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How to wait well

Instead of fuming in subjugated irritation, turn wait times into chances to connect, muse and think big about the future

by Jason Farman

Waiting. Positano, Italy, 1936. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum

Jason Farman

is professor of American Studies and director of the Design Cultures and Creativity programme at the University of Maryland, College Park. His books include the edited collections The Mobile Story: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies (2014) and Foundations of Mobile Media Studies: Essential Texts on the Formation of a Field (2016), and the authored texts Mobile Interface Theory: Embodied Space and Locative Media (2012) and Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World (2018).

Edited by Sam Haselby

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Need to know

A story that’s well-known among architects and urban designers is the tale of how people stopped complaining about waiting for elevators in the skyscrapers of New York City. The story’s origins are in the post-Second World War building boom, with its massive increase of skyscrapers. One building’s manager brought in mechanical engineers and elevator companies to help him solve a daily problem: people were waiting too long for the elevators, and they were getting angry about it. After looking at the issue, the engineers and company representatives came back and said that this problem was unsolvable. But a psychologist who worked in the building came up with his own solution. According to one version of the story, the psychologist didn’t focus on elevator performance but on the fact that people felt frustrated with what was a relatively short wait. He concluded that the frustration was likely born out of boredom. With the approval of the building’s manager, he put up mirrors around the elevator waiting area so that people could look at themselves and others waiting. Thus, waiting became interesting. The complaints not only ceased immediately and completely, but some previous complainers actually applauded the building staff for improving the speed of the elevator service.

I continually return to this example as I survey our society at this moment in time, as we each feel the burden of wait times during a pandemic. Waiting has come to characterise much of life in 2020, from waiting for a vaccine to waiting for word from schools about what classes will look like for students, or waiting for jobs to return, or waiting for a Zoom host to start the meeting. As our lives have moved to remote connection, we wait as we’re put on hold for the next customer service representative to sort out our student loan bills, update our internet plans or guide us through the bureaucracy of unemployment benefits. We wait for ‘normal life’ to return, and have become living buffering icons with no sense of when the wait will cease.

We’re bored. We’re unproductive. We’re irritated by the wait and the way it makes us feel powerless, anxious, isolated and depressed. It’s no wonder that students across the United States are shirking campus restrictions and safety measures to be at bars and resume some semblance of a normal academic year, ultimately leading to large numbers of COVID-19 cases at many universities. We hate to wait, even for a relatively short amount of time. Similar to the elevator anecdote, there’s no feedback about when our waiting will end, so we’re left with all the complex emotions of that overused phrase, ‘uncertainty’. The uncertainty of how time will unfold in the coming months echoes the psychology research around the wait times for elevators (and other mundane moments of waiting, such as waiting for our Netflix movie to start playing or waiting in line at the grocery store).

But there is a way to reclaim waiting from the slow, thick doldrums of these negative encounters with delay. I believe we can wait better, but that requires a radical reorienting of our perspective on waiting. There are concrete actions we can take, which I detail below, including ways we can better handle our emotions and, instead, focus on our responses. In doing so, we can build a relationship with time that sees it as an investment in our social fabric. By investing our wait times in the social circumstances that people around us face, we can build radical empathy with the ways that others are forced to use their time.

What to do

Mindfulness, meditation and moments of stillness have helped many to centre their thoughts and emotions. These strategies are used for coping with the stress of intense working lives, the anxious reactions toward the upheaval that surrounds us and the accelerating pace of life in the digital age.

Waiting, however, is qualitatively different. While you can choose to pause, be still and meditate, you often can’t control whether you wait for something or not. That’s the rub with wait times: they’re often imposed rather than chosen. So we despise them because they put the power in the hands of others. Waiting precludes a sense of agency over using our time as we see fit. Wait times can even be used by others to remind us about their power, for example, in a relationship where we’re made to wait for them, an action that claims priority over time.

