Abstract and Keywords
This chapter opens with a discussion of Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson and Prime Minister Olof Palme, who were kept waiting before they could meet Saddam Hussein in one of his Baghdad palaces. It focuses on waiting as a cultural practice, one shaped by shifting historical and social conditions and something that people learn to handle, a skill that must be trained and developed. The examples are presented from different situations and parts of the world, from hospitals, street corners, travel experiences, and the final weeks of pregnancy. This theme of waiting dwells further into emotionality and explains how, as in an example from Baghdad, waiting is linked to power. Like many other examples of doing nothing, waiting turns out to be a phenomenon that is difficult to study head-on. Later, this chapter discusses various things that one does while waiting and various ways by which one can benefit while waiting. It highlights the fact that waiting seems to be a state of mind, a psychological condition, that is not directly observable.
In the early 1980s the Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson and Prime Minister Olof Palme had an appointment with Saddam Hussein in one of his Baghdad palaces. They had to wait at their hotel for a few days before, late one night, a limousine with black windows arrived to pick them up. They were driven around in the city for an hour so as to make them lose their bearings.
Next they had to pass a security control and were led into a waiting room decorated with gold and oak paneling. After being left for a long time in this luxurious setting they were taken to yet another waiting room, where a chief of staff received them. Ten minutes later a door was thrown open and they were led to a third room, and there he stood: Saddam. With his staff huddled behind him, and holding a hand out stiffly, the dictator greeted the two Swedes.
It was insulting but also somewhat ridiculous, Eliasson remembers, and he pointed out that Saddam was using an age-old trick to diminish one's opponent and enlarge one's own importance (Kantor and Keller 2008: 42).
An Elusive Microdrama
Our interest in waiting as a mode of doing nothing started with less dramatic situations, among them the mundane scene in the supermarket described (p.10) earlier. We began by looking for examples of inconspicuous non-events in unglamorous activities such as waiting for a bus and standing in line.
But we soon found that “waiting” covers a wide range of behaviors and emotional reactions. Refugees wait anxiously for asylum. Prisoners count the days until their discharge. Bored workers and schoolchildren look at their watches every five minutes toward the end of a day. Yet other variants include waiting for a plumber who never shows up, or for one's beloved, who is late.
What kind of “doing nothing” constitutes waiting? What lies hidden behind this insignificant and seemingly inactive pursuit, when one has to “simply wait,” as Estragon expressed it in Samuel Beckett's 1952 play, Waiting for Godot?1 To explore these questions we started with the concrete infrastructure of waiting, the material locations where we observed the activity. From there we went on to look at the nature of waiting time. How do people experience and handle that kind of time in different situations? Next we turned our attention to how people learn to wait in different cultural settings. We investigated one of the most institutionalized forms of waiting—queuing or standing in line, a behavior that is permeated by rules, norms, rituals, and feelings. This theme took us further into the emotionality of waiting and how, as in our example from Baghdad, waiting links to power. Who waits for whom, who can make others wait, and what difference do gender and class make?
We have focused on waiting as a cultural practice, one shaped by shifting historical and social conditions and something that people learn to handle, a skill that must be trained and developed. The examples are collected from different situations and parts of the world, from hospitals, street corners, travel experiences, and the final weeks of pregnancy.
Waits can be short—as during the time it takes to ride with strangers in an elevator—but they can also feel interminable or fill an entire life. For some people waiting seems to be a full-time activity that takes up all their energy and being. This certainly applies to a Chinese physician named Lin Kong. In the mid-1960s he worked at an army hospital in a city somewhere in China. He was married to a peasant woman whom his parents had chosen (p.11) for him and whom he did not love. He had left his wife in the village to take care of their little daughter and his old parents. In the city he fell in love with Manna Wu, a nurse at the hospital, and thereafter, every summer for seventeen years Lin returned to his village to ask his wife for a divorce. But in vain. Because the hospital authorities did not approve of a liaison between them, Lin Kong and Manna Wu refrained from a sexual relationship—day after day, year after year. Eighteen years passed before, in 1984, Lin Kong was allowed to divorce his wife and marry Manna Wu.
Ha Jin tells this story of extreme patience in his novel Waiting (2000). The reader might well wonder how it would feel to wait for a loved person for almost twenty years, seeing and talking to the beloved every day during that time. In Lin Kong's case waiting became a way of life; we will return to Lin and Manna, for the novel opens up interesting perspectives.
When we considered more mundane situations of waiting we were struck by the ways in which they constantly alter shape, direction, and meaning. How to study such a multifaceted and elusive activity? At first we enthusiastically gathered ethnographic observations in train stations, doctors' waiting rooms, and ticket lines. Quite often we returned with photos and descriptions of what on the surface seemed trivial non-events, over which we often pondered for hours, trying to see below the surface.
Returning home with this description of an everyday moment we had to think about what was actually going on during this fifteen-minute wait for a bus. Interestingly, while trying to observe people in such situations we found ourselves caught up in the boredom and restlessness that emanated from our subjects. We found ourselves losing our concentration, our thoughts began to wander, and we forgot what we were there for and started thinking of other things. After all, nothing seemed to be happening, unlike situations where others are doing something—as, for example, after the waiting is over.
At 12:25 P.M., a middle-aged woman in a blue gown arrives at the bus station in a Swedish town. She is looking around the waiting room with a gaze that finally stops for a few seconds at the electronic timetable high up on the wall. Then she walks resolutely toward one of the exits and takes a seat on an empty bench next to the door. She looks hesitant and a little nervous. Again and again she touches her hair, as if to check that it is in order.
After a little while the woman takes a cell phone and a magazine from her bag and holds them in her lap. She looks for the bus ticket in her purse and finds it. Then she sinks her chin in her hand and glances at a young couple in the corner of the waiting room.
Shortly before the bus is scheduled to arrive she joins other travelers in a short queue, everyone keeping approximately one meter's distance (p.12) from the others. The woman waits patiently in fifth position, holding her phone, magazine, and bus ticket, until the bus arrives and the front door opens. It is now 12:37 P.M., and the woman steps on board.
Doing Something—but What?
Like many other examples of “doing nothing,” waiting turned out to be a phenomenon that is difficult to study head-on. Clearly we needed alternative ethnographic approaches to de-trivialize the mundane activity. We started by looking at artists who have explored waiting as a strange country, among them the Swedish artist Elin Wikström, who in 1994 molded the paradox of waiting as a passive activity in a performance titled Rebecka is waiting for Anna, Anna is waiting for Cecilia, Cecilia is waiting for Marie…
For the duration of a performance, female volunteers selected by the artist come to a café at the gallery at a scheduled time and wait for fifteen minutes. They sit at a table among other gallery visitors, as if they were the first to arrive for a rendezvous and wait for their date. Occasionally they look at their watches, rummage through a bag, and read a magazine. At a prearranged time they leave the gallery, one at a time, to be replaced by other women, who continue the everyday theater of waiting for someone who never arrives. In this exhibition waiting is presented as a meaningless effort. The women's ostensible expectations are never fulfilled. Wikström puts it like this: (p.13)
Even waiting in vain is at least doing something. Men and women resort to all kinds of mundane activities while waiting, as if to deny that they are waiting or to try to forget the fact: reading, talking, listening to music, watching television screens, making cell phone calls, or gaming, WAPing, and playing or working with their laptops. They also tend to be, to some degree, tense and irritated, as is obvious from their looking at clocks, wrist watches, timetables, graffiti, and litter on the floor, or staring absentmindedly into the distance with an inward look. In such situations there is always the question of how and where one should look when among strangers, or what strategies to develop for “averting the gaze so as not to engage in interaction” (Bissell 2007: 285). Some people watch eagerly for the bus or train they are waiting for, as if they could conjure it into existence. Or they may camouflage their pursuit by eating, drinking, or smoking, as if they were not waiting at all.
It's like when you're meeting somebody and you're the first one there. You're waiting for other persons and you go through a lot of emotions. You're worried about what happened to them, angry they're late, and it's also a loss of prestige because people are thinking, “Oh, she got stood up.”
The performance wants to give an alternative view of women. In commercials and films, they are always depicted as waiting. Waiting to grow up, waiting for Mr. Right, waiting to have kids and waiting for those grown kids to come visit them. Always this passive idea of waiting. So for once, I wanted the women to be waiting for each other.2
The choreography of waiting is rich. Depending on personality and circumstances, people stand or sit still, balance on their feet, lean against walls or pillars, squat, lie down, or walk to and fro; some people whistle, hum, sleep, or close their eyes. They wait alone or in a group, in an orderly line or randomly dispersed, with their arms folded or hanging loosely, hands in pockets or in their laps. For an ethnographer there is in fact much to observe. The dominant impression of passivity is contradicted by all the small movements and diversions.
Above all, however, waiting seems to be a state of mind, a psychological condition that is not directly observable. An observer can learn to see what (p.14) is going on at bus stops, for example, or in the waiting room of a dental office. But no one can really know what others are up to, what they are feeling or daydreaming.
Instead of guessing at what people were thinking while waiting we decided to try a more physical approach. What could an “ecology of waiting” be? How is its infrastructure organized? What kinds of social interaction are involved?
Venues of Waiting
Any location can become a waiting area, but when asked to name the first places that came to mind people cited those traditionally associated with waiting: ticket offices, highway toll booths, department stores, and the places connected with waiting for transport—gates, lounges, platforms, benches, and shelters. Other oft-cited places included schools, prisons, business offices, hospitals, and dental offices. All these “container spaces,” as David Bissell (2007: 282) has called them, “are designed to hold the body, where the body is prompted to remain inert in a form of temporary stasis.”
Such places possess a character and traditions of their own. Lining up at the supermarket is not the same as standing in a theater queue. Waiting one's turn at a golf course is surely different from waiting in a courthouse corridor. Both the physical context of the place and the cultural expectations of the individual affect the experience of waiting.
Some objects—the life vest under the seat, for example, or the emergency ladder on the wall—fall into the standby category. Other things inhabit a mode of alert passivity—the fire station, the rocket on the launch pad, the bottle of vintage wine being saved for a special occasion. Still others, among them certain electrical appliances, must never go out; they must rest with one eye open, watchful technological wild beasts.
And then there are settings and objects that rest in a kind of cultural latency. This condition has been discussed by Jonas Frykman (2005), who exemplifies his case with the many monuments left over from the Communist (p.15) era in Eastern Europe, which people don't know what to do with. For the time being, many statues and monuments have been left in parks and marketplaces awaiting whatever future use or destruction may lie ahead.
Above all, waiting transforms the location in which the waiting occurs. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the American sociologist Barry Schwartz (1975: 15ff.) made several empirical studies of what he called the ecological supports of waiting and queuing. Through what means are queuers channeled to keep the order of “first come, first served,” he asked.
He found that queue discipline is always tightest in those settings that provide a good infrastructure for waiting. In the United States, for example, barriers, signs, and directions of all kinds—including twisted cords and red ribbons between chrome poles in cinemas and amusement parks, and painted floor lines with foot-shaped marks—suggest where one should stand in line or what distance to keep from others in the queue. Some places even have line managers and queue supervisors, with or without uniforms. These kinds of props all have their own history and reveal interesting national differences.
Take, for example, the advent of what was called the “thinking ticket machine,” which was developed in Sweden in the 1960s and came to revolutionize waiting. The technology could be puzzling to the neophyte, for there were no orderly queues but only a seemingly disorganized crowd of people holding little paper slips with numbers, which they glanced at now and then. It was no longer possible to know who was next in line. Yet today these machines are part of the waiting ecology at many service facilities around the world, where they have transformed collective waiting in queues into a successful individual activity.
One of the most obvious ecological supports for waiting is the transit shelter. The Swedish architect Lena Hackzell (1999) developed a passion for this service to travelers. For several years while traveling all over the world she documented different kinds of waiting shelters.
(p.16) Impressed by the diversity of forms and functions they represent, Hackzell describes these shelters not only as accommodations for waiting but also as places to meet, and thus places that are often permeated with the magic of travel. She observed that many dreams can be symbolized by the little buildings that provide protection against inclement weather. She also noted that the length of time travelers are expected to have to spend in a shelter to a great extent governs its design. Travelers to the Galapagos Islands, for example, can have a long wait for the boat taxi. Thus the hard benches here were supplemented with comfortable hammocks. One of the photos in Hackzell's book shows men lying down and talking while they wait for the boat.
Shelters in the Indian countryside where traffic is sparse have special requirements. Passengers who have missed the only bus of the day are allowed to sleep overnight on the roof of the shelter, where it is cooler and safer. The women of the village make sure that pitchers of fresh water are always available. The roof also has a specially designed surface and a shelf, where it is possible to cook.
Hackzell found that a shelter can have a double function. It can be built as both a classical temple for worship and a gathering place. Even those who do not actually intend to travel get together there just to look at other people and feel a part of things. All over the world human beings have always congregated at bus stops and railway stations, to be with others and see life in action. Such places tend to be full of possibilities and surprises, and there the magic of travel overshadows the tedium of waiting. The very fact that someone is sitting in a shelter with a suitcase arouses the imagination of those who see her. Where may she be going?
Framing the Passing of Time
Waiting rooms such as halls, lobbies, and corridors are easy to recognize even if they are not labeled. Presumably there is something about the layout of the space, the choices of wallpaper and furniture. Or could it be the colors, the smells, the subdued soundscape? Inarguably, though, there is an (p.17) aura emanating from these locations that influences people's behavior and moods.
One should, however, be careful not to exaggerate the similarities between waiting places. Each place also has its own features, which depend on what kind of waiting is done there and by whom. While she was a patient at a Boston-area breast center, Laura E. Tanner (2002: 117) found herself moved from a tastefully furnished outer waiting area into a space that felt like both an actual and a symbolic assault on her autonomy. In this room she felt that it would be impossible to establish the kind of personal territory that is possible even in crowded locker rooms or transit waiting areas.
