Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Grey's Anatomy: Let's Talk About Elevators

GREY'S ANATOMY: Let's face it. None of us would love Grey's Anatomy as much as we do without all those fantastic elevator scenes. But what is it that makes the elevator motif on this show so powerful? Well, it all goes back to 1852...

In 1852, Elisha Graves Otis invented the very first safety passenger elevator. We won't get into the specifics of it here, but Otis basically made sure that even if the ropes or pulleys of your elevator snap, you won't go plummeting to your death. Somewhat surprisingly, even 150 years later, Otis's core design has hardly changed at all. If that doesn't impress you, we don't know what will.

Elisha Graves Otis.
You have this beard to thank for all your McDreamy elevator fantasies.

As a result of this new form of transportation, people began to spend more time than ever before in small, confined spaces with complete strangers.

In fact, there's a whole psychology behind physical and social elevator behaviors. The reason the elevator scenes in Grey's Anatomy work is because they use our inherent knowledge of these behaviors to convey developments in relationships and individual characters.

Let's talk about what exactly this means.

Physically, when you step into an elevator, there are certain behavioral changes that immediately kick into action. The first of these is the creation of appropriate spatial arrangements. Spatial arrangement within a confined (usually square) space, results in the automatic reaction of people organizing themselves like dots on a die to optimize personal space.

You can easily observe this in your own life (it's actually kind of fun), but here's a nice example:

In this gem of a scene, we start off with Derek, Rose, Addison, and Meredith all in one elevator. They're arranged in a square, with one person in every corner. And then, just when it can't possibly get any more awkward, Mark arrives and inserts himself into the middle of the square, just like the dots on a die.

Another physical behavior you might notice when in an elevator is that everyone almost always stands facing the door. While it may seem plausible that standing in this direction is a practical sort of behavior, meant to maximize space and make exiting easier, German psychologist Babette Renneberg actually states:
"In such a small, enclosed space it becomes act in a way that cannot be construed as threatening, odd or in any way ambiguous. The easiest way to do this is to avoid eye contact." (source)
So, the behavior of turning around to face the door in an elevator has less to do with the ease of exiting and much more to do with avoiding uncomfortable interactions with strangers inside a small, confined space.

But, let's be real. We all know our favorite surgeons aren't so great at avoiding intimate interactions in elevators.

That's right, ladies. We're looking at you. 

A demonstration of intimacy can be shown through this little thing called "personal space." When you're in an elevator, you're expected to observe culturally accepted standards of personal space. These vary in different parts of the world; for example, is Asia, people are comfortable getting much closer to each other in everyday life than people in the United States are. When this culturally accepted physical space is ignored, however, the visual can be used to imply intimate relationships.

In case you were wondering, this is what appropriate personal space looks like in an elevator:

And this is what intimate personal space looks like:

See what we're talking about here? These two are not maintaining a comfortable social distance. But, with Derek's action and Meredith's acceptance of this action, the intimacy between these two characters is displayed to the audience without either character speaking a single word. To put it simply, strangers don't get cozy in the elevator. That would be weird. But we, as the viewer, understand Meredith and Derek's closeness and attraction to one another, even in the absence of dialogue, because of how willing they are to disregard the niceties of personal space.

By anticipating its audience's knowledge of universal elevator etiquette, Grey's Anatomy is able to communicate important information about characters and relationships. But, the show has also established the elevator as its own self-contained symbol of relationships and love.

Grey's Anatomy repeatedly stages the important moments of its characters' romantic relationships inside an elevator. Objectively, the elevator has a lot of attributes that correlate well with this intention. Not only is it a place that where two people can exist on their own, apart from the rest of the characters (an attractive feature for a setting on an ensemble television show), but elevators also, by their very nature, take us both up and down. They can lead us to the lowest

and highest

points of our lives.

And that sure does that make it a fun ride.

Written by: Jacqueline Bircher
Jacqueline is one half of the team at the helm of Red Herry, and the whole brain behind almost every fish pun you can find on this website. She is a fierce advocate for helmets, ice cream, and the Oxford Comma.
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter and Tumblr.

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