In order to find the benefits of waiting – rather than a knee-jerk reaction that wait times are a major barrier to living a good life – there are five practices you can employ:

1. Move beyond your feelings and toward the cause of waiting. Instead of festering in the emotional toll of waiting, it’s better to understand the larger context of wait times. Begin by asking why you’re waiting. The initial answers will likely be shallow responses to a complex situation.

A follow-up question that can help to move towards a complex answer is: ‘Who benefits from my waiting?’ While I might perceive waiting as imposed on me, and see it either as an inconvenience or as removing my ability to control my own time, it’s important to ask who (or what) profits from me waiting right now. Sometimes, we’re actually the beneficiaries of our own wait times. Waiting can be an investment that pays out to us: it can be a way for us to save or accrue money in a retirement account (rather than spending it when the first need arises) or it can be a way for us to delay gratification. I might wait now to get something better on the other side of my waiting. Or we might attribute an ability to wait to building patience, which is an esteemed character trait. And then there are the ways in which those around me might benefit from my waiting, such as when I wait at traffic lights so that other cars can move through the intersection.

Yet waiting can also reveal structural benefits such as when those in positions of power reiterate that power by making us wait. Delays in justice or equity are a way of keeping the disempowered from experiencing social change and mobility. Wait times can also reveal cracks in leadership, as people are forced to pause due to a lack of planning and strategic vision. Becoming students of waiting can give us insights into the larger causes for delay and the ramifications across different parts of our society. But these insights come only if we’re able to move past our irritation at being forced to wait.

2. Embrace the ways in which wait times are not in-between times. We tend to think of waiting as the limbo between what we were doing and what we hope happens next. We sit in a holding pattern until things are resolved. My personal practice is to identify what I hope will come on the other side of my waiting. What do I want the future to look like once my delays and wait times are resolved? I have learned so much about myself through this practice, about my dreams and ambitions, about my outlook for the future, and about my closest relationships and what I desire from them.

Such practices are not only a key to understanding ourselves better, they are fundamental for innovating on what exists and coming up with new futures. Waiting, as represented by silences, gaps and distance, allows us the capacity to imagine that which doesn’t yet exist and, ultimately, innovate into those new worlds as our knowledge expands.

Waiting pulls us into the present unlike any other experience of time. In the waiting, we realise that this moment is meaningful as it exists, not as some step toward a future moment. Waiting is present tense, and its meanings are full of the potential to transform the ways in which we see the world. Each moment is its own experience and its own fulfilment.

3. Decouple lack of productivity from being forced to wait. If wait times offer new visions of possible futures, then wait times can be productive. But this isn’t currently the dominant view. Instead, wait times are often seen as robbing us of productivity. When we’re productive and working well, time speeds by and we hardly notice it. When we wait, time is inescapably noticeable.

Yet, such a perspective has only led to a burned-out workforce that is overbooked and lacks creative vision. Wait times, instead, are necessary for us to find creative solutions to complex problems. Waiting, and the daydreaming and boredom that accompany it, unlocks the ‘default mode network’ of the brain. This is sometimes called the ‘imagination network’ and links us with creative approaches and solutions that we couldn’t have found if we sought them out; they only arrive when our thoughts are in a moment of pause. Building long-term solutions that innovate into new futures requires us to sit with knowledge, to have moments of boredom and waiting. Yet the current work environment offers none of that. If we build wait times into our workflow, not only could we be less stressed, we might actually be more productive and more creative.

4. Use wait times as an investment in the social fabric. When I began my research on waiting, I believed that everyone hated to wait just as much as I did. But, as I journeyed to countries around the world to study how various cultures respond to their wait times, I was struck instead by how differently people perceive waiting. Many of those I encountered not only have less anxiety around waiting than I do, several even basked in their wait times. One of my colleagues, who works in Uganda, told me about times when her neighbours would all gather an hour early at the bus stop just to wait as a community. The wait time was their shared language of investing time in each other.