Official waiting rooms are often described as boring places with neutral curtains, indifferent art on the bare walls, withered plants, uncomfortable chairs arranged symmetrically, old magazines, a gloomy atmosphere, and long waits. Such spaces may be replicated a thousand times over and yet look essentially the same. Designs in chromium and artificial leather, linoleum floors, fluorescent lights, and hard plastic chairs, found in so many anterooms of officialdom such as workplaces, surgeries, and unemployment offices, are anonymous yet instantly recognizable.
Inhabited almost entirely by women in hospital johnnies waiting for mammograms, ultrasounds, or biopsies, that inner waiting room, with its bare-bones décor of chairs, women's bodies, and magazines, threw into relief dynamics less visible in the softly lit public space of an outer waiting room furnished with antique reproductions. In this room, strangers sat stiffly beside one another in rows, clutching the tops of gowns that threatened constantly to open. Handbags—large and small, leather, vinyl, scuffed, shiny—perched on laps. In the corner, one gowned woman cried silently, while another stared blankly ahead. The sound of nurses' clogs on the Formica floor preceded each announcement of a patient's name.
There are of course more opulent waiting rooms. Given money or rank, it is possible to upgrade the quality of spatial design. There is a hierarchy of designs, from first-class saloons to business lounges. The central railway station in Stockholm still has a waiting room for royalty. It is a large hall (p.18) with heavy silk draperies, soft carpets, and rococo furniture. Three magnificent cut-glass chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Four royal palaces are painted on the walls. The antique pendulum clock is said always to read 8:42. The place feels forlorn, as if it were waiting in vain for its visitors.3
How do people experience different waiting rooms? Through photographs and installations, the British artist Hatty Lee has reflected on the coexistence of the public and the private, and on the architecture that frames the passing of time. Some of her minimalist pictures show red seats on a green synthetic carpet in front of plain white walls. A solitary flowerpot in the corner tries to provide distraction. This is the generic waiting room, where it is impossible to decide for what purpose one is expected to stay. Similarly nondescript rooms are often used to represent waiting per se, as in this student's complaint in our survey:
Hatty Lee's installations work like a kind of time machine, where the viewer is reminded of the emptiness of waiting (Morrisey 2000: 16). There is nothing to do in Lee's spaces but wait, or think about waiting. The rooms become physical metaphors for formless space and the overwhelming materialization of time, the kind of experience we have when in the hospital or at the dentist. Some of these spaces show attempts to provide distractions, but even the droning TV channel and collections of tattered toys and old magazines often just add to the feeling that time has stopped.
Often it's like hanging around in a big empty waiting room where a friendly nurse sticks her head out every so often and says, “Just a few more moments and we can see you,” and then nothing for hours. You've read all the magazines lying on the chairs and tables, you feel a sense of urgency to get on with it that nothing and no one else seems to share. Meanwhile, everything seems to be happening, but not to you.
Especially in the waiting rooms of hospitals, Laura E. Tanner (2002: 124) has noticed, reading becomes oddly difficult. It is harder to leave one's body behind and let a book or magazine take over the imagination while worrying, being ill, or in pain, though that is just the time when one may be most in need of such escape. In the medical waiting room even a short magazine (p.19) article can elude our attention, Tanner observes, “distracted as we are by the tick-tock of our own uncomfortable embodiment.”
In Swedish waiting rooms, silence or very subdued conversation usually rule, but etiquettes of behavior vary. “People are forgetting their manners and imagining that the waiting room is like their car—private and soundproof,” an American woman angrily writes in her blog on the Internet.4 She calls for explicit waiting room etiquette:
Learn the Zen of doing nothing, this woman concludes her lesson. Comments from visitors to this woman's blog suggest that many people strongly support her rigorous views.5
Don't use cell phones; turn off the sound of your laptop; don't chat loudly; don't sing while listening on your iPod; if you bring children, take care of them; leave magazines and other things where you took them; make room for others; and, finally, sit quietly.
Some waiting spaces create their own unwritten rules and traditions. In a study of low-income, pregnant Latinas in Cleveland, Ohio, the anthropologist Kate E. Masley (2007) observed that her subjects managed their pregnancies amid trying social and cultural conditions. She conducted ethnographic research in the waiting room of an OB-GYN clinic, a place that to her represents a microcosm that many doctors, nurses, and other health workers rarely have the opportunity to see and understand.
In material ways this is an ordinary waiting room, but the social life it holds makes it different from others. The pregnant women are not in the least (p.20) practicing “the Zen of doing nothing.” Instead they are using the space as a platform for talking about matters of common interest, particularly their kids, and for giving and receiving support. It thus becomes an arena where their voices, feelings, and experiences can be heard.
Powered by fluorescent lighting, the small waiting room of the OB-GYN clinic has no windows. There are twenty-two chairs lined up in horizontal row formations. Health and clinic information cover the bulletin boards along with seasonal holiday decorations.
The usual sounds are the television, running of the air-conditioner or heater, children laughing, crying, playing, and running around, nurses chatting and moving in and out of rooms, patients conversing, people sighing, laughing, supporting one another, and parents and family members talking to and reprimanding their children. (Masley 2007: 23)
The anxiety that these women may bring with them from the world outside the clinic is diminished by their shared cigarette breaks, consumption of soda, candy, and snacks, and confidences. Displays of mutual affection and the sight of children at play may help to buffer the stresses that the women encounter while waiting for appointments and interacting with doctors, nurses, and administrative assistants. In her fieldwork Kate E. Masley observed that the waiting room space represents an informal social institution where low-income women of different ethnicities possess some authority, take up space, and feel relatively secure.
Studying a waiting room brings to light both cultural rules and potential conflicts about appropriate behavior. A seemingly insignificant activity is directly connected to the existentially urgent questions about how time ought to be spent, which laws of behavior should be upheld, and who should decide these matters. Waiting does strange things with time—but also with social order and power relations.
Time—sticky, Wasted Or Dead?
- I wonder how many days of one's life are made up of dead
- time, only spent waiting for it to pass. Right now I have zero
- desire to do anything. I am really just looking at my watch,
- waiting for it to be time to cook. Eating is always a good way
- of killing time. Sure, I have a lot to do; pack my suitcase, finish
- a paper, empty the memory card, and buy hair conditioner.
- But all those things are so boring that I prefer to sit here and
- just wait.6
When people like this young person talk about their experiences of waiting, they generally complain about three things. First, that it is boring to wait. Second, when forced to wait, people experience time passing much more slowly than normally, and, third, they feel that they have wasted—“killed”—the time. The perceived difference between slow and fast passage of time is (p.21) a relative matter, of course.7 Looking forward to something delightful is certainly a different time experience than worrying about something such as a doctor's verdict of one's health.8
The quality of waiting time constantly shifts. Life stops for the second before the energy-saving bulb lights up and for the minutes spent waiting in the line at the ATM, and it drags during the long teenage years before one attains adult status. To say nothing of the eighteen long years our Chinese couple waited. Almost every moment they must have been thinking of what they were longing for—and at the same time they were busy getting through their everyday chores.
Waiting can thus be an anticipatory mode of being, during which the very act of waiting draws attention to the passing of time. Without inherent content of its own, the time spent waiting passes more slowly because one is so preoccupied with the clock. It is not uncommon that a two-minute wait can feel either like the blink of an eye or like “forever.” At one Web design firm many of the young employees let their computers stay on overnight because they didn't want to wait the thirty seconds for the machines to boot up in the morning (Willim 2002: 102ff). Similarly, the moments waiting at a traffic light can be disproportionately stressful. This can be exemplified with a detailed description of the experience one of us had during a long wait at a car repair shop.
How long will the regular maintenance service take, I ask, leaving the car key at the desk. We ought to be done before lunch, is the answer. It is now 7:10 A.M. During the wait I take a walk downtown, have a cup of coffee, read a book, and do some errands. I don't spend much time thinking about the car. Around twelve o'clock I return to the repair shop. The car isn't ready, so I have no option but to sit down in the reception area, where there is a coffee machine and local newspapers. Other people are also there waiting.
Now I become more conscious of the fact that I am waiting for my car. Earlier I had camouflaged it with other tasks. But once I had completed my (p.22) errands I found myself in a vacuum. Now waiting itself is the focus of my attention, and I feel boredom, irritation, hope, and finally anxiety about what the service will cost. I have no control over what is happening. I am at the mercy of others. I begin to wander about restlessly.
For a while I study life at the desk, observing the behavior of the mechanics and the customers in this male environment with its established routines. Then I wander to the shop around the corner and look at the car accessories, but with no special interest for the moment in polishing wax or engine heaters. Now and then I glance at the serviceman with whom I had left the key, but he is busy with other customers. I decide to restrain my irritation.
I suddenly find myself daydreaming about buying a new car, maybe one of the shiny Audi Quattro in the showroom—much too expensive, of course, but if I buy a lottery ticket and win a million dollars …
I wait for another three quarters of an hour, and then the car is finally ready. I have to take a queuing number to close the transaction. The man behind the reception desk mutters something about the slow computer connection. Then he goes to the printer and stares at it until the receipt prints, as if by doing so he could hurry it along. My choosing to pay with a credit card leads to another delay while the machine contacts the bank. The serviceman taps his fingers on the desk and looks at me meaningfully. I respond with a smile but refrain from yawning, tramping, or twiddling my thumbs.
By the time I have the car key back in my hand I had spent six hours waiting. If I had not jotted down these notes, I would probably have forgotten the boring wait.
The first five hours were by conscious intent spent as if they were not really devoted to waiting but rather as an ordinary morning spent doing things, where it's not necessary constantly to look at one's watch. Pretending not to be engaged in waiting differs only superficially from sitting down in resignation, counting the minutes, and being bored. With make-believe one is trying to ignore what is actually going on. On that particular morning make-believe worked rather well, and time passed smoothly until twelve o'clock. After that, however, the waiting should have been over and the car (p.23) ready to pick up, and then time took on a new quality. It became sticky, or gluey, caught in the friction between my hope and my impatience. At that point the seconds and minutes bent into a form in which I had to experience them slowly, one by one, each demanding my full attention.
After twelve o'clock it had become impossible to pretend not to be waiting. It then became impossible to concentrate on reading a newspaper or thinking of something else. Body and mind became dominated by the irritated longing for an end to the drawn-out event. The restless walks around the repair shop, the impatient glances toward the servicemen were those of a prisoner of waiting. For such prisoners the world outside loses its significance; they become confined in a bubble of almost motionless time. At that point daydreaming is the only release, allowing time for a while to lose the sticky quality.
Handling a Wait
What would David H. Maister (1985) have said about the repair shop experience? He is one of many business consultants who have tried to develop techniques for facilitating waiting in the service sector. His six principles dealing with this problem can be applied more generally.
The first principle is that people want to get going. At a restaurant, for example, the time spent waiting for the menu can seem longer than that spent being served, even if by objective measurement the latter takes ten or twenty minutes longer. As Maister has noted, pre-process waits are perceived to last longer than in-process waits, the former often accompanied by the fear of having been forgotten.
The second principle is that uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits. The most profound source of anxiety in waiting is how long the wait will be. A patient who is told that the doctor will be delayed thirty minutes experiences an initial annoyance but then probably relaxes into an acceptance of the inevitability of the wait. However, if the patient is told that the doctor will be free soon, but not exactly when that will be, she spends the whole time in a state of nervous anticipation, unable to settle down, afraid (p.24) to leave even briefly, just as in the repair shop. A wait for a predetermined time is finite; beyond that point there is no known limit.
Third, unexplained waits are longer than explained waits. At the repair shop there were no reasons given as to why the car was not ready, and that made the wait much harder to endure. Most people are prepared to be a great deal more patient when they understand the causes for delay. Airline pilots are used to applying this principle; onboard announcements of postponements are replete with explanations about tardy baggage handlers, fog, safety checks, and air-traffic controllers' instructions.
Fourth, unfair waits are longer than reasonable waits. When a receptionist in an office answers the telephone while you are waiting to be served, the distant customer is being given higher priority than you. As Maister has pointed out, this does not feel OK. Why should you, who have made the effort to come to the service facility, wait while the caller, who has merely picked up a telephone, doesn't have to? Cultural notions of fairness here come into play, an issue to which we will return later.
Fifth, the more valuable the service, the more patience the customer will show. Waiting for something of little value can be intolerable, whereas people such as Lin Kong and Manna Wu are ready to spend a large part of life in patient endurance. Maister illustrates this principle with a description of how eagerly airline passengers jump out of their seats the instant the airplane reaches the gate, despite knowing that it will take time for all the passengers ahead to disembark, and that they may well have to wait after that for their baggage. The same passenger who sat patiently for many hours during the flight suddenly exhibits intolerance for an extra minute or two spent disembarking, maybe even fury when his baggage is delayed yet another few minutes. Such passengers are motivated by the thought that the flight is over and that there is no more value in remaining seated.
Lastly, Maister claims, solo waits feel longer than group waits.9 In air terminals or train stations one often sees individuals sitting or standing next to each other in silence—until an announcement of a delay is made. Then they suddenly turn to each other to share their irritation and discuss what is (p.25) happening—a temporary community is created. A similar phenomenon occurs in queues for concert tickets or at popular bars and fashionable restaurants, where the waiting then becomes a part of the experience. The exceptions to this rule, as we saw in the car repair shop, happen when a customer feels that the other customers are competitors for service rather than fellows in waiting.
What happens when these principles are applied in a very different field, for example that of international refugees waiting for asylum or the return home? In Sweden in the early 2000s about thirty thousand refugees arrived annually from many different countries, mostly Asia and Africa. Roughly 50 percent of the asylum seekers were expelled. It could take several years, however, for the asylum seeker to get either a residence permit or the order to leave. This policy forces the refugees to live with uncertainty, as the sociologist Jan-Paul Brekke (2004) has pointed out. The only stable thing in their everyday life is waiting for a decision.
This kind of waiting is above all a matter of coping with sticky time. Daily rhythm is dominated by thoughts about the mail carrier who will eventually deliver the longed-for letter. The day is divided into two parts, expectation before the mail carrier arrives and disappointment after, when no letter has appeared. According to Maister's fifth principle—the more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait—the refugees must show considerable patience.
