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All we do, it seems, is wait

A reflection on the art of waiting in America

Photo by Richard Asinof

The line of customers at the R.I. Division of Motor Vehicles waiting for service on a hot July afternoon, one of the most complained about experiences of waiting in Rhode Island.

By Terry H. Schwadron
Posted 8/1/16
The frustrations of waiting are an intrinsic part of our everyday world, where immediate gratification is the watchword for customers in a retail universe, often made more intolerable by steamy temperatures.
What is the relationship between the perception of pain and the anger of having to wait? How does the inability to manage wait times represent a key behavioral factor in those children and adults whose brain circuitry has been impaired and rewired by toxic stress? How does waiting personify the nature of how the social, economic health and racial disparities get played out? What’s the worst condition of “waiting” in Rhode Island?
In 1972, Victor Bockris wrote a short poem: “In America/all we do/is work.” Whatever its artistic merit, the sensibility expressed can also be applied to the workplace: all we do is meet, and to our daily lives: all we do is wait.
The larger question, of course, is how we see waiting as an intricate part of the journey of our lives, and how we punctuate our travels. It is very much about the nature of conversation, of serendipity, of convergence.
Waiting is about story telling, sharing the things that knit together our lives and our humanity. Taking the time to listen.

NEW YORK – It is late summer, and rivulets of sweat down the back remind you that humidity plus summer heat can turn a New York City subway station into an unpleasantly over-toasty place.

And, the next train is showing on the arrival screens as delayed. On the inside, at least, you groan and try to think good thoughts, but it can feel frustrating.

Sure, you may live where you drive instead. Don’t smirk: You wait at the inevitable red lights. Or you find that the freeway to Cape Cod is anything but free-flowing for what once again turns out to be no good reason whatsoever. Don’t even mention left-hand turns [think Route 6 in the summer].

Maybe you’ve picked up the three things you need at the “convenience” store and now find yourself 14 people deep in the line at the cash register, impatient and ready to consider mentally pushing some people aside.

Why me?
I used to think this must only happen to me. After all, I’m a trombone player who often had to wait forever through three movements of a symphony before getting to play our discrete part in the last movement.

And, for years, I oversaw news production processes that meant I had to wait until the last editing was done to declare victory for the evening.

I’ve learned, however, that hate for the wait is only human: most of us don’t like to wait if we don’t have to, and the frequency only seems to be worsening at airports, in hospitals and medical offices, in stores, especially in an era of instant gratification.

As an issue, it may sound inconsequential as compared to world hunger, rising seas or serious disease, but waiting turns out to be high on the human list of “things-to-be-avoided.”

Indeed, some waiting even can prompt “line rage” or “queue rage,” as otherwise reasonable folks turn nasty or threatening if someone, say, tries to cut into the line ahead.

The zen of waiting
Some waiting is nice, of course. Unfettered time watching sunsets with cocktails in hand, for example, or kissing your lover while waiting, well, for nothing in particular. But for those of us who aren’t gamboling, waiting can be burdensome.

Indeed, I was only a bit surprised to learn that “waiting issues” have proved significant enough social conditions that they have spawned study in a variety of academic and practical science programs in psychology, engineering, management and design, and a number of books and videos [mostly of outrageous behavior by the impatient].

The Internet, home for things to do while waiting, now even in subway stations, offers up some would-be facts and figures from those people who count everything:

• Over a lifetime, the average person spends five years in lines, including six months at red lights. [Source:]. Britons spend an average two days a year at traffic lights. [Source:]

• In aggregate, Americans spend about 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. Over a lifetime, Americans spend 43 days on hold with automated customer service, 27 days waiting on the platform or at the bus stop. [Source:]

• A Timex study said Americans wait on average of 20 minutes a day for each bus or train, 32 minutes in medical waiting rooms, 28 minutes in security lines, and 21 minutes waiting for a significant other to get ready to go out.

• For the record, audits of the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York, operators of the subway, say with minor improvements, about three-fourths of trains run on time, though they do not study when people arrive for those trains.

There are different kinds of waiting, of course, not just the annoying delay that happens just as you need to get somewhere. Waiting for news of a loved one in the hospital, for example, is an entirely different kind of experience, tinged with anxiety about outcomes.

By comparison, voluntary waits while camping out for days in expectation of the Apple device or Black Friday sale or new movie release is just a little less sympathetic, if not a little nuts, and driven more by our collective need to show we have status than our willingness just to endure.

I like to get places early just to avoid the tension of “getting there” and also of getting lost. That means, I’m asking to wait some times. But generally that means I can find a park bench or a nearby coffee before tackling what’s ahead. Those are almost pleasant waits.

The psychology of waiting
Those who study the psychology of waiting tell us that there is much to learn about ourselves, naturally. And they say there is much to learn for those who deal with customers or who provide services, which is why psychology has now given way to design and engineering concerns.

We endure the wait better if we keep ourselves busy, for example, according to endless numbers of tests on the subject. Businesses, particularly retail businesses, are extremely aware that even small waiting times can affect consumer opinions about the value of the shopping experience and have developed designs and ways to disguise waits.

Obviously this condition worsens if the waiting is for, say, a government service, as in standing in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Richard Larsen of MIT, known as “Dr. Queue,” has been an active investigator of “queue rage,” a result of his studies of waiting in line. He advises such things as parking as far from the store entrance as possible to conserve psychic energy, to shop in a store’s last hour, when crowds have dispersed, and staying calm.

Specifically, psychologists said that occupied time seems shorter, that certainty about the wait time is borne more easily than uncertainty (even if it is wrong), that unanticipated waits are worse.

So, companies like Apple in its stores and Disney have engineered ways to make those in line think that they are being heeded, or offered some kind of distraction. Some call-waiting services tell waiting callers that they are third in line and can expect an agent to answer in 10 minutes.

A New York Times column on the subject noted that it is exactly this sense of drudgery about the wait that has prompted supermarkets and other stores to offer impulse buys to those on slow-moving lines.

Other studies have shown that we prefer shorter lines to longer lines, even if the wait time is the same, that we like orderly lines as compared with loose hanging-around situations like airports, that we react positively if a line seems to move fast, and that we recognize “fairness” as a concept in waiting for service. A line-cutter is immediately branded an object of communal hate.

Delayed gratification
Sometimes waiting appears to have its own rewards. A series of Stanford University experiments on delayed gratification in the 1960s and 1970s, led by psychologist Walter Mischel, showed that in offering a child one small immediate reward [a marshmallow or cookie, usually] or two rewards if the child would wait for 15 minutes, showed differing long-term results.

Statistically, the patient children proved to have better “life outcomes” in school test scores, educational achievement, and body mass index measurements, among other results.

Hate for the wait
Robert Epstein, a psychologist, wrote in Psychology Today that “hate for the wait” is stronger in the U.S. than Japan, for example, where there is more tolerance for taking an extra few moments of consideration before barreling into a response in a conversation, for example.

He noted that Weight Watchers encourages its dieters to wait a moment after a spoonful of food before taking another, and that parents have more success in calming children by waiting until there is a pause in crying to offer sympathetic words or a hug. Maybe we’d be better off not finding love at first sight, he suggests.

Those waiting for a single answer to the problem will be in a disorganized, uncertain line for quite a while. There are ways to make the wait a bit more pleasant, like talking to that person next to you, even if it about the wait itself. Who knows, the subway will arrive soon.


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