Observed Affects of Age, Gender, and Culture
Observed Affects of Age, Gender, and Culture
The objective of this observational research is to test two hypotheses. First, that in contemporary society traditional male courtesies toward unknown females, such as allowing females to disembark first from an elevator, are rarely practiced by younger men, for example those under 40 years old. This is probably not because younger men are ill-mannered, but because females are perceived as more independent today than they were in the past and so do not require special treatment.
Since this male deference is no longer offered consistently, a female elevator passenger is now in the position of trying to anticipate the behavior of males as the doors begin to open. This is a particular challenge for women 40 years and older, who remember the days when male courtesies were commonplace. Now, such a woman is confused. Should she assume a man will defer to her and so just walk ahead, or should she hang back so as not to appear rude? As for the male, what does he do if his attempt to be courteous is not noticed by the female? Should he signal her in some way and, if so, how?
All of this uncertainty is compounded by the human habit of assuming a certain area of personal space when in a crowded place such as an elevator. Thus, the nonverbal communication displayed in an elevator must in some way relate to people’s attempts to maintain boundaries. Finally, it is known that people interpret gestures and facial expressions differently, depending on their cultural background. So if males and females are signaling one another as to who should exit first and by what route, how is it possible for a diverse group of people to negotiate exiting at all? The second hypothesis is that men and women, particularly those over 40 years of age, have developed nonverbal systems of communication in order to negotiate this uncertain social environment.
Observations took place in a passenger elevator of a large, urban office building. Although the safety notice on the inside of the car states that it can accommodate up to 13 people, the car seems far too small to do so. I rode this elevator repeatedly, both up and down the 30 stories of the office building, and found that the maximum number of adults that could be accommodated comfortably is seven. That number allows for people and their belongings to have enough personal space not to intrude on one another. My rides took place over four days, all during regular business hours.
Because the office building is large and provides workspace for hundreds of people, the individuals observed were often strangers to one another. On occasion, an office worker would recognize a colleague and in a few, rare instances, several colleagues would ride up or down together. For the most part, however, relationships among those observed were distant and provided a favorable backdrop for courtesies to be extended.
All told, I rode one of four identical elevators up or down a total of 203 times during working hours. Of those trips, a mix of males and females of varying ages rode in the car on 187 occasions (92.1%). While I was not able to keep a precise count of the number of times the car included people from different racial/ethnic/cultural groups, I estimate that about half of the time the riders comprised an ethnically diverse group.
Data Collection and Results
As I rode, I made notes by hand on a clipboard. I made an effort to appear immersed in a work project and tried not to let riders know I was recording their behavior. For the most part, I went unnoticed. See Table 1 for quantitive data collected on 187 co-ed trips.
Interestingly, of the total 203 elevator trips I made, nonverbal communication appeared to take place among riders nearly 100 percent of the time, in co-ed cars and in single-sex cars. The most frequent form of nonverbal communication was smiling or nodding, usually as the car stopped at a floor and a new person boarded. Other frequent forms of nonverbal communication included moving one’s body to a slightly different position within the car in order to accommodate a new rider, or conversely, moving one’s body to reallocate personal space as people disembarked and the car became less crowded. This space-claiming communication, although nonverbal, was quite obviously a negotiation among the remaining riders in the car.
About half the time, some brief verbal exchanges took place among riders. People would say, “Excuse me” or “Sorry” not only if they touched another rider, but even when they merely moved closer to someone else. It was quite clear that each rider was allocated a certain amount of personal space and that this allocation was by common consent, even when no one actually spoke.
In terms of males deferring to females upon exiting the car, I noticed that some men would say, “After you” or something similar if they needed to prompt a woman to disembark first. Some women had no idea that a man was holding back, waiting for her to get off first. Another prompting strategy frequently employed by the males involved taking a step back while simultaneously looking at a woman and tilting his head toward the doors.
As it was not logistically possible to record every action or word spoken during an elevator trip, I sometimes stopped for a few moments between rides to make a note of anything unusual that took place. Thus, while I don’t have hard numbers, I am able to provide reasonable estimates of the frequency of certain behaviors.
Gender and Age
The research findings provide some support for my hypothesis about gender and age in that men under 40 were less likely to extend public courtesies to women. In this case, the courtesy was to allow a woman to leave first through the doors of an elevator. Since a higher percentage of older men (58%) deferred to women than did younger men (42%), there is some justification for my original theory.
There is also evidence for the idea that women and men have developed a series of nonverbal signs to help convey whether or not a man intends to defer. However, the differences between the behavior of older and younger men were not that large. In fact, I was surprised that so many younger men deferred to women; I thought the number would be lower. Also of interest is that a great many women just left the elevator without a thought for anyone else, men or other women. While some women definitely looked for exiting cues from men, they did not seem to be in the majority. Far more interesting was the various ways that all riders communicated with one another personal space, all without using words.
Of all 203 rides that I took, not once did I witness anything that appeared to be a misunderstanding of a gesture or other nonverbal cue between people of different cultural backgrounds. This is likely because all of the individuals were relatively sophisticated people who had lived and/or worked in the city long enough to become familiar with common public behaviors and nonverbal signals. Also, I should note that I assigned people to various cultural categories based solely on seeing them for a few minutes. In fact, regardless of apparent ethnicity or race, all of the people I observed quite likely shared a common culture shaped by urban life and globalization.
According to Pennycook (1995, p. 259) gestures, facial expressions, use of space and other “paralanguage” manifestations are “highly culture specific.” I don’t disagree with this; rather I argue that in the case of the individuals I observed, all shared a specific culture which is defined by life experience rather than genetics.
What was most interesting to me about the nonverbal communication I observed were the ways in which it was conducted, without people looking directly at one another or expressing much emotion. Even when someone said, “excuse me,” to a fellow rider, he or she said it flatly, without expressing any sincere regret or request for pardon. The key to successfully negotiating shared, public space is apparently doing so without demonstrating any obvious stake in the outcome. This lack of affect seems especially important to maintain in exchanges between the sexes, perhaps to avoid giving the impression of romantic interest.
In observational research conducted by Aalbers (2005) among men and women in Amsterdam’s red light district, two tactics were noted as being especially important to gender interaction. They were to maintain a neutral facial expression and to minimize eye contact (p. 56). Both of these tactics are thought to protect one’s privacy and not provoke an aggressive response from the individual one is observing. Obviously, the context for my elevator rides was quite different from the context described by Aalbers, but the tactics and their rationale seem the same. The riders in my elevator needed to observe one another in order to negotiate space and coordinate movements, yet they did not want to fully engage one another for the brief time they would share. Preserving one’s anonymity was of primary importance.
While the small number of people observed in this research does not provide a basis for making a broad generalization about male manners or nonverbal communication, it does offer some support for the hypothesis that traditional male deference to women is on the way out, and that neither men nor women are exactly sure, at least at this point, when to extend or accept a gender-based courtesy. Similarly, broad conclusions about nonverbal communication can’t be formulated based on this research. What can be understood, however, is that accepted beliefs about nonverbal communication did play out in these elevator experiences, providing real-life examples of the concepts that are already well-documented in the literature. It was exciting for me to see these concepts on display, and to create situations where this could happen.
Aalbers, M.B. (2005). Big sister is watching you! Gender interaction and the unwritten rules of
the Amsterdam red-light district. Journal of Sex Research, 42(1), 54-62.
Pennycook, A. (1995). Actions speak louder than words: Paralanguage, communication, and education. TESOL Quarterly, 19(2), 259-282.