During the wait the refugees are in a transition stage of liminality, neither here nor there, neither inside nor outside the country they are hoping to live in. The ethnologist Rebecka Lennartsson (2007) has interviewed asylum seekers who had spent many years of their life in such liminality. They talk about the waiting as an “empty time,” a period of boredom dominated by anxiety, nervousness, and confusion. In this emotionally vulnerable and powerless state it is impossible for them to forget that they are waiting.
Maister's second principle, that uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits, is illustrated by the statement made by a young man from Afghanistan, as quoted by Brekke (2004: 29):
Many refugees feel set apart from ordinary life. Day-to-day existence is ruled by waiting. Their enforced passivity stands in sharp contrast to their active journey or dramatic flight from the home country. One man said that he used to spend much time in front of the mirror in his room, just looking at himself. He found waiting and doing nothing mentally exhausting.
(p.26) We have no life apart from thinking about this residence permit. Whoever you ask, you get nowhere. They just tell you to wait. But for one more day? One more month? One more year? How much longer must I wait to know what my destiny is?
A woman from Ukraine put it like this: “You just wait for something, something that is empty, which does not exist.” She felt that she was in limbo, in a directionless time. A man from Syria said he could not start his future. He had left his past behind, his future was blocked by the pending decision, and his present was in between the life he had lived and the one he hoped to live in Sweden. “You are nobody while waiting,” a man from Sudan told Lennartsson.
But generalizations can be misleading. “You wait in different ways,” one of the refugees explained, meaning that this experience is perceived differently depending on whether one has recently arrived or been an asylum seeker for a long time. The experience of waiting is also affected by comparisons with other refugees. As David H. Maister argues, if others receive an answer before you do, despite having arrived later, your waiting will seem even longer and more unfair.
Waste of Time
Maister's six principles do not necessarily illustrate a panhuman attitude toward waiting; more probably they summarize a modern Western version of coping with time as a limited good that people do not want to waste. For some people, having to wait feels like being paralyzed or stuck, as this woman in our student survey told us:
Another woman talks in an interview about waiting for her husband to call. She wanders about and is unable to concentrate on anything. Why doesn't he call? Has something happened? After he calls she stops worrying, but now she begins to wait for him to come home. She is mystified by her subordination to this impatient, nervous, and unproductive waiting, which she defines as a “waste of time,” a slow time that she ought to “kill” by using it in a better way. Her disposition to spend whole days in a state of limbo makes her angry with herself.
The worst is when you are not able to influence what is going to happen. You feel completely powerless. For example, when you call the (p.27) social security office and they tell you that you have position 43 in the waiting line. In order not to suffer from stress I always have a book or a magazine at hand. Then, waiting is not felt as meaningless, I have in any case done something. If I don't activate myself during the time that is only passing I lose my temper. I can't stand to just “be,” all the time I must do something, otherwise time is wasted.
Waiting can help us to understand the various ways in which time is constructed. We have seen how it can be reified into a sticky, gluey mass, time slowed down almost to a standstill. To Lin Kong, when his wife at last agreed to a divorce, the two minutes while the judge considered his decision—whether to grant the divorce application or not—felt immense and were, paradoxically, harder to endure than the year he would have had to wait until he could apply again. Many people have much to say about the different qualities of time spent waiting and about their feelings and moods while waiting.
The question arises: what produces all the anxiety and emotional energy that people invest in waiting and the changing experiences of time? A large body of scholarship now exists on the creation of new and more disciplined conceptions of time in Western modernity and on how these conceptions are linked to ideas of investment and waste. Waste, it is suggested, becomes a major source of anxiety when “productive time” is honored at the expense of “idle time.”
In situations where imperative norms of punctuality have developed, the consequent avoidance of delay accelerates the tempo of everyday life. Being inactive, taking a break, and resting are not considered meaningful activities (p.28) in their own right. “Doing nothing” is seen as a waste of a person's skill and potential, the prevention of possible accomplishment. For those who regard waiting as “corporeal stillness” (Bissell 2007: 284), it is culturally, economically, and politically better to be mobile than immobile.
The accelerated pace of everyday life in the Western world is often said to have influenced the way people feel about waiting. A whole industry has been built up around diminishing delays. Eviator Zerubavel (1981: 58) and James Gleick (1999), among others, have explored well-known modern techniques to get things done faster and save time. They view these techniques as expressions of a deeply negative attitude toward waiting and manifestations of an impatient speeding-up of life.10 This “phobia of time waste” and the preoccupation with efficient scheduling make pauses of all kinds a dilemma. Interruptions have become an unavoidable part of life in Western societies, constituting both threat and promise (Hillman and Phillips 2007: 8). Without the stoppages and breaks in activity, there is often no cadence to life, the sociologists Dennis Brissett and Robert P. Snow (1993: 247) claim in a critical discussion of the exaggerated demands on punctuality in contemporary American life.
The compulsion to conduct daily life efficiently is often described as being typical of the so-called Protestant ethic, which includes a belief in the immanent value of being busy.11 If work is considered to be the greatest virtue, waste of time becomes the deadliest of sins. This ethic is supposed to have had its greatest impact in the Northern hemisphere, and linked to it is often a belief in the lack of punctuality and efficiency among “Southern peoples.” Of course, this is a simplification, but it reminds us of the cultural aspects of time management. Everyone has to learn to wait, but depending on what part of the world you were born in, the ways and reasons for waiting may differ widely.12
Learning Patience and Impatience
A Latin-American man whom we interviewed about the years he spent as an immigrant in Sweden told us that he was struck by the obsession with (p.29) punctuality in both private and public life, but when he returned to Chile he was immensely irritated by the lack of timekeeping in his old homeland. He had effectively been socialized into a Northern pattern. But how did this happen?
What complicates the issue is that Western modernity developed not only new forms of impatience but also certain ways of virtuous patience. Some kinds of waiting are regarded as productive, others are not.
Talent for Waiting
One way to endure waiting is to develop Zen-like meditation, a talent that is said to have been largely lost in modern society. There are nostalgic sighs about “golden times,” when people still knew how to wait patiently and the pace of life was slow. These feelings surfaced in the postmodern movement of “slow living” that was popular in the early 2000s.
The Western wonder about ways of waiting turns above all to foreign cultures. “These people have a fantastic talent for waiting!” an Englishman who has lived in Ghana for many years told the Polish reporter and author Ryszard Kapuśiński. With that he meant that people in Ghana had “talent, stamina, and some peculiar kind of instinct” to endure long waiting periods.
In one of his essays Kapuśiński (2001: 17ff.) tried to capture this “fantastic talent for waiting.” Somewhere in the countryside of Ghana he observed people at a bus stop. He writes that he saw them fall into the state in which they spend a great portion of their life, “a benumbed waiting.”
This description may reveal more about a Western attitude to waiting than about that of the Africans. Kapuśiński, who portrays the behavior of these waiting people, probably mostly men, as something exotic, does not seem to recognize his own cultural projections. Or would he, one wonders, have described a group of waiting Europeans as “crowds of people in … state of inanimate waiting,” absentminded, and “with no spark of life” in their appearance?
What does this dull waiting consist of? People know what to expect; therefore, they try to settle themselves in as comfortably as possible, in the best possible place. Sometimes they lie down, sometimes they sit on the ground, or on a stone, or squat. They stop talking. A waiting group is mute. It emits no sound. The body goes limp, droops, shrinks. The muscles relax. The neck stiffens, the head ceases to move. The person does not look around, does not observe anything, is not curious. Sometimes his eyes are closed—but not always. More frequently, they are open but appear unseeing, with no spark of life in them. I have (p.30) observed for hours on end crowds of people in this state of inanimate waiting, a kind of profound physiological sleep: They do not eat, they do not drink, they do not urinate; they react neither to the mercilessly scorching sun, nor to the aggressive, voracious flies that cover their eyelids and lips.
What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?
I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making plans? Meditating? Traveling in the world beyond? It is difficult to say.
Ambivalence can be noted in other observations of apathy and resignation in non-Western cultures. The descriptions show both a lack of understanding for the context and a nostalgia for “the lost art” of waiting. Ethnocentrism can slip in easily when Westerners discuss the behavior in cultures where people do not seem to be in a hurry and clearly have different perceptions of time, and where the words “now” and “soon” have meanings that Westerners may not be familiar with. This attitude is sometimes labeled as a “mañana mentality.”
The anthropologist Arne Johansen (2001: 74ff.) is among those who have shown that people in other parts of the world wait in ways that are astonishing to Westerners, but he states that apparently passive waiting is not necessarily a sign of resignation. Instead, he claims, people are often patient or indolent because they assume that an event begins “when everything is ready” or “when it is called for.” Things simply “take their time,” and nobody becomes anxious while waiting until the time is right.
People in those cultural settings, therefore, perceived time spent waiting not as dead time but rather as no time at all. A slow working rhythm does not necessarily signify inefficiency. According to this point of view, time (p.31) accommodates to the working rhythm—and not the other way around. When one is not doing something one is not producing an event, consequently there is no indication of the course of time. Then time stands still. It cannot be wasted.
The Art of Self-discipline
In most cultures learning patience is a central problem of childhood socialization. The process involves a subordination of personal needs to an impersonal allocation principle and, to be learned well, must be encouraged early in life. Impatient children can, for example, be taught to “take turns” in organized games. The young, as Barry Schwarz (1975: 94) has observed, do not wait of their own accord.
Learning to wait assumes different forms in different eras and cultural contexts. Children are taught how to postpone important matters for future action and not give in to sudden desires. In societies where self-discipline is an important virtue, giving in to the desire for immediate gratification is seen as evil. Here we enter a morally charged terrain.
Victorian middle-class childhoods illustrate one strategy of socialization that still shapes much of Western life. The sociologist Walter Benjamin (1991), recalling his Berlin childhood in the early twentieth century, wrote that people often described him as a patient man. He regarded this not as a virtue but as no more than a tendency to see important things approaching from far away. For this reason he felt cheated of what he thought of as the greatest pleasure of traveling when he was not allowed to wait for the train. Similarly, he loved giving presents because what came as a surprise to the receiver he as the giver had already known long before. And because he enjoyed waiting, a woman became more beautiful the longer he had to wait for her.
During his life in exile from Nazi Germany Benjamin learned to wait—for publication, money, recognition, and the love of his life. Waiting is the lining of boredom, he writes in his texts from The Arcades Project (1999), where that theme surfaces in many contexts.
(p.32) The emerging middle classes in nineteenth-century Europe wished, with such virtues as patience, impulse control, and long-term planning, to distinguish themselves from both the decadent old aristocracy and a working class that was seen as “living only in the moment.” Learning to control and economize everything from money to emotions was materialized in waiting— waiting for one's turn, for a reward, for the right moment, for something fun. The training grounds differed and could sometimes be found in surprising settings. In middle-class Swedish childhoods of the early twentieth century one striking arena turns out to be “learning to wait for Christmas,” a feature of childhood that in many ways became more and more elaborated during that century (see Löfgren 1993).
Waiting for Christmas involves many of the classic rules of organized patience. The rituals of countdown included the Christmas calendar, where a new window can be opened every morning, a new candle lit every Advent Sunday before Christmas, and a wish list be prepared in which desires are to be disciplined and prioritized. In middle-class childhood memories these rituals stand out clearly. Sneak previews of Christmas food, presents, or activities were banned. Christmas trees could not be lit until Christmas Eve. Given this kind of moral economy, other and less normative ways of celebrating were seen to be slovenly and undisciplined. Tensions between class, gender, and generation surface in the material. As a result, working-class families were accused of skipping the proper rules of waiting, boys were excused for breaking the same rules, being “less patient than girls,” and older generations complained of the waning of old rituals of waiting for Christmas.
When the institution of Saturday candy was introduced, children had to wait for their weekly treat of a candy bag. In these cultures instant gratification ranked lower than the individual's self-imposed control of desire and postponement of satisfaction.13 Children in these cultures were taught that Later is better than Now, and those who cannot handle such a system have to shape up.
Such judgments still surface in the recurring discussions of class-based patterns of consumption, as for example in criticisms of parents (p.33) who have not taught their children restraint and moderation. The critique of younger generations returns again and again: “Children or teenagers of today do not learn self-control but demand instant gratification.” Among American sociologists the study of “deferred gratification” became a theme in the 1950s. How has this virtue of learning to wait—the self-imposed postponement of satisfaction—been linked to middle-class values and what role has it played in upward mobility (Schneider and Lysgaard 1953)?
Learning how to wait is linked to the larger cultural context in which the person waiting confronts different values and lifestyles. Further, the knowhow of waiting changes over the life cycle of an individual and from one group to another.
Just Hanging Out
“Everyone Experiences Boredom, But It May Be Worst for Teens” was the headline of a 1992 article in the Washington Post that discussed the restlessness of contemporary girls and boys. The reporter stated: “Teenage boredom doesn't always have a name; it can be the heavy sighing, the rolling of the eyes, and the tapping of the foot.” (Quoted in Spacks 1995: 262.) Categorizing the adolescent years as The Time of Boredom runs through the history of modern teenage life from World War II to the present. Youngsters learned to turn boredom into an art form, a visible, ritualized form of waiting for something—action, adventure, most of all adulthood—to happen. In their performances we can see how waiting is linked to the life cycle. The impatience of the five-year-old is different from that of the fifteen-year-old or of a person in her sixties.
Novels, mass media, and memories sometimes cast the hectic teenage years as indolent waiting. An example of this genre is a newspaper feature portraying a typical Friday night outside a fast food place. “Everybody is waiting for something” the reporter states, but as he continues to describe what is going on, the reader begins to understand that the scene is full of activity—teenagers drinking, eating hamburgers, joking, walking around, (p.34) talking on their cell phones, planning for the future, hugging and kissing. Not much passivity here.14
And yet it is the waiting mode that is seen to be dominant, whether during lessons at school, at the drive-in, or at home. This mode, as described in a Swedish memoir of youth in the 1980s, is very much an aesthetic style:
This excerpt describes the social construct where composure is meant to communicate to others that the here and now is hopeless and boring. Fifteen-year-olds a century earlier probably did not possess this skill.