Waiting also holds a specific social resonance for some cultures, reiterating priorities and values for each other’s wellbeing. The orderly, single-file lines for food and water rations in Japan after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake stand in stark contrast to the viral footage of shoppers in Australia fighting each other for the last pack of toilet paper in March 2020.

Instead of seeing our time as individual – a scarce resource among other dwindling resources – we can see it as intertwined with the time of others. Here, a new moral imperative emerges. If my time is bound with yours, it benefits me to see you use your time well or, in contrast, to help you combat the social structures that force you to spend your time in ways that put you at a disadvantage. This is what the media studies scholar Sarah Sharma calls a ‘temporal awareness’ of the ways that all our time is intertwined but often uneven in how it’s imposed on different people. If we don’t foster this kind of awareness, she argues, we risk managing our own time in a way that ‘has the potential to further diminish the time of others’. Waiting can be what we study to see how things such as racial and class inequalities force people to live time in a different way, further emphasising their marginal positions.

This is particularly apt in this moment of pandemic. By waiting in quarantine for the infection curve to flatten, by waiting until it’s safe enough to go out to a music festival, by waiting until there is a vaccine or other measures before expecting life to return to normal, I am investing in the social fabric around me. I am investing in your safety by waiting. Yet, our long histories of linking wait times with powerlessness and a lack of productivity have often stemmed these efforts. Instead, we should redouble our investment in waiting, understanding it as a productive practice that invests in the value of the lives around us.

5. Get angry, as needed. Not all wait times are created equal. Waiting for a delayed flight is different from waiting for the results of a cancer screening. Waiting in line for a Disneyland ride bears no resemblance to waiting for justice for war crimes. Not all waiting is beneficial. Some waiting should anger us, especially as we build radical empathy with others who are forced to wait in ways that disempower them. This radical empathy gives us a deeper insight into the life of someone whose experience is vastly different from our own. We should be angry that it took so long for disaster relief to reach Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. We should be angry that we’re still waiting for justice for Black people killed in the US. As Martin Luther King Jr wrote in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ (1963):

For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ … This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see … that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’.

When my time is deeply entwined with your time, I should be angered at the uneven ways that it is distributed and when many of you are simply asked to wait. In these moments, we should collectively shout that we will wait no longer.

Key points

  • Become a student of waiting by shifting your emotional energies toward trying to understand who benefits from your wait times. By doing so, you can uncover the reasons that wait times are imposed – and what you can do in response.
  • As students of waiting, these periods can teach us about what we hope will come on the other side of waiting. Use this time to learn about yourself and what you hope the future might bring.
  • Wait times are typically understood as the antithesis of being productive. Instead, understand that wait times can unlock new modes of productivity and creative problem-solving that couldn’t have been accessed otherwise.
  • Remember that wait times are not an in-between time; instead, they are moments that offer us the opportunity to be creative problem-solvers and innovate new futures.
  • Waiting, especially in a moment of pandemic and quarantine, should be understood as an investment in the people around us. My waiting can be an opportunity for me to understand how you’re forced to use time differently from me. This has the potential to build radical empathy with each other.
  • Radical empathy gives us a clearer picture of how unevenly time is distributed and how injustices are often perpetuated under the guise of simply asking people to wait. Sometimes waiting must be fought.

Learn more

Mobile media and digital technologies have transformed the landscape for how we use our time. While these technologies have afforded new ways to connect and build knowledge, they’ve also massively overhauled expectations around availability and what working looks like. Those who’ve watched these transformations take place over the past few decades likely feel that the pace of life has exponentially increased. In this context, we might see those who expect instant email responses or one-day Amazon deliveries as a uniquely impatient group without historical precedent. However, they’re in good company.

When I began researching my book on wait times, I expected to see a massive compression of how time was experienced. Once technologies slice the day into smaller and smaller parts, and then distribute that time across all devices globally (we’re all on the same clock if you’re using your cellphone as your timepiece, by the way), you have a population that experiences those slices of time in unique ways.

