Why do we hate waiting so much? Are we missing out on moments of respite, by confusing pauses with lacking productivity? Discover the psychology of the queue and why time might actually wait for every man.
Every day, Grand Central Station opens its doors from 5:30am to 2:00am. Throughout that time, over 1 million strangers walk through, some passing through to admire the glory of the station, others waiting to catch their trains. A thunderous rush takes place as platforms are announced, each person headed to a separate direction to fulfill their own separate journey.
A slightly less glamorous station, the commute to see my family home at London’s ever-under-construction, Euston Station occurs with much the same narrative, a chaotic crowd racing towards the platform on the second of its announcement, as though an exclusive prize were waiting for us at the end of it. That prize in reality? A seat.
Before the pandemonium commences, we wait in anticipation, each pair of eyes aiming for the same objective, but guided by different thoughts. Some with impatience, some with longing, nervousness, excitement. The story of each passenger is a unique one, and while we all congregate together for reasons entirely different, we’re all united by the fact that we’re waiting for something.
Typically as humans, we’re not fond of waiting. Time spent in a line can often feel like time wasted in a society that prioritizes speed. When we find ourselves in lines and queues, that time becomes slower as we’re placed in direct contact with the unknown. We don’t know how long we’ll be waiting for, and at what point we’ll reach the front. Uncertainty often manifests into anxiety, anxiety to irritation, thus we become restless by the absence of activity. In his paper, ‘The Psychology of Waiting Lines,’ David H. Maister writes that “waiting in ignorance creates a feeling of powerlessness, which frequently results in visible irritation and rudeness on the part of customers.”
We’ve all been there, whether it’s cold-shouldering the queue jumper into a club, or screaming at the computer when you’ve joined a queue of 13,000 other customers looking to get the standing tickets too at a concert. Queuing isn’t exempt from hierarchy either, despite the fact that it functions primarily as a first come first serve order, that is until someone knows the organizer and skips to the front. Managing the scope of consumer wait times – essentially crowd control – is often factored into business models that could threaten brand equity and consumer loyalty. According to The Washington Post, a long and unpleasant wait can damage a customer’s view of a brand, cause people to leave a line or not enter it in the first place, what researchers respectively call “reneging” and “balking.”
Queues were long associated with only the physical, but the advent of e-commerce has only propelled our sense of waiting. Take Queue-it for instance, a leading developer of virtual waiting room services controlling heavy traffic on websites to prevent them from going down so that everyone can buy the same pair of shoes at the same time.
As a result of our emotional corpus, perceived wait times feel longer than actual wait times when the objective is unknown. Take for instance, the increased queues that took place over the past year, with allotted numbers of people permitted per store, resulting in longer wait times. That makes us feel irritable. But in 2016, Beyoncé embarked on the Formation World Tour, it was reported that in Manchester, fans, or the Bey Hive, camped out from 7pm the night before, waiting for more than 24 hours before her arrival on stage. That queue provided anticipation and excitement.
Whether you’re queuing to buy groceries, waiting for a text or a letter, the latter a little archaic these days, these moments of respite punctuate our days, occupying the role of liminal spaces. Regarded as a transitional stage, occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold, these moments are seasons of waiting and not knowing. As we preconceived waiting with negativity, we outlook the idea that these moments are, in fact, moments of transformation that teach us and form us. Climbing the stairs, walking through hallways, trekking from one terminal gate to another, crossing blocks and street corners, waiting in traffic, car journeys, escalators, elevators. These are destinations we regard as places that aren’t meant to exist, but to be passed through.
There’s serenity in the stillness of these moments that we overlook; the time spent getting from A to B. The interim almost acts as a pause in time where we directly experience its passing. That’s not to say instant gratification isn’t wonderful, particularly with the onset of grocery delivery services promising food to your door in under 15 minutes from Gorillas to Weezy; waiting for confirmation via text rather than wait for carrier pigeons. Instead, the waiting forces us to slow down from our constant state of going and doing. It’s a moment that reminds us of our synaesthetic qualities, more willing to perceive what surrounds us and appreciate the minutiae of everyday life. At its best, it’s a moment of reflection, to unravel the thoughts pushed aside into the margins of your mind in the haste of our quotidian lives.
These preconceived moments of idleness can often feel like inertia, a feeling of nothingness or unchanged state that disrupts the flow of our productivity. In Sean Ross’ analysis on ‘Why is Productivity Important in Economics?’ He states that “the level of productivity is the most fundamental and important factor in determining the standard of living. Raising it allows people to get what they want faster or get more in the same amount of time.” While Ross’ evaluation emphasises rapidity, there’s no reason to suggest that “levels of productivity” are not inclusive in moments we take to pause and recalibrate. Are we, therefore, overlooking not only the pleasure, but importantly the purpose that comes with waiting? They say that time waits for no man, but in fact, it seems that no man waits for time and to feel its passing.