We were “hanging out.” No more time for play. At school passivity was made an art form. Every school break became a demonstration of our skill at performing “doing nothing,” just waiting for the real life to start. (Hammar and Wiking 2003: 82)
It is interesting to contrast such memories with the diaries of several elderly people who describe daily life in a retirement home, where waiting has again become a fundamental part of the life cycle. The question how much of one's life is left is punctuated by the small diversions of the everyday. How long until the six o'clock news, lunch, or coffee? Has the mail arrived yet, maybe the grandchildren will call later today? To make the time pass, the day must be cut up into smaller waits. A special rhythm is created.15
Teenagers and older people of both sexes handle sticky time in different ways. For young persons, what they see as a fight against excruciatingly slow time flow is of course also a fight against the adult world that denies them the fulfillment of all sorts of desires. Endurance—among the ninth-graders at the playground or the eighty-year-olds in the retirement home—is one of the most important resources in the pursuit of “doing nothing.”
In the modern world one of the basic ideas is that both individuals and societies are on the path to a better future. The linear conception of time is part of this, as is the disciplining of time and space. The need for effective timekeeping called for technologies that made waiting manifest.
(p.35) “The more life is regulated by administration, the more people will have to learn to wait,” Walter Benjamin (1999) wrote, and in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century landscapes of production, consumption, and bureaucracy many of the techniques were developed that we today take for granted: waiting rooms, red lights,16 tickets, and the conventions of queuing and taking turns. But it is also in such contexts that ideas of wasted or dead time, and more restless forms of waiting, take shape. The fear of empty time is a strong force in “the experience-orientated economy of our time,” Arne Johansen (2001: 74) has argued. Something must be happening all the time—preferably faster. Enforced inactivity is made to feel like a torment, and all waiting becomes insufferable.
This is a rather sweeping argument. Does it apply to all people and all situations? And here we risk joining the commonly debated question “Where is our society heading?” It may be more fruitful to look at how acceleration is handled in different situations.
People develop new forms of coordination to master a quickening pace. An example is the intense concentration that the pioneer generations of radio listeners and television viewers had to develop to be able to follow a program. Today, television shows and movies from the 1960s and 1970s may seem irritatingly slow and explicit in their narrative structure because viewers have acquired a capacity of understanding compressed storytelling and rapid cuts from scene to scene.
It is the culturally acquired competence in understanding pace that decides whether something is experienced as slow or fast. The growth of restlessness is linked to new attitudes to waiting and time management. This process becomes very evident in new phenomena, such as mass travel, that emerged during the nineteenth century.
The new infrastructures of mass travel—which include railway stations, bus stops, and airports—became great places for learning punctuality, patience, and impatience. What happens to time while you are waiting in (p.36) such different places? How do you handle delays, one of the most acute examples of waiting?
The sociologist Phillip Vannini (2002) addresses these questions in an essay on the experience of waiting times in two separate settings. The first experience was seven hours at a train station in Agra, India; the other was four hours at Hong Kong's international airport. “Like many, I have always hated to wait,” Vannini exclaims, but stuck in these two places he begins to reflect on what waiting is doing to his experience of time. He is also paying attention to his surroundings.
The ticket counter hall in Agra was full of people who were there not to travel anywhere but to gaze at travelers or offer them services. There was nothing fleeting or temporary about these people, and Vannini describes his feeling as one of an intense presence.
In Hong Kong, Vannini's experience was different. He felt as if he were in a non-place. The airport looked familiar. Everybody was in transit. Here he found himself beyond traditional space, lounging in an artificial environment that protected him from the natural phenomenon of space itself. His body was desensitized from the natural experiences of process, activity, or movement.
All this feels present, immediate, and real—here and now…. Minutes and hours seem to make less sense in this room. The flow of time has become alive here. Its passage is continuous. Every moment flows in bringing something new.17
Here Vannini questions the traditional view of waiting as a static and empty experience where nothing is happening and time passes slowly. Instead he considers it as containing possibility for change and becoming. Waiting does not need to be passive and subordinating but can instead be goal-oriented and meaningful. For those who see life as taking place in “mean times,” as (p.37) being made of in-between moments that offer the opportunity of becoming, waiting can be a dynamic activity and not a static waste of time.18
I have this strange feeling of being home here. My rootless-ness here, my metaphysical invisibility, my feeling of being considered nothing but a customer…. I am bored, sensorially underexposed, captured by predictability; something I am used to.
Vannini's comparison of the Indian railway station and the Hong Kong Airport reminds us that these experiencescapes for waiting have a specific ecology and history.
Indeed it is through my waiting in India that I was able to meet strangers, explore unknown places, understand the continuity of time and myself, and ultimately use my experiences to change as a person. It is also through my waiting in Hong Kong that I was able to reflect on the redefinition of space and on the restructuring of relative time afforded by technology.
How to Behave Like a Legitimate Traveler
How and where did people learn to be on time, form a queue, organize a farewell, pass time while waiting, or handle a sea of strangers? The new virtues of punctuality, for example, were taught in many ways. Railways standardized various local times that used to be common in many countries into one set national time. In railway stations, time was everywhere, from the huge monumental clocks to the innovation of the timetable—another product of the railways. Railway times, unlike coach connections, which often gave time in even hours only, were exact to the minute.
The first timetable was produced in England in 1838 and set the standards for future time-tabling in all kinds of spheres and activities of modern life. This emblem of modernity also became a test of citizenship in the modern nation. The pioneer generations of travelers had to learn to read a table properly and to decipher the many columns, footnotes, and bits of fine print. It also came as a surprise that trains held to the new punctuality. In the beginning latecomers sometimes complained that the train ought to have waited for them.
Disciplined time gave new meanings to waiting. As travel incorporated an exact amount of time between two locations, people started to look more often at their watches. The monotony of standardized travel, with (p.38) its clicking rail joints, led to restlessness and produced a new kind of boredom.
At the station one found all kinds of people waiting side by side, but all waiting for different things. Youngsters were “hanging out” to watch the action, homeless people were waiting for the day to pass, and prostitutes were waiting for clients. This mixture created a strong consciousness of how to behave like a legitimate traveler. Movements might give you away. Were you there as a traveler, your mind set focused on the rhythms of arrival and departure, or were you just trying to kill time?
The history of railway travel shows how this special mood of waiting is produced, controlled, or transformed over time. The stressful may become restful, excitement turn into routine. The materiality of the emotional landscape of the railway station is also different from that of the airport.19
The choreographer Akram Khan's 2008 ballet Bahok follows eight men and women who are stranded in a sterile airport terminal, confined in a small transit space where the only connection with the outside world is a large monitor sending out messages such as Delayed, Please Wait, Rescheduled, Cancelled. The dancers convey the experience of being stuck in the middle of nowhere, with nothing to do but pass the time. In the meantime they try to communicate with the strangers next to them. On the stage the dancers give bodily expression to the mixed feelings of boredom, frustration, and curiosity. They intensify all the familiar behaviors that skilled travelers hardly notice until they come to dominate the scene totally.
Today airports may seem like a strange mixture of hedonist shopping malls and well-guarded fortresses. This mixture took shape in the 1970s, when airports became waiting spaces with a very special ecology. The attempts to turn them into shopping malls and entertainment centers coincided with growing fears, first of hijacking and later of terrorist attacks, which restructured them into a heavily policed zone nerveuse. “Never leave your baggage unattended!” The architectural historian Anthony Vidler (2001) talks of another polarity, comparing airports with a synthesis of hotel lobby and unemployment office. Luxury shopping and cocktail bars are combined (p.39) with a “demoralized waiting” orchestrated by the many microtechnologies for producing feelings of uncertainty.
One moment one is waiting at the security check to have such mundane objects as nail clippers and bottles of mineral water confiscated and be stripped of belts and shoes, the next minute one is in a seductive temple of perfume and special offers. A party-going atmosphere merges with a feeling of being herded like cattle, through one-way labyrinths and enclosed spaces.
Both the airport and the railway station have been important training grounds for styles of waiting to get somewhere else—and to do it in the correct way. In nineteenth-century cities questions of legitimate waiting behavior were frequently discussed. The meditative behavior of a fashionable flaneur in front of a shopping window signaled a different mode than that of an unemployed person hanging at the street corner. A woman who waited on the sidewalk could risk being taken for a prostitute. Who had the right to be at certain spaces at certain times, and how did one know?
A study of late nineteenth-century prostitution in Stockholm notes that the city code forbade prostitutes to wait for their clients at street corners or under street lights (Lennartsson 2001). They had to remain in constant motion. As a result women who were not prostitutes had to monitor their behavior in the cityscape. How should they act so as not to be accosted by men or make the police suspicious? People became very observant of styles of waiting.
The same kind of self-monitoring is observable at a railway station. What do you do with yourself when you are just standing there, waiting? Some people become self-conscious, feeling awkward and under observation.
Today there are technologies of monitoring that may enhance the self-conscious scrutiny of performance. Station signs tell travelers to report “anything suspicious,” and surveillance cameras scan the crowds, some of them programmed to identify “any deviant behavior,” that is, breaking what is accepted as normal waiting manners. How does one avoid becoming a suspect? What does behaving normal mean? One of the most common situations confronting people with such questions is when standing in line, waiting more or less patiently for one's turn.
“When a lot of people start to gather a so called ‘queue’ should be formed,” a Swedish railway handbook from the mid-nineteenth century states. In the crowded railway stations new customs for waiting, claiming space, and keeping one's distance emerged. The newfangled French term queue was imported into English and Swedish.
Queuing, or waiting in line to be served according to order of arrival, is one of the most obvious cases of waiting all over the world.20 Since queues always have the potential of leading to conflict, given the imbalance between demand and supply, rules governing them mirror basic cultural assumptions regarding time and order. For how long are people prepared to wait and under what circumstances?
Queues also constitute situations that can attract attention. They are a favorite topic of storytelling and lead to opinions and discussions almost everywhere.21 Why? Probably because queuing is about saving or losing precious time. Moreover, they require people to cope with the emotions that standing in line evokes, among them boredom when the queue is very slow, and injustice when order is threatened. Enjoyment of queuing seems to be rare.
There are different ways of amusing oneself and turning dull waiting into something else.22 Consider the fantasy in Woody Allen's 1979 film Annie Hall. His and Diane Keaton's characters, Alvy and Annie, are standing in the line at a cinema to watch a documentary about Nazi terror. The queue seems to be immobile, and behind them a man is loudly declaiming pretentious opinions to his girlfriend about the media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Alvy, annoyed, steps out of the screen and brings McLuhan in, who promptly tells the pompous man “you know nothing of my work.” Alvy then turns to the audience and asks: “Don't you wish life were like that?”
Etiquette and Aesthetic Charm
Is there some kind of queue here, a girl asked with a confused smile when she and a friend arrived at the counter of a Swedish McDonald's restaurant. (p.41) She had reason to ask, as a number of people were standing there, waiting to be served, but not in an apparent line. For Swedish circumstances this was an unusual demonstration of non-order, and there was uncertainty as to whose turn it was. With her loud question the girl helped to organize everybody into a little line. That was how it ought to be!23
How are orderly queues sociologically possible, Barry Schwartz (1975: 107) asked in his analysis of norms and behaviors in crowded waiting areas. One of his conclusions was that the well-disciplined line, irrespective of its practical value, possesses an aesthetic charm that may suffice to justify its existence. But queue aesthetics of course show cultural variations. The beauty of people standing in line might not be the observer's first thought when considering queues, but it was on our mind when we started to observe waiting behavior in different contexts.
On one Sunday morning in April tourists waiting to buy entrance tickets outside the Tower of London had formed three long, completely straight queues. Very, very slowly people moved forward, two or three persons abreast. It was an impressive still-life procession.
We focused on two parents with small children at the moment when they joined the end of the line, fifty meters from the ticket office. One hour later it was their turn. During the entire time the family members had obviously been in a good mood. They and the people around them, well-trained queuers, had endured the long wait and slow ticket operation patiently. Without irritation, complaints, head-shaking, or eyes rolled to heaven. Nobody stepped forward to speed up the intricate ticket transactions ahead. Rather, people looked about them cheerfully, chatted, and balanced on their feet as if they felt they were in the right place, exactly where they had expected to be, before being let into the Tower. The children played quietly a short distance from their parents. The father in the observed family went away to buy a soft drink, and when he returned to his group, they had hardly moved at all.
This queue was “aesthetically charming” because it communicated the cultural competence of tourists from all over the world to form a perfect line. They were skillfully practicing, in silent agreement, the basic principle (p.42) of “first come, first served.” This principle constitutes (in many contemporary Western societies, at least) the normative foundation for most forms of queuing.
Another tourist queue we observed, to the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican in Rome one weekend in October, was much longer than the one in London, and this one moved a little more irregularly. Already in the morning it stretched for more than five hundred meters along the wall by Via Porcari, filling up the pavement with four, five, or six people standing together, though not necessarily in company.
This queue looked messier than its English counterpart. In some sections people stood very close to one another, in others there were large gaps. People faced in every direction, and they moved freely—sitting down on the pavement, standing with arms folded, leaning against the wall, reading maps or guidebooks, selecting supplies from their bags or knapsacks, and composing small groups of chatterers. It seemed as if the wall on one side and the busy street on the other were all that kept these tourists in order and channeled them into a line. This queue was not as disciplined and “aesthetically charming” as the one in London had been.
Every queue, wherever it is occurring, is a special social occasion with its own characteristics regarding waiting time and social order. Some rules, however, seem to be more widely accepted than others.
A Normative Territory
- As a general rule, whenever services are involved, we feel that
- people should queue up in order of arrival. This reflects the
- basic equalitarianism of our culture…. The rich and poor
- alike are accorded equal opportunity to buy and be waited
- upon in the order of arrival.
This basic rule was formulated by the anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1959: 157). Whether people are camping out overnight for tickets to a rock concert or waiting to get their car washed, they should be treated in the same way as all others. No one shall have the right to cut in; being beautiful, wealthy, or well-connected should mean nothing once you are standing in line.
