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How many days of your life are spent waiting in line at airports, shops, or government offices?

Many businesses are rightly concerned about customer frustration with waiting times. Banks, hotels, and airlines know how upset the modern consumer can become if asked to queue for even a short time. Students complain about having to wait "so long" for their papers to be marked. Rage has become a function of sometimes rather minor delays.

People in line at major international airports now tweet their frustration. There are occasional revolts of otherwise normal, well-behaved people who have simply "had enough." They shout, they sing, and they rush the barricades to humiliate their tormentors.

Try visiting a place where you have no choices, like a government agency—or, better still, the airport at a time when many planes are coming in at the same time. You aren’t really a customer, although you may be called that. You cannot take your business elsewhere. The Fast Track is not necessarily so. And you are compelled to shuffle along like a Soviet citizen, waiting for the monopoly-run shop to deliver its meager, uninviting product.

Products are consumed, but services are experienced in real time. Delay is often the most important factor influencing restaurant evaluation, and it is a nightmare for management, who know the cost of hiring extra hands. Expectations have changed. People take their business elsewhere, where they get what they want: instant gratification. And waiting is often the cause of road rage, of course.

There are three ways of looking at those who phlegmatically and stoically endure the long, tedious and time-wasting queuing process.

First, the orderly line is, and always was, a myth. It is a story we told ourselves that was never true. More a product of wartime propaganda movies than any reality. We never liked queuing, pushed ahead where we could, and mumbled and grumbled the whole time.

Second, the queue is associated with dull, sheep-like drones, beaten into submission by an inefficient system. We should adopt a "Customers of the world, unite!" manifesto, and refuse to accept this result of incompetence. Only the foolish tolerate it.

Third, we should be amazingly proud of this quiet, orderly and dignified display of one of our great virtues. Too many people suffer from "hurry sickness," dysfunctional impulsivity, and childlike impatience, and could learn a great deal from the fair play and equality of learning to wait. After all, postponement of gratification is one of the signs of maturity.

To the modern person, waiting can be described simply as aggravating, demoralizing, and frustrating. It causes tension and is expensive.

People who study waiting behavior have come up with certain laws and observations that have, of course, consequences:

  1. Occupied Time feels shorter. So give people something to do or distract their attention. Make them walk round and round on maze-like paths. Give them television to watch, music to listen to. The worst is letting them grow surly and listless; they then mumble to each other about starting a revolt.
  2. Uncertainty makes waiting seem longer. Tell people (roughly) how long they have to wait and they are more accepting of the delay. The subways and buses know this. The guesstimations need not be accurate; precision does not matter. Information takes away the ambiguity and gives a person confidence that the system is still running.
  3. Anxiety makes the wait seem longer. “Will it ever come?" "Will I make my meeting?" "Will I make the connection?” So explanation and reassurance works. Again, music might help. Too-frequent apologies don’t. Best to be the reassuring parent, as when Junior says, “Daddy, Daddy, are we nearly there yet?” And miles from your destination and profoundly lost, you confidently proclaim, “Nearly, darling, almost there!”
  4. Unanticipated and unexplained waits are worse. Some organizations have figured out the explanation bit. "Your train/flight is late (and we profoundly apologize) due to the late arrival of the other train/plane." Yes, but why was that? Best appeal to "act of God" explanations, which suggest possible danger.
  5. Unfair waits are much more aggravating than equitable waits. Nothing is worse than seeing someone semi-legitimately avoid the queue. The Fast Trackers who buy their way out; the cabin crew who get some privileged exit; the locals who have twice as many people manning the desks as the aliens. The spirit of "all in it together" helps.
  6. Solo waits seem longer than group or social waits. This is a difficult one, but explains the idea of a waiting room or those holding pens at airports.

We have all become used to speedier delivery of all services. And, when frustrated by delay, we express our anger openly and vehemently. And it is getting much worse as our expectations of immediate gratification are growing.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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