trapped-in-elevator

I’ve only been trapped in two elevators in my life. Both incidents provided major insights into my personality, and into the personalities of those around me.

The first time I was trapped, I was the only passenger in a large elevator of a two-story shopping mall in Southern California. It was Saturday morning. Everything started out okay, but in short order, the car jerked, bounced and then stopped between floors. I found the emergency phone in its box on the wall and followed directions to dial. After a lot of ringings, a voice answered. “Fire department. What is your emergency?”

“Well, it’s not a fire,” I explained. “I’m stuck in an elevator at the mall and this is the only number this phone can call.

“Okay ma’am,” the dispatcher said. “I’ll call the store manager. Someone will be there shortly. Have a nice day.”

In those days, there were no mobile phones. In lieu of what is now part phone, part organizer, most business people then used a paper-based organizer in notebook form. I never went anywhere without my planner and at least two pens. Since there was no action outside of the elevator, I made myself as comfortable as possible in a corner on the floor and went to work on a report that was due. After 15 minutes, a voice carried up from below.

“Hello? Are you okay?”

“Fine.”

“We’re trying to figure out what the problem is. Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Fine,” I said, “as long as the lights stay on.”

Another ten minutes passed.

“Lady? Are you okay?” This time it was a different voice.

“I’m fine,” I said. “I’ve got paper and a pen and I’m working on a report. How much longer do you think it will be?”

“We aren’t sure. We can’t find the elevator guy, but we’re working on it.”

Another 10 minutes.

“Lady? Are you…”

“I’m fine, sir. In fact,” I shouted, “it’s a great place to get some work done because it’s so quiet.”

Two hours and several more calls later, the elevator cab jerked, bounced and started up to the second floor. I got up, closed my planner and was ready when the doors opened. Outside the elevator, there must have been at least 20 people all crowding around with a variety of looks on their faces—curiosity, anxiety and a couple that looked downright terrified. There was a multitude of people asking “Are you really okay?” Even the store manager asked in a shaky voice, “How can you be so calm?”

In retrospect, I assume the manager was anxious because he thought I might sue. The elevator guy might have been anxious because he wasn’t in the right place at the right time and thought he might get fired!

Some people are wired to be anxious about almost everything, like the mall customers clustered around the door as it opened. I’m not usually anxious about things when I don’t perceive any danger. It’s nothing I can take credit for, however; it’s just how I’m wired. It never occurred to me the elevator wouldn’t get fixed. In retrospect, maybe it should have? Maybe I should have been anxious after all!

A few years later, my husband and I were traveling. We were visiting the lovely Moroccan city of Casablanca, staying in an ancient but elegant hotel. Our room was on the seventh floor and required a ride in a rather rickety, tiny elevator. The door was an intricate wrought iron type and allowed a clear view of the crumbling stone walls of the elevator shaft as we passed.

The day we were to leave, we entered the elevator, which was designed to hold four small people at best. We picked up two passengers on the way to the lobby—an American couple who were obviously expecting a new baby very soon. Halfway there, we felt the familiar jerk and bounce, before the sudden stop. This time the electricity failed, but the elevator had stopped six inches below the opening to the second floor, leaving a sliver of light.

The pregnant woman screamed.

Her husband tried to calm both her and himself but with little success. Now the lady was hyperventilating. Other than her rapid breathing, there was no sound for the first few seconds. Then, we heard a muffled voice. Next the face of a well-dressed man appeared above us, obviously lying on the floor to talk to us.

“Is everybody okay down there?” he yelled with heavily-accented English. “How many of you are there?” His second question came before we could answer the first one. “Are you okay?” he asked again in a panicked voice. “We are working on this. Please don’t panic.”

The hyper-ventilator got even more hyper and added moaning. My husband, a physician, said, “We are fine, but we have a pregnant lady in here that is very upset, and you need to fix this quickly.”

The pregnant lady started non-stop screaming. I don’t remember much else except in about thirty minutes, the elevator jerked and started up again—and also, that my husband did not have to deliver a baby in a dark, very crowded, ancient elevator. I was tense both from the real possibility we could be in there a long time and from the woman’s discomfort. To be fair to the woman, if I had been that pregnant facing the possibility of delivering a baby in that elevator, I might have been screaming, too. It’s not only how we’re wired that determines how we react to things but also the situation.

How we respond to stress is one of the many parts of the Workplace Big 5 Profile Personality assessment. The profile scores each participant on the continuum for “Need for Stability”, one of the five Super Traits, from Resilient (calm under pressure) to Reactive (excitable under pressure). People score anywhere on the spectrum, with those in the middle designated as Responsive (calm most times, excitable others).

Being trapped in the elevator was like a real-life test about our Need for Stability. I tend to be more Resilient (and, in the elevator, I perceived no real danger). The pregnant lady was likely Reactive (and no doubt enhanced by her advanced state of pregnancy).

Each of us has natural qualities about our personalities that respond to stress. I am not suggesting you find a way to trap yourself in an elevator to find out where you end up on the Need for Stability spectrum. It’s far easier and less traumatic for some, to take the profile assessment.

For those of us trapped in the rickety elevator in Morocco, we are now acutely aware of how we respond to stress. We were all grateful to be on solid ground again. I doubt the new mom set foot in another elevator for years.

As for me? The experience helped me get in better shape physically because I took a lot of stairs.