(p.43) Images of the bad old times often include situations where power and privileges gave certain people the right to jump a queue. An old farmhand remembered waiting at the local store, where it was taken for granted that the storekeeper would attend to people according to rank rather than moment of arrival.
Hall's view generalizes several modern Western ideals, but although ideas of fairness often are strongly linked to queue cultures, reality is more complicated than would be indicated by notions of “basic equalitarianism.” Queuing is a normative territory, full of unwritten rules and regulations that an outsider may have difficulty understanding. A contributor to an American blog writes how he has been observing the etiquette of keeping one's distance from the person in front:
The fact that queues mainly consist of face-to-back relations led Barry Schwartz (1975: 180ff) to reflect on the symbolic properties of the back. To be compelled to bear witness to the back portion of another's body, he writes, has long been a source of subordination and debasement in Western society. The practice of “turning one's back on another” is generally considered to be a form of ritual rejection. Lining up in close proximity to other persons is therefore a symbolic contamination. When Schwartz starts to talk of his own experience of staring at backs that “are likely to be rumpled, stained, or sweaty,” a note of personal irritation over what he sees as a lack of aesthetics creeps into his text.
Stand too close, and, as one unlucky girl found, you get a faceful of hair as your neighbor executes an essential, head-flailing grooming maneuver. Leave too much of a gap, and you'll incur the wrath of those behind you, despite the fact that the gap has no bearing on their place in the queue whatsoever. “Excuse me,” hissed one girl, as she saw a gap a little way ahead widen alarmingly; the offender immediately snapped out of her daydream and moved forward a few paces. No reply was necessary; she knew that she just had to keep her wits about her, and not make the same mistake again.24
Maybe it is “the norm of inattention” that makes back watching a minor problem for most queuers. This protective rule causes some people (p.44) purposely to avoid contact with one another and maintain a respectful distance. Members of a queue may appear totally unmindful of one another—which, of course, they seldom are. This skill of inattention was developed as city people learned to handle anonymous crowds. It is, moreover, an extremely attentive inattention, since one has constantly to check the behavior of other queuers. What happens to inattention when one of the basic rules is suddenly broken?
“I learned to cut to the front of lines with an extraterritorial smile,” says the Pakistani narrator in Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007: 65). He mentions this competence as one of the essential methods he used in his endeavor to become, or at least behave as, a real American. He had observed how some people conducted themselves in New York City queues and drawn the conclusion that they had incorporated certain techniques of queue jumping.
This is, however, a major breach of etiquette. More than one hundred years ago Charles H. Cooley (1902: 281) made a sharp observation about “edging the line”:
Eighty years after Cooley made his statement the social psychologist Stanley Milgram (1986) and his colleagues conducted a scientific experiment to investigate what happens when someone breaks this rule. They wanted to test the idea whether people might refrain from breaking the rule not only (p.45) because they were afraid of how others would react but also because they felt it was wrong to do so.
Suppose one has to stand in line at the post office, with a crowd of other people, waiting to get his mail. There are delay and discomfort to be borne; but these he will take with composure because he sees that they are part of the necessary condition of the situation, which all must submit to alike. Suppose, however, that while patiently waiting his turn he notices someone else, who has come in later, edging into the line ahead of him. Then he certainly will be angry. The delay threatened is only a matter of a few seconds; but here is a question of justice, a case for indignation, a chance for anger to come forth.
The experiment was conducted in 129 waiting lines at different locations in New York, including Grand Central Station. One of the research associates calmly approached a line of people waiting and said in a neutral tone: “Excuse me; I'd like to get in here.” Before any responses could be made, the intruder injected him/herself into the line and faced forward. If the experimental intruder was explicitly advised to leave the line, he or she did so. Otherwise the intruder remained in the line for one minute before departing.
The associates felt badly about the task of breaching the social norm. Several of them dragged their feet as they approached the line, felt nausea, paced nervously near the target area, and regretted their involvement in the experiment.
And how did people in the line react to the queue jumping? Physical action against the intruder (laying hands on him or her, tugging at the sleeve, tapping the shoulder) was very rare. Verbal and nonverbal objections, from the polite to the hostile (dirty looks, hostile stares, gestures), occurred more often. Most objections came from those standing just behind the point of intrusion, because they were felt to have a special obligation to deal with the situation. If the queuer right behind the intruder did not protest, it was less likely that anyone else would do so.
In more than half of the lines no one objected to the intruder at all. Why? One explanation is, as Barry Schwartz (1975: 96) also pointed out, a general reluctance to enter into a public confrontation with strangers, given the risk of shame and embarrassment. Moreover, confrontation might disrupt an otherwise orderly social scene, and that would threaten the norm of the queue itself.
A special kind of queue jumping is found in VIP shortcuts, as in high-class restaurants and popular nightclubs, where the doormen let in celebrities and other VIPs before they let in others.25 A classic example is the well-known Studio 54 in Manhattan, where the owners, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, are said to have invented a new form of queue method in the 1970s to (p.46) increase the club's attractions. Instead of having people stand in orderly lines, they let the doorkeepers pick guests out of the crowd, which was kept behind a cord. These doorkeepers pointed at people they thought were sufficiently beautiful, rich, or famous to honor the club with their presence. Today this principle is found all over the world, resulting in frustrated scuffles and angry reactions.26
Nobody Wants To Be A Sucker—and Other National Stereotypes
- There was a wrestling match at the ticket window instead of a
- queue, because everyone wanted to be first; and as most people
- were carrying chickens or children or other bulky items, the
- result was a free-for-all out of which feathers and toys and
- dislodged hats kept flying. And from time to time some dizzy
- fellow with ripped clothes would burst out of the mêlée,
- triumphantly waving a little scrap of paper: his ticket. Rashid,
- taking a deep breath, dived into the scrum.
Salman Rushdie's vivid account (1990: 32) of the chaotic waiting for bus tickets in India is paralleled by many complaints from Western travelers, who are irritated by the lack of queue culture in other parts of the world. In discussions about queuing, surprisingly many grand ideas and moral stands about national mentalities surface. Why is it that some examples of conflicts about queuing are used to construct national stereotypes? Here, for example, is a strong reaction from an American visiting Poland:
Several individuals challenged this generalization, and one of them pointed out that
The only negative to the trip (besides the fact [that] it is a 9-hour flight to get there) was how incredibly rude the Poles were about lines. I have never seen such obvious disrespect for other people when it came to cutting in lines, even when it meant that the person who cut would have to stand in front of you in line for the next 15 minutes. In the United States, people will cut in lines in cars, but usually not when on foot, because of the discomfort of having people you just mistreated standing next to you. A car provides insulation from the social stigma. In Poland, no such distinction appears to be made.27
A recurrent statement in this context is that the English, especially, are famous for strictly democratic queuing behavior. According to this typecasting, they do not see a queue as an inevitable and irritating consequence of demand's outstripping supply.
(p.47) In places where people do cut lines, nobody wants to be a sucker. And in places where everybody respects the line, the social stigma is much higher. My experience suggests that people from cutting or non-cutting in lines places adjust quite fast to a new equilibrium when they travel.
Even the Swedes are said to be a queue-loving people. A refugee from Iran living in Sweden is baffled by what he sees as a Swedish love of order and people silently queuing everywhere. “In my country, Iran, it is different. There queues are more like untidy hair.”29
Instead we almost enjoy the prospect of standing in one, to the point where, if we turn a corner and see one, we might utter the phrase “oh god, look at the queue” with a mixture of recognition and surprise, coupled with a sliver of relish—even excitement.28
Where does the myth of the English as virtuoso queuers come from, Joe Moran asked. He tells us (Moran 2007: 61) that in 1837 Thomas Carlyle referred to the new habit of queuing for service. But he praised not the English, but the French, for their talent for spontaneously standing in line. In 1944, Moran continues, George Orwell pictured an imaginary foreign observer being struck by the orderly behavior of English crowds and their willingness to form queues, an idea that developed with the shortages and rationings during World War II.
Discussions about national differences in queuing manners clearly show how culturally charged this everyday activity is. Waiting is something everyone has to learn, train, and adjust to in different situations. Some people become sensitive to differences, both national and class-related, in carrying out the principle of “first come, first served.” One man for example tells that he loves “the Cuban way,” because in that country, he asserts, you do not have to stand in line at bus stops.
If queues attract generalizations about national character and values they can also easily become political symbols.31 Behind the Iron Curtain after World War II, long queues came to be metaphorically linked to the inefficiencies of command economies (Moran 2007: 64). Russian shops are, for example, said to have had an infamous three-queue system that required customers to line up first to view goods, a second time to pay for them, and finally yet a third time to obtain them. Joe Moran (2004: 220) tells the story of the queue culture in East Berlin, where waiting was a part of the fabric of daily life.
(p.48) When you arrive you just say “El ultimo?” and the last in the line raises his hand. Then, when the bus arrives—after two hours—you just go behind that person.30
It is also known that in East Germany the regime suggested that waiting was a practical lesson in Communism—describing a queue as a Wartekollektiv or a Wartegemeinschaft (a community for waiting). It was an attempt to fill queuing with a collective spirit—similar to the Chinese campaign before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, when the authorities tried to eradicate the capital's usual queue-jumping convention. On the eleventh day of every month thousands of volunteers went out on the streets to persuade people to wait obediently in line and thus present a better image to visitors. The (p.49) campaign was launched under the slogan “It's civilized to queue; it's glorious to be polite.”32
As in other Eastern Bloc countries, it was common in the GDR for people to join the ends of queues without knowing what was at the front; in a nation of shortages a line of people was likely to have something useful at the end of it. The cumbersome state machinery also meant that waiting lists for consumer goods were extraordinarily long: ordinary citizens had to wait some twelve years for a car and thirteen for a telephone. These long periods of waiting produced a different attitude to time, in which the whole pace of social life was slower than in the West. Primitive technology, such as hand-operated barriers at level crossings, increased journey times; cars with two-stroke engines went slower; speed limits were lower; traffic lights even remained on red for longer.
During the years of socialism in the countries of Eastern Europe, queuing for all kinds of goods remained an integral part of life throughout the regime. The anthropologist Kathy Burrell (2003) interviewed Polish men and women who remembered how they had learned to survive the food shortage by means of different techniques of queuing. The collected testimonies demonstrate that unpredictable conditions simply demand special, tailor-made strategies. One Polish man, who emigrated to Britain in 1987, explained how he used to stand in line each Saturday for meat, and occasionally for cheese and butter.
While doing fieldwork in the 1970s in the southeast of Poland, Billy and Siv Ehn lived with a peasant-worker family and observed another way of handling queues (Ehn 1977). The family was planning to erect a new house and worked hard to acquire building materials. There were queues or long waiting times for almost every item they needed. You could not buy everything at the same building company. But this family mostly edged the lines by using a wide network of personal contacts among dealers and officials—or by bribing them with vodka and sausages from their farm.
The queues were terrible. When my daughter was born I remember I used to go on Saturday morning to buy sausages and meat, we had coupons so people could buy, I don't know, two and a half kilos of meat per month per person. I was like queuing from six o'clock in the morning on Saturdays' til one o'clock or two o'clock to buy meat. Sometimes I queued for butter like I was going to work and I just stopped because there was a queue to buy butter.
In Burrel's study nobody mentioned such unorthodox methods. Instead, shortages necessitated being ready to purchase goods whenever and wherever they were available. People constantly looked in store windows to see what could be had and asked those standing in line what they were waiting for. One man confirmed that, “whenever something appeared in the shops people queued to buy whatever it was, even if they didn't need it.”
(p.50) Rather than focusing only on the inconvenient and divisive nature of queuing, Burrel claims that the accounts also depict the queuing culture in Poland as a complex phenomenon that enabled extended social contacts. One man she interviewed, for example, recounted that he used his time queuing as an opportunity to discuss politics. Another man recalled:
It was a huge social system, queuing societies and discussion clubs developed, and a beautiful system of reserving places in queues. You stood in one queue and said, sorry I'll be back in ten minutes, and then go to another queue and reserve a place in that one, and then you come back. So it was a huge social life around these queues as well. Of course, a lot of fighting and arguments also, but it was a complex cultural structure.
There are thus national variations regarding queue culture, many shaped by economic and political conditions or local etiquette. But it is also possible to find striking similarities in how temporary microclimates have evolved in queues, as in the following three examples from different parts of the world.
In a study of people lining up for Australian football tickets the sociologist Leon Mann (1969) analyzed the queue as an embryonic social system with a set of norms for controlling conflict.
Mann and his assistants interviewed more than two hundred people (probably mostly men) in the long queues outside the football stadium. Many of them faced disappointment because there were not enough tickets for all. As in any informal queue Mann observed that there were many signs of organizational control and orderly behavior. Of special interest were place-keeping privileges, sanctions against pushing in, and rights of temporary absence from the waiting line (Mann 1969: 353).
Brief leaves of absence were allowed in the Australian football queues. But one had to validate one's position and somebody else needed to hold the place. It was also possible to “stake a claim” by leaving some item of personal property such as a labeled box, a folding chair, a backpack, or a (p.51) sleeping bag. Rules regulating time spent in and out of the line were the essential core of the queue culture. The study confirmed that one of the fundamental aspects of queuing is about time: how to spend your waiting time, how to control it, and how to react when somebody is stealing part of it from you by edging the line.
Over the years the ticket queues developed as a kind of cherished tradition or ritual. People even enjoyed the queue as an adventure. In bad weather they might erect a shantytown of tents and caravans outside a stadium, making the scene resemble a refugee camp. Dedicated queuers turned their little patch of pavement into a home, complete with tent, sleeping bag, thermos, and reading matter. Some enthusiasts even moved out of their homes and took up formal residence in the queue. Thus outside the stadium something of a carnival atmosphere prevailed. The devotees sang, sipped warm drinks, played cards, and huddled together around the big charcoal braziers (Mann 1969: 342).
In another part of the world, Nigeria during the acute petrol shortage in the 1970s, John A. Wiseman (1979) observed a somewhat similar pattern of behavior. Vehicle owners regularly had to spend lengthy periods of time in queues to obtain petrol. In the early days of the shortage the idea of forming orderly lines was absent, and total anarchy reigned at filling stations. But within a few weeks the formation of queues became the general rule. Lines rapidly developed as the focus of everyday activities. Petty traders sold drinks, food, cloth, and newspapers. Local beggars arrived. People gathered to see friends and acquaintances. Petrol stations became centers of entertainment.
