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Commentary: Taking a lift can be even more awkward during COVID-19

Riding an elevator with a group of strangers has always been a little bit awkward but thanks to the new unspoken rules of lift etiquette, it has now become a much more pleasant experience, says Karen Tee.

Commentary: Taking a lift can be even more awkward during COVID-19

File photo of lifts at an HDB block. (Photo: Ngau Kai Yan)

SINGAPORE: A few days ago, as the doors of the lift I was waiting for at my HDB lobby opened, I peered in to see a woman engrossed in picking her teeth with her finger.

It took a few heartbeats before she noticed the lift had stopped and that I was staring at her. She quickly strapped her face mask back on and walked out.

It has been a long time since I’ve encountered someone hastily grooming themselves in a lift - something that used to be a rather common, if jarring, sight. 

I wondered why anyone would put their bare hand, which had probably just touched high-contact lift buttons, in their mouth in these coronavirus times. 

READ: Commentary: Singapore’s new headache of fewer public transport commuters

From the size of gatherings to standing a safe distance from another person, COVID-19 has altered much of our public behaviour. 

I often yearn for the pre-COVID days but the one change that I welcome is how the etiquette of lift-taking has evolved over the past few months.

For example, in the pre-coronavirus days, it was considered polite to keep the lift doors open for others even if that means waiting for someone quite a distance away. 

But now it is not unusual to see people hastily jabbing the “close” button to prevent the lift from becoming overcrowded. 

Personally, this does not bother me as I would rather wait longer for an empty lift. In fact, if you tend to be a little bit socially awkward - let’s face it, many people in Singapore are - following the new norms of physical distancing while taking a lift is actually quite welcome as you can now justify avoiding niceties like small talk.

But apparently not everyone takes that kindly to having elevator doors shut in their face. Recently, a 51-year-old man was fined for assaulting a woman who did not hold the lift for him

It is good that justice was served in this case, but it would probably help us all get along more harmoniously if we could agree on some new rules for lift taking.

(Photo: Pexels/Andrea Piacquadio) ​​​​​​​

Here are five suggested lift etiquette practices which should now be considered socially acceptable. 


Mindless chatter about the weather and other trivialities is always stilted, but somehow small talk feels even more uncomfortable when you have to go through the motions with a passing acquaintance in the span of a lift ride. 

It gets even worse if there are other strangers present who have no choice but to listen in on the conversation.

READ: Commentary: Are our neighbourhood chat groups starting to be a pain?

But now, inspired by the public announcements in MRT stations asking commuters to refrain from speaking in trains to reduce the spread of the virus, I am doing exactly that in lifts too. 

I simply give a nod if I see someone vaguely familiar and then promptly bury my nose back in my mobile phone even if there is hardly any reception, without feeling guilty for not striking up a conversation.


These days, it seems the accepted number of people that can fit into an average-sized lift at any given time is five - one per corner and one in the middle. This is probably about half the amount compared to pre-pandemic days.

I imagine this reduced capacity could be a source of human traffic gridlock in busy places like malls but interestingly this appears to be one practice that has caught on.

Hand sanitiser in a lift at Block 233C, Sumang Lane. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

I was recently in a lift in Takashimaya Shopping Centre with four others when a sixth tried to enter. The two women closest to the door politely told this individual to wait for the next lift and I was pleasantly surprised when she complied, albeit a little grudgingly.

I guess most people prefer having this bit of extra personal space and not have to jostle or press a limb up against another stranger, especially when a contagious virus is still circulating among us.


The fact that this virus is still around is exactly the reason why we should all continue to make a concerted effort to keep our masks on when out and about, particularly in a tight enclosed space like a lift.

READ: Commentary: With or without masks, our kids have surprised us with their adaptability

Talkative types take note - there is no need to remove your mask to smile and chit chat.

File photo of pedestrians wearing protective face masks along Orchard Rd in Singapore on Sep 9, 2020. (Photo: Gaya Chandramohan)

This also means resisting the urge to sip on bubble tea or nibbling on your curry puff until you are out in the open.

And please, habits like digging your nose or picking your teeth should always only be done privately in a bathroom, pandemic or not.


Remember how the person standing closest to the control panel would have to hold the lift for everyone to file in before fumbling to find all the right floor buttons?

And more often than not, at least one impatient person would brusquely reach over everyone else to press it on their own.

These days, I’ve witnessed more people stepping in and pressing their own button before moving to the back to make space for the next person without invading each other’s air space.

(Photo: Unsplash/Arisa Chattasa)

It is somewhat amusing to watch this bit of choreography in action but in its own way, that is some high-level social distancing in action.

Just do it quickly and without fuss so that everyone can get in and out of the lift as efficiently as possible.


While it is understandable that one might feel a twinge of annoyance when faced with closing lift doors, it makes sense to practice some equanimity should this happen to you.

After all, people have varying comfort levels at being in such close proximity with strangers and it is currently not unreasonable for some to prefer being in an elevator by themselves.

Lifts are disinfected at Westlite dormitory during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Singapore, April 10, 2020 in this picture obtained from social media. MINISTRY OF MANPOWER SINGAPORE/Handout/via REUTERS

Sometimes, I will even ask others to go ahead so that I can take the next one alone.

A caveat - this only works if you are not in a crowded spot like an office building or a housing block during peak hour. In such situations, you will either have to grin and bear with it or choose an alternative like taking the stairs or somehow timing your lift usage to quieter periods.

READ: Commentary: As Singapore gradually opens its borders, we need to be mindful of a second COVID-19 wave

I really like how no-nonsense it now is to take a lift.

There is a part of me that wishes these norms will continue in the future even when the virus is eventually brought under control.

For now, I am embracing the opportunity to live my best introverted life and relishing how I do not have to pander to old conventions like practicing social niceties to a lift full of people I probably will never see again in my life.

Karen Tee is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer.

Source: CNA/ml


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