Yet time perception is relative to our everyday encounters. That is, once you’ve experienced receiving a letter or waiting for a website to load, cognitively you begin setting norms of speed. These norms – whether the 40-day journey of a letter across the US in the late-1700s, or the mere seconds it takes a video to buffer in your browser today – shape our perception of time. Once those norms are violated (I can’t believe it took 55 days for this letter to arrive! It was supposed to be here two weeks ago!), we lose patience, and frustration mounts.

We have always been impatient. This is true in every era and across nearly all forms of media that connect us. You see it in the letters of Civil War soldiers and in the protests of King Henry VIII as he waited for the Pope to grant dispensation to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Conversely, when a technology suddenly speeds up our social connections, such as the rise of the pneumatic tube mailing system in the 19th century, we feel like we’re living in a new future full of new possibilities. These technologies often promise to connect us instantly without a loss of fidelity, and that connections across geographic distances will suddenly be as rich and instant as face-to-face conversations. By claiming to eliminate wait times altogether, technology has answered the problems of social distance.

The cultural imagination that these technologies produce is typically more powerful than the technologies themselves. That is, the way they change how we think is more important to their success than the actual abilities of the medium. Think of Zoom and the virtual meeting or classroom: this illusion of instant and true-to-life connection has been laid bare.

Instead, we have always waited, and waiting won’t be eliminated from our lives. Nor should we want it to be removed completely. Waiting offers us important insights into ourselves and how we function as a society. Waiting provides us with key modes of creativity that we’ll lose if we pull out the phone at every pause.

My hope is that we don’t see waiting as a burden, but as an important feature of human connection, intimacy and learning. There is so much we can learn from waiting, if we only take the time.

Links & books

The article ‘Why Time Feels So Weird in 2020’ by Feilding Cage for Reuters offers some visual tasks that demonstrate the odd shifts and contractions of time that we’re experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The chapter ‘Spinning in Place’ from my book Delayed Response: The Art of Waiting from the Ancient to the Instant World (2018) looks at the significance of that ubiquitous and mundane piece of interface design, the buffering icon.

The article ‘The Hidden Joy of Waiting in Line’ (2014) by Carolyn Gregoire in HuffPost offers a few practical actions that people can take while waiting, instead of occupying their time with a phone screen.

The podcast 99% Invisible did an episode on wait times and transparency, ‘Wait Wait … Tell Me!’ (2019), which shows how being transparent with people about waiting times gives them a sense of agency and involvement over complex processes such as a city’s timeline for public works projects.

The book Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy (2018) by Melissa Gregg gets to the heart of our beliefs and practices of productivity in the workplace. Exploring why we feel so busy and overworked, as well as our cultural notions of work and success in the digital age, Gregg looks at the experiences and shifting expectations of workers in information economies.

The book Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (2012) by Claudia Hammond draws on rich research in the psychology of time to show how our own perceptions can make some moments (such as waiting) seem to drag on forever, while some years seem to fly by in an instant.

The book In the Meantime: Temporality and Cultural Politics (2014) by Sarah Sharma argues for ‘temporal awareness’ of other people, and advocates for a view of time that’s intertwined rather than individual. Looking at how this plays out in the workforces of those often not in the limelight such as taxi drivers and cleaning staff, and behind the scenes at slow food gatherings, Sharma makes the case for a politics of time.

The book Hold On: The Life, Science, and Art of Waiting (2020) by Peter Toohey provides a thoughtful and analytical framework for studying waiting. A natural bridge with Toohey’s previous book, Boredom: A Lively History (2011), his latest looks at moments of waiting as they emerge in a range of media such as film, television, painting and music.

And if we’re trying to eliminate boredom from our lives, Manoush Zomorodi’s book Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self (2017) convincingly argues that boredom can in fact help to unlock creativity. She offers practical advice to people who wish to shift the pace of their days, so as to approach problems and creative challenges with new insights.

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30 September 2020