Wiseman was especially interested in how Nigeria's system of ethnicity and stratification worked in this peculiar situation. In the competition for a scarce resource, it might have been expected that manipulation of ethnic categories would have been used, as well as social status in a stratification system. But this was not so.
In fact, Wiseman observed that individual social status and ethnic particularity did not determine the queueing behavior of cars and motorbikes. Vehicle owners preferred the neutral role of queue participants to an ethnically or hierarchically defined role. Traditional stratification remained (p.52) significant, but its importance was not transferred to the new situation. Wiseman concluded that petrol queuing at that time may have been the most egalitarian institution in Nigeria.
A third type of waiting organization and coping with “passive time” was observed in the early 2000s in New York City by the anthropologist Carolyn Pinedo Turnovsky (2004). She undertook a study of day labor among Latino and Eastern European male immigrants at an informal work site in Brooklyn, whose organization she called “marking the queue.”
The men patiently stood or sat at certain street corners near the laundromat or along the cement base enclosing the nearby cemetery, leaning on fences, or just sitting on the pavement outside the corner bagel and deli shop. Day after day they waited for someone to pull up at the curb looking to hire a worker. The men passed the time talking, playing cards, smoking, or reading newspapers.
Nothing in the scene revealed any queuing order among the waiting men. But when they heard the beeps or honks of a truck pulling up at the street, the men came to full attention. Conversations stopped. Heads looked up from newspapers. Those who had been sitting now stood. Bodies leaned forward and faces looked curious as they waited to hear a call from the driver. And instead of all rushing forward at the same time to expose themselves for the work hirers, the men approached the driver one by one or in small groups. This behavior demonstrated to Turnovsky that despite the fact that the men came from different parts of the world and did not even speak the same language, there existed beforehand a collective agreement about the order of priority.
The studies of Mann, Wiseman, and Turnovsky treat different kinds of queues as social microsystems that have the function of managing order and justice during waiting times. The studies also illustrate the kinds of bonds that can be established in such situations. Generally people already have one important thing in common—they are all waiting for the same reason. But many other things can strengthen short-term relationships—not the least of them being envy of those who had the foresight to arrive earlier than others.
(p.53) The problem of the queue as a social system also interested Jean Paul Sartre (1960). In his classic theory of series he argued that many gatherings of people that are seen as groups should, rather, be analyzed as temporary series united by a common situation. For example, a bus queue is composed of individuals with different backgrounds and futures. They are joined together only by what they are doing in that moment—waiting for the bus in that same shelter. If the queuers begin to talk to each other about the weather or the timetable, they may constitute a series with a transitory identity—like the workers at the Brooklyn street corner. But only when something extraordinary occurs can a real social group, or a temporary community, emerge. A car crash nearby would create a common focus and make some queuers engage with the accident, while others, who continue to long to be somewhere else, would guard their position in the now more disorderly queue.
In and Out of Control
In crucial situations queues may be transformed to more active communities when the persons standing in line experience collective emotions and common sufferings. In Poland, a country whose regime aimed, although unsuccessfully, to limit collective social autonomy, Kathy Burrel (2003) noticed that the queue offered an unregulated arena for open discussion. Lined up outside shops, queues created forms of sociality that demonstrated common values and solidarity. While not in itself overtly political, the act of queuing for food carried with it the potential for political dissent and engagement. Similarly, local protests, strikes, even revolts all over the world have been ignited in peasants waiting for grain, workers waiting for their wages, or citizens caught up in bureaucratic red tape.
Queuing is a rich and intriguing way of doing nothing. It is also an extremely social activity, unlike more solitary waiting activities. In urban settings complete strangers succeed in arranging themselves in more or less straight lines. People spend time together, either in silence or chatting, depending on local or national cultural traditions. In this way queuing is also (p.54) an educational activity, which has tacit rules and allows people to make covert observations of one another.
Queues can produce surprises of different kinds. The frail community can break down suddenly when somebody ignores the social order and threatens to appropriate the time that others have invested in waiting. The social psychologist Roger Brown (1965: 716ff.) once told a story about a resort hotel where the guests were waiting in the lobby one evening for the restaurant to open and serve dinner. There was no queue; the guests were standing and sitting in no visible order, except that everyone—just as at the Cuban bus stop—knew who had arrived after themselves. Here, instead of a line, Brown suggested that there was an implicit social contract built on that knowledge. Guests who had been longer in the lobby were nearer the door than those who had arrived more recently.
If each guest were to walk, not run, to the door once it opened, the probability was that she or he would be admitted at a time proportionate to the length of the wait. Whenever a recent arrival moved closer to the door, the people standing there, in apparently casual postures, proved surprisingly unwilling to step aside. Openings the recent arrival had seen just ahead closed as she or he approached. Eyes hardened, chins squared, and the interloper stayed put.
When, exactly on the hour, the maitre d'hôtel moved to the dining-room door, drew it open, and turned to greet the first guest, he narrowly missed being trampled to death.
Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming and incredibly expensive. (Advertising copy for FedEx)
As we have seen in our discussion of queuing, waiting generates feelings of different kinds, most of them negative. When we asked people what they think about waiting, a common answer was: “I just hate to wait! It's so boring.” Why does such an apparently insignificant, but time-consuming, activity provoke such strong reactions? It would be just as possible to be indifferent (p.55) to life's in-between moments and uneventful intervals. But many people are in fact far from unaffected.
In a study of what it is like to wait in a critical care waiting room, Debra A. Bournes and Gail J. Mitchell (2002) tried to catch “the essences of the experience of waiting.” They describe what they observed as focused, persistent, and diligent watchfulness, a feeling of grueling, unsure stillness, but also as calming comfort in the helpful company of others.33 Above all, the interviewees spoke about the mixed emotions they had while waiting.
In looking at the emotional aspects of waiting—emotions such as boredom, irritation, and nervousness, as well as hope and longing—we are more interested in their cultural and historical variations than in their psychological nature. Here, too, time management is a main concern, especially regarding time as it is perceived and felt through the body. How does the corporeal stillness of waiting conceal a more vivid emotional life in relation to enduring passing time?
It's horrendous—you're almost suspended. It's like you're frightened and hopeful at the same time. It's all those mixed up emotions—fear and uncertainty and worry and tension. You almost feel numb, and you get terribly tired because all this energy is being spent in worry and concern…. Waiting is as if somebody's got hold of your heart, and they're just kind of squeezing it, you know. (Bournes and Mitchell 2002: 62)
Boredom: Being Stuck in the Present
Waiting in Western societies is often seen as dominated by modern forms of boredom, a diffuse emotional mood that may color a whole situation and channel energies in different ways (see Spacks 1995). But what does it mean to be bored? As the philosopher William James once observed, boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time.34 In the confrontation with nothing, where time is not filled with anything that can occupy our attention, human beings experience time as just that—time. The absence of variation creates a thick blanket of sameness that covers meaning and (p.56) suffocates interest. Time is then experienced as an oppressive void. This kind of time must be killed before it kills. One strategy is to search for change and novelty.
Boredom and waiting used to be linked, as if they were two facets of the same phenomenon. One does not know what to do, nothing is going on, everything is as usual, and one is a prisoner of one's habits. Existence is ruled by drudgery, monotony, and tedium. Being fed-up and stuck in the present creates feelings of emptiness and restlessness. All you can do is yawn ostentatiously.35
In an essay about people's tendency in Western countries, especially the United States, to be dependent on routines of safety and security, Dennis Brisset and Robert P. Snow (1993) link boredom to the absence of adventure in daily life. Americans today, they say, have fewer chances to be stimulated by engaging with the future implications of their current conduct. They believe that an appreciation of uncertainty is the essence of whatever boredom is not. Modern society, according to them, provides little in the way of nurturing nonboring experience.
Although waiting appears to be a matter of not doing anything at all, some thinkers suggest that it is something one can do either poorly or well. The philosopher Michael L. Raposa (1999: 169) has observed that in contemporary cultures, organized around fast food, sound bites, and virtually immediate access to information, waiting can be perceived as a sign of weakness. Boredom, then, becomes “a failure of imagination,” a situation where one does not take advantage of the chance to daydream about being somewhere or someone else. Instead of using the monotony of waiting time as an essential precondition for the imagination's proper exercise, people allow it to close their mind.36
In Western society, the sociologist Peter Conrad (1999: 132) suggests, people demand stimulation from certain events and feel bored when those events fall short of their expectations. Repetition, lack of interaction, and minimal variation are among the reasons for such misaligned expectations. When Conrad lived in Indonesia he often had to wait for long stretches at (p.57) the bank or in government offices. Whereas he and other Americans tended to get bored and impatient with the waiting, he observed that local Indonesians saw it either as something to be expected or as an opportunity to play, socialize, or daydream.37
Like many other scholars the anthropologist Yasmine Mushharbash (2007) sees the Western version of boredom to be very much attached to modernity and secularization.38 Using ethnographic data from the Australian aboriginal Warlpiri in the settlement of Yuendumu, she argues that boredom is a culturally constituted problem of meaning. She tried to avoid treating this phenomenon as an emotional state. How do we know what people are experiencing when we think that they are bored? Unless verbalized, the feelings can only be inferred from bodily expression, as when people yawn or sigh.
At Yuendumu the boredom is mostly created by a lack of social interaction and engagement. Nothing is happening, the frustrated Warlpiri exclaim. They experience the flows of time as endless repetition. The present becomes oppressive, like a cage where the same thing keeps going on. To kill this time, Musharbash has observed, some Warlpiri engage in destructive practices, such as drugs, promiscuity, and violence. They also search spatial getaways by cruising in their cars to look for action.
But this is not the whole story of boredom among Warlpiri. In fact they themselves labeled only a few events as boring. Musharbash noted that the Warlpiri, like the people Kapus'iiiski observed in Ghana, showed an ability to be fully in the here and now. Living in the present seemed to be a crucial social trait. She quotes the anthropologist Sylvie Poirier (2005: 59), who wrote about the Aboriginals' “infinite patience.” On one occasion, when the car broke down during a trip,
In their waiting these Aboriginals did not show the signs of weakness that Michael Raposa had observed. In this case boredom was not “a failure of imagination” but instead an occasion for the proper exercise of imagination.
[f]ar from being concerned or in a hurry to repair it, the friends with whom I was traveling took it as an opportunity to invest themselves in the immediate place where the event occurred. Some wandered about looking for animal tracks or edible plants, while others sat around or gathered firewood. In other words, they established camp. It was as if (p.58) the breakdown was an occasion to engage themselves with the place, an opportunity to feel the place and the moment and see what would happen in that space, that time, that moment.
Irritation: Road Rage
Although many people have learned patience and know how to endure long waiting times, situations often arise where this competence is replaced by irritation or even anger. Those feelings can start as a vague sensation in search of an object, perhaps the obnoxious person next in line, an arrogant official, or a troublesome gadget (Ngai 2005: 195ff.).
A special arena for emotional waiting and irritated reactions is that of cars and traffic. What is “the structure of feeling,” to borrow a term from Raymond Williams (1977: 132ff.), in living fender to fender, getting stuck in traffic jams on the highway, interacting with others by means of a machine like the car and the infrastructures of roads, parking lots, and gas stations? What does driving do to waiting, and how have restlessness and frustration molded traffic behavior?
The United States seems a good place to start when looking at such processes; it was here, much earlier than in Europe, that the first car society evolved.39 Already in 1929 the French author Paul Morand exclaimed, “America is the fastest country in the world,” and he was thinking of the new automobility. That same year saw the publication of the pioneer ethnography of everyday Middle America, Middletown, which includes the description of a schoolteacher asking her pupils whether they can think of a temptation of today that Jesus had not known. “Speed!” one of the boys answered enthusiastically (Lynd 1929: 258). The car had radically changed life in Middletown, as elsewhere in the United States, introducing new ideas of (p.59) speed and flow. In 1930 Ford Motor Company had marketed a new model: “It is a car for speed and freedom, a car for independent, level-headed youth.” This promised new intoxication; the car was about individual movement—being automobile (Hillman 1991: 177). One of the main functions of the car was to help people avoid being trapped while waiting for trains or buses. The aim was to break out of the collective.
Moreover, the car was empowering and changed perceptions of time and space. As the Russian car enthusiast Ilya Ehrenburg (1929: 129) put it, “The heart is just a poetic relic that in a human being contains two standard gauges: one indicates miles, the other minutes.” Americans started to measure driving distances in minutes and hours. How far could one get in an hour or a day?
This focus on freedom and mobility not only produced the exhilaration born of speed but also new frustrations, as new impediments blocked the flow of automobiles and led to new forms of waiting caused by interminable red lights, jungles of irritating stop signs, slow drivers, and opportunists trying to jump the queue in a freeway jam. Moreover, people now had to line up for gas and jockey for empty parking spaces. People developed all kinds of driving tactics to circumvent waiting and slow traffic.
In his ethnography of driving in Los Angeles, the sociologist Jack Katz (1999) discussed the kinds of irritations that take place in a driving culture and how they are expressed. He also noted how frustrations were intensified by the private shield of the car interior. Drivers who succumbed to road rage made rude signs, shouted their annoyance, and vented their anger. The cult of acceleration further intensified the claustrophobia and powerlessness of being stuck in traffic. People felt totally immobilized, but this kind of immobilization was different from that of waiting for a train, letter, or husband.
Nervousness: Travel Fever
“I'm traveling in some vehicle/I'm sitting in some café … I'm porous with travel fever,” sings Joni Mitchell in Hejira. But what kind of emotional fever is that? The equivalent Swedish term resfeber, which came out of nineteenth-century mass travel, tried to capture the mood of nervous (p.60) travelers experiencing both anxiety and anticipation. It is a specific structure of feeling that we think many people have—to a greater or lesser degree—when traveling. In this emotional mix, waiting and longing combine with fear and fascination of the unknown. Travel fever colors the perceptions, producing minds that cannot wait for the body to start moving. In their imagination people have already started traveling faster than their legs could carry them.
