Posted by: Sam Olsen | July 24, 2012

Lift etiquette

We are stuck at home, unable to go to work because of the typhoon. Boo hoo some of you may say. And I would agree. No matter how much we may love our jobs, these old 70s films on TV aren’t going to watch themselves. And as Lawrence has gone to play downstairs – no amount of rain, wind nor flying metal debris is going to keep him cooped up – we are free of distractions.

We thus thought it might be interesting to reflect from afar on a piece of Hong Kong life that is definitely different to home; namely, how one uses the lifts. Given that there seem to be more lifts here than there are sheep in Wales, learning how to ride them is a major part of becoming a Hong Konger.

Now, you might think that an elevator is an elevator; surely there can’t be too much difference in the usage of a small metal box on pulleys? Well, there is. And it all centres around one small little button.

The knob in question is the one used to close the doors. Back in the UK I had plenty a discussion on whether the little arrows had any effect on making the doors close faster or not. My pals and I sagely agreed that they did not.

But over here in HK things are different. The button works, and they know how to use it.

Not under-used

Take yesterday. Heading back from lunch with my colleague Richard, deep in debate, we noticed a young woman heading into the lift about 15 yards ahead. We saw her white dressed-form tuck in to the corner, perhaps making way for anyone else that followed her. But no. Her index finger headed straight for the door-close button, ready  – and get this – to make us wait for a whole two minutes more until the next lift arrived.  Yet she had made a mistake – she had looked up just enough for Richard to make eye contact. She knew we were on to her. As her finger slammed into the button Richard took off on a sprint, a race to the bitter end. The doors slid shut, her finger pushing the button with the rapidity of an amphetamine-fuelled gamer. Richard reached for the door…but too late. Her thick glasses, running make-up and sticky-out ears did nothing to hide her sense of victory. We stood back in shame, not bitter at all.



Wearing sandpaper underwear would be less irritating than this. But to the locals this is completely normal. What really freaks them out is sneezing. A sniffle, a cough, a wheeze, or a throat clear: all have the ability to make the Chinese tremble. A slight atishoo would surely generate more hostility than a 20-second bottom trumpet accompanied by a smell not observed since the early days of sulphur smelting. Thanks to SARS, whole generations have grown up where their greatest fear is being stuck in a lift with a bird flu victim. People have been known to faint on particularly long elevator rides as they try to hold their breath for the duration.

They say that it is the little things that often offer the best insight into a culture. Observing lift culture, one might think the local Chinese to be hasty emetophobes. And how right they would be. But still, it’s surely better than waiting so long for the doors to close that the TB-infected man can join you in your ride.




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