I've had similar experiences with this and other cases where I'm stuck in transit, for lack of a better word, in close proximity with other people. This could be on a subway, a bus, or an elevator. In most cases, I'm content to simply listen to music, as a way to pass the time on whatever short trip I'm taking. If a person has headphones/earbuds on, it's typically rude to interrupt them to make small talk, and so everyone in the compartment stays in their own little worlds.
Your situation is different for two reasons:
- The trip is short, given that it only goes to 13 apartments. This would make it a little odd to be listening to music to pass the time on an elevator ride taking no more than a couple minutes at the worst.
- You know a decent amount of the people to some degree. I'm generally not a huge fan of flat-out ignoring people I sort of know in any situation; at the very least, I'll give them a cursory nod. From my experiences, most people do the same.
To solve the first problem, I'll on occasion - if I'm in an elevator - check my phone for texts, missed calls, etc. I'm not a person who uses my phone much, so it's entirely possible that I've missed something during the day. In an elevator, no matter where I'm going, there's nothing else I have to do. Even on a really busy day, it gives me time to regroup - and that includes checking if anyone has tried to contact me. I've witnessed plenty of other people doing the same, and it's actually sometimes a bit funny when five or so people are all standing around, glued to the screens.
That solution still doesn't solve the second problem - namely, ignoring people you might know. Here, you can take two different approaches:
- Nod in their direction (or say "Hi") and do some small task, like checking your phone. This means that, at the last, you've shown that you know them and, to some extent, care about them. It doesn't commit you to a conversation if you don't want to.
Make small talk. Being in the elevator can give me time to check my phone, something I don't get to do if I'm busy during the day. You probably don't get to talk to these people much, either. If you know them and are comfortable talking to them, then briefly ask how they're doing (how their kids are doing, if you're both of that age) - again, doing something to show that you care a bit.
I've used this quite a bit in the past, even in the slightly longer stuck-in-transit situations I talked about above. It's not always clear that the other person will want to reciprocate. If you're not sure, ask something that could lead to small talk but doesn't commit you. Something like
"Hey, how are you doing?"
is better than "Hi" because it requires a response of some sort beyond a simple "Hi". If they feel like talking, they can go into detail; take this as a cue to continue the conversation. If not, they might stick to a short "Good; you?". If that's the case, respect that they don't want to talk.
If I don't know the other person well, I'll always use the first situation. It is extraordinarily awkward to start small talk with someone you don't know, and it might not be worth it if the conversation won't last long. If it's someone I do know, I'll use either one, depending on how I'm feeling.
What if there's a third person?
Let's say there are three people in the elevator: You, Person A, and Person B. You know Person A, but not Person B, and Persons A and B don't seem to know each other. I would not advise striking up a conversation with Person A. I've been Person B before, and it's very weird to be that third person. I'll either feel embarrassed, like I'm intruding on something, or a little annoyed, for some inscrutable reason.
In other words, if a third wheel could be involved, don't start talking with the one person. It will be very awkward.