One can observe travel fever in many places—train stations, airports, and traffic jams—and while people walk, wait, and drive. The state of travel fever combines motion, emotion, and materiality. Travelers try to control their anxiety by pacing the floor, shifting their balance, or seeking temporary security on a bench in a corner. There is constant fidgeting with luggage, passports, or exact change. Small objects become magically important and reassuring because of their stubborn materiality in this world of flux and flow. In a footloose state people may hold on to such comforting objects as handbags or slips of paper with an address. Every minute they make a renewed search for the ticket in the breast pocket. One can observe constant sensual interaction with the surrounding world, as the traveler's eyes scan flashing notice boards and the ears try to decipher loudspeaker messages.
There are also bodily sensations that shape the situation—aching muscles from having dragged too much luggage, and nervous limbs. A split develops between body and mind, because in their thoughts travelers may already be at their destination or worrying about whether they locked the door back home.
With the beginning of mass travel the emotional state of “travel fever” was seen as a new modern condition of nervousness, the result of new pressures, overstimulation, and anxieties. “American nervousness is the product of American civilization,” wrote the physician George M. Beard in his i88i book on nervous ailments. Civilization itself is not enough to produce this modern problem, he stated, and added five more factors: “steam power, the periodical press, the telegraph, the sciences, and the mental activity of women” (see Lutz 1991: 4).
(p.61) Railway station architects, travel organizers, and doctors discussed travel nervousness and its remedies. New ailments such as agoraphobia and claustrophobia came to be linked to exposure to vast public spaces like train stations and to confinement in cramped railcars. Agoraphobia was thought to be caused by fears of open spaces, anonymous masses, and observation from passing strangers. Many travelers found it taxing to stand passively waiting because they felt under constant observation. The “dizziness of place” (Vidler 2001: 29ff.) carried an emotion of being both footloose and exposed. Agoraphobia, however, also has a flip side in the tensions between the desire to be seen and the anxiety about not living up to the silent judgment of others.
Controlling travel fever involves cultural skills that are not learned through manuals or travel guides but only by observing others. Patterns of travel and waiting behavior have slowly been institutionalized and ritualized into actions and ideas that are now taken for granted.
Travel fever is of course linked to longing—longing for the train or airplane to leave, for reaching one's destination, and for getting in touch with what is waiting there. Travelers may also hope intensely that there will be no delays and that the journey will be safe. Hope and longing is experienced and expressed in multifaceted ways, shifting between wishes, fatalism, and resignation.
Hope and Longing: the Uncertain Future
Summer after summer Lin Kong leaves the hospital and returns on annual leave to his home village and asks his wife for a divorce. Obediently she says yes, but when they arrive at the court she has changed her mind. Her relatives and the judge also reject Lin's wish, and he must return to Manna and tell her that they must wait yet another year before being able to try again. In spite of her misery Manna agrees, and the two lovers continue to see each other without engaging in erotic contact.
One day Manna, tired of waiting, borrows a room in the city to have an opportunity to see Lin in private. In fact she desires to make love to him, (p.62) but when she tells him about the room, he does not want to go there with her. The risk of public humiliation is too great. Both their lives would be ruined if it became known that they have an intimate relationship. They would be stripped of their rank, transferred to faraway parts of the country, and separated for good.
Lin and Manna endured the eighteen years of waiting in a state of hope and longing. They were able to refrain from the happiness of the present by anticipating a possible, but not guaranteed, future together. In general, hope is the kind of waiting that is characterized by uncertainty. One may long for something but not know whether it will happen. There is nothing to do but have faith and hope for the best. Even ordinary waiting might be in vain—the bus may never arrive, a favorite sports team may lose every game, a pregnancy may result in a miscarriage.
In a study of white South African men and women during the final period of apartheid the social anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano (1985: 42ff.) observed that his subjects were captured in “a structure of waiting,” a pattern of emotions and attitudes that governed society at large. Their life was ruled by an indefinite hope for a solution that they could not describe even to themselves. They were afraid of what was going to happen, and that fear intensified their indefinable state of being. They fled into a world of wishes, longing, and dreams. In their waiting they often glanced backward, seeking for security in the experience of the past and taking consolation in history.
Among these South Africans hope was a fatalistic approach that allowed people to take refuge in the company of each other, from where they passively looked at ongoing life. The present became secondary to the future. It was held in expectation, filled with suspense.
But hope and longing may also be common strategies to avoid the problems of the here and now in everyday life. “Next vacation will give our marriage another chance; my job is boring but soon the weekend will come; we lost this game, but there will be a new one next week.” Postponing unpleasant tasks and putting them in quarantine turns life into waiting. When Lin visited his wife and daughter in the village he spent most of the (p.63) time postponing the discussion about his next divorce application. “Waiting for the right moment” may be an effective way of getting stuck.
The intertwining of hope and waiting is sometimes transformed into a lifestyle. In Sweden people who have been ill for a long time may feel that they have entered a no-man's-land. Since they have not been able to work they may now be waiting for a change—maybe their early retirement pension, an offer for work training, a phone call from the employment office, or a letter from the social security office. Slowly but steadily waiting takes over their life, as it does for asylum-seeking refugees, and from that position emerges what Swedish authorities have called a “waiting culture.” In this culture refugees and people on the sick list drift into resignation, which for some turns into despair.
The ultimate case is when all hope is gone. One drug-addicted woman infected by HIV described her state as follows:
The polar opposite to such hopeless resignation is when existence is governed by the longing for something wonderful that promises personal fulfillment, as, for example, when expecting a baby. But pregnancy can also involve a more complex case of emotional waiting and “doing nothing.”
I have no children and no future. Maybe I will live for some years more, but what shall I do? We are only sitting here in our filthy shack and getting older and uglier. We are doing absolutely nothing and when something is happening it has to do with drugs. I don't know… My dream is to work with animals. But someone like me never gets a job. So I have nothing to do but wait for death.40
An Expectant Mood: Pregnancy
Being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what once had been an ordinary life, only to discover that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect. (Lahiri 2003: 49)
(p.64) Ashima is one of the characters in Jhumpa Lahiri's novel The Namesake, an Indian housewife living just outside Boston who is trying to adjust to her new homeland. She has just gone through her first pregnancy, but the experience lingers.
Pregnancy has in many ways become the dramatic archetype of being “in waiting” and often the idea of pregnancy is used as a metaphor in many ways—from references to being pregnant with ideas to the description of silence as “pregnant.” All over the world pregnancy is an organized wait that is directed by cultural rules, practices, and ideas. It is not a typical “non-event”; the nine months are, on the contrary, full of symbolic elaborations. The months illustrate dimensions of waiting related to time awareness, human control of the course of events, and varying modes of emotionality.
“I hate to wait,” a Swedish woman writes in her blog. She enumerates several examples of what she calls “small waits.” To wait for the bus mornings and evenings is a dull experience for her, while waiting for the plumbers to come and fix the leak in the bathroom is half dull. But then there is the waiting with a capital W:
For many expecting parents pregnancy is both a wonder and the most important wait of their lives. Many experiences and feelings are molding this time. Pregnancy is an organized and dramatized countdown, penetrated by scientific advice and market forces. Biological and cultural processes are intertwined in a complicated way that differs according to local context. Pregnancy is never an unmarked category; in every society it is the occasion for special attention and treatment, and it takes forms that vary widely. Childbirth, Clara Hanson (2004: 175) concludes in her book about the (p.65) cultural history of pregnancy, is an extremely diverse, and class-specific, experience.42
The greatest waiting at the moment is for our daughter (or son). That's an OK, but a little nervous waiting. Now it's only one month left, give or take some days. Then she will arrive. Right now it feels as if she won't come fast enough. At the same time it feels as if she might as well stay where she is for a while. I'm both ready and not. At the same time. That is the main waiting for the moment. Waiting for Felicia. A good waiting.41
In the contemporary Western world, pregnancy is to a large extent object for medicine, psychology, literature, and professional guidance, as well as for commercial interests.43 A pregnant woman seeks counseling from her obstetrician, and routine visits to the clinic give her waiting period structure and rhythm. Highlights in this schedule include moments when she hears her baby's heartbeat, feels the baby move, and sees the first picture of the baby from the ultrasound machine. Eagerly she awaits the due date her physician has set. She will also compare her experiences with that of others, as related by friends, books, and magazines.
Already in the 1990s the Internet became an important arena; many blogs outline this special kind of emotionally charged waiting in stories, photographs, and video clips. One woman, who also showed pictures of baby clothes that she had crocheted, wrote:
Pregnancy is narrated in many different ways. It can be described as a wonderful idyll, an adventure, or long suffering. The storytelling creates a consensus among those who recognize themselves in the description, while others may feel left out. There is strong normative pressure on how this kind of waiting should be experienced, and on how one ought to behave. There is also a marked oscillation between private and public. The conspicuously growing stomach, a “waiting room” for the baby, is a private concern that nowadays becomes a public matter—commented on, patted, and admired.45
Hey everyone. I'm pregnant with our second child—eight months along! I am very excited and have crocheted all sorts of baby wear, such as beanies, booties, jackets, blankets and even a Victorian Cape (well, some are half finished). Somewhere along the way, I lost enthusiasm and need to get it back to finish my projects. The baby will be here in six weeks! I'm finding I'm spending too much time cleaning and organizing my home in preparation. In the meantime, I count the weeks in anticipation of the birth. I'm feeling huge and uncomfortable and can't even turn over in bed. I'm counting the days…44
(p.66) As a result the woman's nine-month-period of waiting is ritually dramatized as a process of liminality by a series of events in which she transforms herself into a mother. The waiting is so to say staged by new habits and rules of conduct that are supposed to control the biological process. Old routines drop away and new ones develop as pregnant women struggle to find a way of doing something as simple as tying their shoelaces, and as complex as balancing their increasing needs for emotional support with the demands of marriage and career (Davis-Floyd 1992: 24). All the advice and admonitions can introduce anxiety and insecurity into “the happy waiting.”
Even the feelings and fantasies of the future parents are often made public, as the parents claim their child in advance by deciding on a name, buying or making things that they will need, and rearranging their home. While looking at baby carriages they may be fantasizing about themselves as parents but also rehearsing their parental roles. Maternity clothes have both a practical and a symbolic function. Trying to imagine the future makes people feel more in command of their situation.
By inventing new routines and daydreaming about the baby the woman takes charge of the waiting time and molds it in her own manner. The intersection of the passivity of “just having to wait” and the activity of making practical preparations causes the nine months to stand out from the rest of life. Some women talk of their pregnancy as a life stage when their experience of time entirely changed character; they passed into a more inward-turned, contemplative mood, which in some ways distanced them from the expectations of other people. They were absorbed by waiting.
Ambivalent States of Mind
From an emotional perspective, waiting conceals something more dramatic than just doing nothing. It is something one has to learn and train to master in the right way. But even after that has been accomplished, waiting may evoke many different reactions. One can feel trapped in enforced idleness, frustrated by subordination and powerlessness, even paralyzed. One can be annoyed at the slow passing of time, when nothing seems to be happening (p.67) and time is being wasted. One may also be reminded of unpleasant memories, as this female student in our informal survey wrote:
Waiting is thus often thought of as a negative experience—boring, irritating, and anxiety-ridden dead time. But sometimes it is linked to more positive feelings and conditions such as hope, longing, and expectation. This is an important theme in much popular culture, for example in the many songs about bittersweet yearning for love.46
It's tough to wait. I can't stand it, I have no patience. To wait for the train makes me anxious. I can't just “be,” I always have to do something.
I have friends who say that they like to wait, because then they have time to think and look around. But I'm not such a person, I just get restless.
Maybe I dislike waiting so much because I always had to wait for my mom when I was a kid. When she should pick me up at school she was at least half an hour late every time and I was constantly worried.
One further benefit of waiting is when it is experienced as a relief, a moment of rest from one's busy life, and an opportunity to clear one's mind. In a temporary liberation from time-is-money economics, waiting may become a meditative space and lead to unexpected insights (Schweizer 2008: 2). In this kind of waiting people are freed from their usual duties, since they are occupied with waiting and cannot be expected to do anything else. Business-class airport lounges are said to be a second home to frequent flyers and busy people who otherwise do not have time to slow down. In those breathing spaces they have the opportunity to indulge in doing nothing (Schwartz 1975: 191). Some of the students in our inquiry described the relief:
One of the reasons so many feelings are generated by waiting may be that people have time to consider the question of control over their life. The (p.68) emotionality of this rather inconspicuous activity points toward an often hidden power dimension: how can waiting be used to secure advantages or create subordination?
Sometimes it is nice to wait, you get a moment to be by yourself and think, or just to breathe and look forward to something good. Right now I am waiting for the summer, I'm longing so much that I'm almost dying from it. But before summer I'm going abroad and it will be super with all preparations for the travel. It's all right with me to spend hours at the airport, since I am so full of expectations.
Lin Kong and Manna Wu were forced to hide their love. Family obligations, and even more so the constant monitoring gaze of the Communist Party, ruled their lives. While waiting for the next advancement in their careers they had to watch themselves. One false move or piece of gossip could block their future. Here the relationship between waiting and power is very obvious.
Vincent Crapanzano (1985: 45) asserts that waiting produces feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, and vulnerability—infantile feelings—and all the rage that these feelings evoke.
Although the literal act of waiting might seem to imply a form of physical stability, that stability is frequently experienced as a collapse into the powerlessness of pure object status, Laura E. Tanner (2002: 121) writes. In many situations a person cannot simply walk away from her waiting position because she is symbolically immobilized. She feels trapped and, with little control over time and activity, temporally suspended and temporarily unproductive.
We seek release from these feelings, from the tension and suspense of waiting, from the anxiety of contingency, in many, often magical ways. We tell stories. We lose ourselves in the swirl of everyday activity. We pretend to ourselves that we are indifferent to the object of waiting. We invent our own magic, personal taboos, and idiosyncratic rituals.
