevator. I say, "Hey Bob! How ya doing? What floor do you need?"

Then I scan my card and hit his floor and we chat.

And I don't care.


webb said...

Perhaps it's just the effect of ten more years of life and realizing that CEO's and Chairmen are just guys after all.

Re: elevator space. I once worked in a fairly small building with fairly small elevators - room for about six comfortably ... with a bit of space. There was one woman of Asian background who would not only stand RIGHT next to you - like one inch away - but who would also turn so that she was facing you and look expectantly for you to start a conversation. One of my co-workers was so spooked by her that he would leave the elevator and take the stairs if she got on! it was weird.

LPC said...

And he probably now thinks you've got great presence;).

MomQueenBee said...

Okay, I've always thought women exited the elevator first, too, but Husband says men are supposed to enter and exit elevators so that in case there is a MURDERER waiting he can take the bullet. That's fine with me, as long as his life insurance is paid up just in case of, you know, a MURDERER.

Class factotum said...

Webb, that was weird. Definitely not an Americann social convention.

LPC, one hopes!

Mom QB, I never heard the MURDERER!!!!! theory but it makes sooooo much sense. Men are so brave.

Gaylin said...

I have always noticed that people head for the corners of the elevators in my building. The elevators aren't very big, maybe 6 people could fit in. If there are more than 3 or 4 people everyone does try to hover away from each other. I leave my ear buds in, hoping no one will talk to me. I am not social in the mornings either.

My boss has invited me to his house for bbq's in the summer but I have never gone, his wife drinks too much and is way too loud and I don't have a car and he lives in a suburb city 90 minutes away.

Mind you there are only 5 people in my office and the big boss, not so big, not so bossy.

Anonymous said...

Here in Madrid, people will come stand by you in the elevator, sit near you on the subway, and cosy up to you in a waiting room. (Plus you're supposed to say hello when you enter the waiting room and everyone looks up and says hello back. You have to say it in a big voice, too. No whispering. I've been doing my annual round of doctors visits and tests and have been doing this a lot lately. It works better in small waiting rooms than in the big ones, let me tell you.)

I know it makes Norteamericanos uncomfortable, but to me it is an acknowledgement of our shared humanity. You know, like we're all in this together so let's stay close and be nice to one another.

Home Lift Systems said...

These are the daily encounters and incidents in elevator lifts and you get to know about new people which you don't mostly interact and this can be good place for social mingling and increase PR and networking.