I’ve learned that in Luxembourg you should never say hello to strangers, so why is it okay in lifts?
By Wise Expat Sage
Dear Wise Expat Sage,
I’m new to Luxembourg so I often find myself struggling to understand basic etiquette.
When I first moved here, I used to say hi to random people, especially if we were standing next to each other in a public place like a bus stop. However, I quickly learned that such behavior is seen as antisocial, and that you’re not even supposed to acknowledge strangers, no matter the circumstance.
But there’s a huge exception to this rule: elevators. I’ve discovered that once you step into an elevator, all social norms break down and it’s perfectly normal to smile, say hello, and even wish fellow passengers a nice day. And why, simply because you’ve shared the unforgettable experience of a four-second ride down two floors?
Hello Miguel, and welcome. Your powers of observation are astute indeed if you’re already finding cracks in the façade.
Before I advise you what to do — and what not to do — in elevators, it’s important that I provide a little background.
Back when elevators were first introduced to Luxembourg a hundred years ago, they were nothing more than a simple rope and pulley attached to a large piece of wood. The operator, usually named Mario or Jemp, would pull one end of the rope and hoist you up. It was very dangerous, for both operator and passenger alike. In fact, only about half of passengers survived a ride in an elevator, and more often than not, Mario or Jemp would be crushed by a falling platform.
Because of the danger, people began viewing elevator rides as a sort of religious experience, a precursor to death. Understandably, facing death makes people do some weird things. Some pray. Some laugh. And nearly everyone puts down their guard and warms up a little.
The kindness and fellowship one could encounter in elevators became so well known that, particularly in the winter, depressed people would go into supermarkets and shopping centers just to take the elevator up and down all day long, basking in the glow of heartfelt smiles and warm greetings. However, when managers found out about these “Liftfreedschwämp”* (Luxembourgish for “elevator happiness sponges”) who were causing huge spikes in electricity costs, they started hiring guardians to make sure that only paying customers were getting a free ride up or down.
Of course, after nuclear power plants started popping up all over the Europe and energy got cheaper, most of these elevator guardians were let go, and soon the profession as a whole disappeared.
Now, you might be saying to yourself, well that’s interesting, WES, but why do some people cheerfully slap me on the back the second I enter an elevator, while others only whisper bonjour and look at their shoes? Unfortunately, there’s no hard and fast rule as to which degree of friendliness you can expect in an elevator. Only by living here for a long time, as I have, will you one day learn.
That said, I can give you a few tips. If your elevator companion is an older Luxembourgish lady, you might simply say “moie madame” and tip your hat, or if you’re not wearing one, just tap your forehead three times. If your elevator companion is a French-speaking youth, one who looks like he might listen to hip hop and do parkour in his free time, lift your chin and say, “ça va, mec?” For a robust German fellow, a quick but strong handshake will do. And if it’s a fellow expat, particularly one who is as new and confused as you, just do as you please, whether that’s an old-fashioned bow, an exotic chest-bumping routine, or, if the elevator is large enough, a backflip.
One important note: you must never attempt to talk to people before you get into the elevator, even if you are waiting together, and the same goes for after you’ve exited. Doing this could get you a cold look, a slap in the face, or a free trip to a psychiatric hospital.
Wes is a wise expat sage who has lived in Luxembourg for precisely eight months longer than you, and therefore knows more about life here than you ever will.
Want to read more? Check out his other responses.
*Term provided by Nana D., a bona fide Luxembourgish speaker.