Keeping Others On the Tenterhooks
The power to make other people wait, and the subordination of having to wait, are two major aspects of all social relations. Having to wait for somebody (p.69) means that your time and social worth is less valuable than the time and worth of the other person. The rich and privileged are seldom humiliated as badly as were the two Swedish state officials whom Saddam Hussein kept on tenterhooks in Bagdad in the early 1980s. In most cases the wealthy enjoy immunity from such treatment, since they have the resources to demand VIP privileges. Often the only way the poor can avoid waiting is by agreeing to settle for no service at all.
To keep someone waiting is a simple and effective demonstration of superiority, and this power play has its own stage design. Delegations, applicants for assistance, clients, and lodgers of complaints are reminded of their own insignificance at the forecourt of the palace, or in the corridors of bureaucracy. Simply having to wait for a door to be opened brings with it the understanding of a power relation. The small red, yellow, and green lights at some offices, which imitate traffic lights and communicate “occupied,” “wait,” and “enter,” are likewise power symbols.
In such places increasingly irritated subjects often form temporary communities. They have been scraping their feet, giggling nervously, adjusting their clothes, composing their features, and evaluating their possibilities. On the other side of the closed door the powerful man or woman is wondering if the subjects are sufficiently softened up. Is it time to ask the servant or secretary to open the door? Please, you may enter now.
Such power games surface when people are placed in a situation where the rules for the order of priority are ambiguous or unintelligible; a good example of this kind of situation was the confusion at the resort hotel before the dinner restaurant was opened.
In an e-mail message, one of our colleagues told us a story about a Saturday morning in October when he and his pal had their boat lifted from the dock in preparation for winter. It was the first time they had done this, and they were not acquainted with the process. Early one morning, at “the appointed time” for the crane lorry's arrival, they were in the harbor in the company of other boat owners, their boat fastened to a pole. After several hours nothing had happened, and they had received no information.
The uncertainty and dissolved perception of time in this situation was a result of vague instructions and an invisible order of priority. Perhaps the two new boat owners were unaware of a local code for queuing and a timetable for this yearly procedure? Nobody else seemed to bother about the apparently anarchistic order and the long waiting time.
(p.70) At last the crane lorry arrived. The driver and the harbor master had a chat. I began to lose my sense of time. My stomach was rumbling, but we did not dare go home and eat in case it should suddenly be our turn. We did not even know which position we had in the queue. The first boat was lifted. The procedure was repeated a few times.
Then the driver of the crane lorry took a break. He assembled sandwiches and a thermos and sat down on the lee side with the harbor master. We contemplated this conspicuous waste of (our) time with resignation.
Then we watched boat after boat being lifted, slowly and carefully. By this time we had some idea of our position, so we were able to anticipate our turn with equanimity. I think we were the tenth or eleventh to be hoisted up. Around three o'clock, after seven hours of waiting, we were finally finished.47
By the following spring, when the boat was to be lifted back into the sea, our colleague would presumably not take “being on time” for granted. By then he would know the unwritten rules and no longer be at the mercy of the lorry driver in the same paralyzing way.
Who Waits the Most?
Barry Schwartz (1975: 19) reminds us that the more powerful and important a person is, the more others' access to him or her must be regulated. The most powerful can be seen only by appointment, whereas, concurrently, the least powerful must almost always be available. On the ground floor of an office building are the employees you can walk right up to. They are usually behind a counter waiting to serve you. As you move up the building the inaccessibility of the bureaucracy increases at every floor.
(p.71) Making others wait can be seen as an aggressive act, as when a superior nonchalantly chooses to be late. Those who are rendered motionless by someone else's tardiness experience one of the most humiliating forms of subordination. It is a kind of “ritual waiting” (Schwartz 1975: 125) that is not necessarily related to the superior's busyness. That superior may merely want symbolically to demonstrate his or her importance by stretching out the subordinate's waiting time. On the other hand, there is also self-inflicted waiting, when a person arrives a little early as a sign of reverence.48
Power is a noticeable part of many other social relations. Power certainly plays a role in the relationships between children and adults, and between the two partners of a couple in love, where one, more absorbed by yearning, is more willing to wait than the other. The relationship between Lin and Manna, for example, demonstrates a subtle and often unconscious power play over the years. Who waited more? The novel shows us how differently the same waiting situation may be perceived and handled by different individuals.
In art, literature, and mass media, from Penelope waiting for Odysseus to “Desperate Housewives” in American suburbia of the early 2000s, the waiting woman is a classic icon. Women are depicted waiting for their men to come home from the sea, from war, or from the office. Such images of course hide a more complex situation, but the asymmetry of the situation may organize everyday routine.49
In a study of people on a Norwegian island, the social anthropologist Jorun Solheim (1998) has analyzed how waiting time is molded by both material conditions and gender patterns. Many of the men on the island worked on the oil rigs far out at sea for periods lasting from two weeks to six months, while their wives took care of the home and the children.
Solheim observed that the women rarely went outdoors. Mostly they spent their time indoors, waiting and working. The women's movements were delimited by the occasions of the husbands' departures and returns. Households were therefore organized into two periods, “the home time” and “the away time.” One of the main duties of the wife was to make the (p.72) transition between these periods as smooth and painless as possible. In fact, Solheim suggests, the wife constituted this transition in herself, body and mind, by acting as the practical connection between the home time and the away time.
One paradoxical consequence of this arrangement was that the wife had to “make room” for the husband when he was at home. That did not mean that he participated in the housework—the wife did the same things as when he was away—but now she also had to take care of him. When the husband was at home he became “unnecessary” and was in the way. Now the wife waited for him to leave again for the oil rig so that she could “close the room” she had made for him.
The Choice of Tactics
From Solheim's study we learn how waiting may be shaped by work organization and gender relations. But we are also reminded that waiting may be concealed, forgotten, or camouflaged by people being busy doing other things. We cannot know for sure if a person is completely occupied by waiting for something or somebody, or if she is daydreaming, eavesdropping on others in a queue, or doing something else that makes her forget that she is in a situation of subordination and postponed satisfaction.
Another tactic consists of exchanging a big, numbing wait for lesser, more bearable ones. Instead of waiting for one's life to change or a divorce to come through one may start longing for the coming spring, next weekend, or an upcoming coffee break.
A classic scene of paralyzing waiting is sitting at home expecting the plumber or the TV repair person who has not shown up at the agreed-upon time. Most people have an irritating story to tell about tardy workers. Such overgeneralized stories resemble the descriptions of the Africans' “inanimate waiting”; there, too, “we” observe the strange behavior of “others” to whom “we” have been exposed and do not yet understand.
In his book One Year in Provence Peter Mayle (1989: 41ff.) tells a story of waiting for builders. He is renovating the house and finds himself living with (p.73) dormant concrete mixers and forlorn, uncompleted rooms. In such a situation there are two ways to respond, Mayle suggests. Neither response will produce immediate results, but one way will reduce the frustration, the other will add to it.
The Mayles tried both tactics. To begin with they made a conscious effort to become more philosophical in their attitude to time. They tried to treat days and weeks of delays in “the Provençal fashion”—that is, to enjoy the sunshine and stop thinking like city people. This month, next month, what's the difference? Have a pastis and relax. The other tactic, which increased their sense of impotence, was to try to get firm dates from the workmen. It was an educational experience.
Here Mayle is using a well-known and -worn (usually middle-class) genre: we all know how craftsmen are. But his irritation may also be about some of the other themes in this chapter related to time and control. The relation between the “unreliable” craftsmen and their furious clients is also a struggle for power. To minimize their idle time, those who sell their skills prefer that their clients queue for their services. That may be the reason for the widespread practice of overscheduling. By doing so the service provider converts his clients' time to his own use.50
We learned that time in Provence is a very elastic commodity, even when it is described in clear and specific terms. Un petit quart d'heure means some time today. Demain means some time this week. And, the most elastic time segment of all, une quinzaine can mean three weeks, two months or next year, but never, ever does it mean fifteen days.
But, despite their genial contempt for punctuality and their absolute refusal to use the telephone to say when they were coming or when they weren't, we could never stay irritated with them for long. In the end, they were worth waiting for.
Another kind of waiting conflict involves strong needs, dependency, and unclear expectations. In a love relationship, who is waiting for whom, who waits at the telephone, at the café, or while pacing the floor at home? Lovers can be kept on the rack by their beloved. Roland Barthes (1977/1990: 39ff.) (p.74) has described this as the tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved one and being subject to trivial delays.
There are special stage designs of waiting, Barthes continues, and we are reminded of Elin Wikström's elaborated performance of women waiting at an art gallery. The setting can represent the interior of a café: he and somebody shall have a rendezvous, he is waiting and looks at his watch several times. Was there a misunderstanding as to the time or the place? What is to be done? Try another café? Telephone? But what if the other were to come while he is away? (This was of course before the advent of the cell phone.)
The power of the other to keep him waiting is only too obvious. Everything around him seems unreal. He looks at people entering. They chat, joke, and read calmly; they are probably not waiting. But he has to sit in a chair, not doing anything else.
In his vulnerable mood Barthes looks for strength in the story about the mandarin who fell in love with a courtesan. “I shall be yours,” she told him, “when you have spent a hundred nights waiting for me, sitting on a stool, in my garden, beneath my window.” But on the ninety-ninth night, the mandarin stood up, put his stool under his arm, and went away.
“Am I in love?—Yes, since I'm waiting.” The other never waits. Sometimes I want to play the part of the one who doesn't wait; I try to busy myself elsewhere, to arrive late, but I always lose at this game: whatever I do, I find myself there, with nothing to do, punctual, even ahead of time. The lover's fatal identity is precisely: I am the one who waits.
In this moral tale the strength of patience is balanced by knowledge that you also have the power to leave. The enforced passivity that waiting causes contains a message that can be translated in different ways, depending on one's imagination. Even if one has to wait, one does not have to think about it. That is a way of disarming the power of others to control your time. A male New Yorker, waiting with us at a restaurant for his delayed girlfriend to arrive, exemplified this idea:
Another way of counteracting the humiliating experience of being kept waiting is to pretend that one is not doing that at all. To disguise the fact that they are being exposed to the arbitrariness of others, some individuals camouflage their feelings behind various other activities. By using the technique of impression management they make believe that they have some control over the situation. They try to look relaxed and easy, for example by leaning against a wall with their arms folded, as if they were not bothered at all. In order not to appear trapped in waiting they avoid looking eager or irritated. Hungry guests at a restaurant resort (desperately) to small talk or rereading the menu.
(p.75) Some people have the habit to let others wait to show off their own importance. They almost always arrive too late and force others to be patient, count the minutes, postpone the meeting, or keep the dinner warm. Probably they think of themselves as worth waiting for and that other people's time is less valuable than theirs.
I myself am a person who would rather wait than be late. It's all right if I have to wait for other people, but not that they must wait for me. I have no problem entertaining myself during waiting time by daydreaming, reading, or watching other people. I can make up whole life stories about strangers whom I see at cafés or from my position in street corners.
Paradoxes of Waiting
Finally, after eighteen years, the day has come when Lin Kong can use the legal right to divorce his wife without her consent. The long wait is over, and he and Manna get married and have two sons. Yet life does not turn out to be as happy as they had dreamt that it would. Was it really worth waiting for? Lin reflects on the ways in which waiting has changed them both, not only in the aging of their bodies but also in distorting their minds. He wonders whether he really cares for Manna; married life is so tedious, so chaotic, so exhausting.
What does waiting do to people? One evening Lin hears an accusing voice inside his head. Let me tell you what really happened, the voice says:
Lin cannot help imagining what his life would have been like if Manna and he had gotten married earlier. The long waiting has dissolved her gentle nature, wiped out her hopes, ruined her health, and poisoned her heart. Lin got what for so many years he had longed for, but now he thinks that he waited in vain. In fact, he thinks he waited eighteen years just for the sake of waiting.
(p.76) All those years you waited torpidly, like a sleepwalker, pulled and pushed about by other's opinions, by external pressure, by your illusions, by the official rules you internalized. You were misled by your own frustration and passivity, believing that you were not allowed to have what your heart was destined to embrace. (Jin 2000: 295)
It is not only in the world of fiction that waiting can become a lifestyle, a dominating mood of passivity. The many paradoxes of waiting also emerge in more mundane examples and become evident in how time is organized, experienced, coped with, and transformed in different historical settings. What is striking about the time management emerging in Western modernity is how waiting time is given an almost physical character with a rich collection of labels. Time is described as sticky, empty, dead, wasted, or infinite, and it can change pace or direction. In many cases waiting experiences have come to acquire strong emotional charges, but they also lead to bodily reactions, for example, when limbs start fidgeting, get jittery, or go numb. People develop all kinds of tactics to handle time, from patient endurance to attempts to ignore or speed it up.
A short wait may take all one's attention, whereas longer waits make it possible to move in and out of the situation, doing other things, or letting the mind wander. Again, the ecology of waiting creates different conditions; a traffic jam, bus queue, or late guest not only choreograph movements and evoke emotions but also open and close alternative escape routes.
Longing for something or worrying about the future creates different time experiences. Time also changes character, depending on where one is, in whose company, and what one is waiting for. Delays, postponements, and yearnings are but some of the many characters of time. Thirty annoyed seconds in front of the computer are very different from twenty gluey (p.77) minutes in the supermarket queue or two anxious hours at the hospital— and not only as measured by the clock. Nine months of pregnancy differ from the teenager's eager wish to get adult privileges and from Lin's and Manna's longing to marry. Waiting time is both a personal and a cultural creation, marked by gendered and class-specific values and charged with different emotions.
To understand what is happening while somebody is waiting one might be guided by Ryszard Kapuśiński's questions about what is going on inside the heads of those who are waiting. Are they dreaming, reminiscing, making plans, or traveling far away? But you should also be prepared to accept his conclusion: it's difficult to say.
What can actually be seen, in different ecological settings, is that waiting is internalized from childhood on. This involves long historical processes of learning and unlearning, with training grounds ranging from childhood Christmas rituals and teenage identity play to the unwritten rules of queuing and work habits. As time is given new virtues, the need for patience or impatience is taught, for example, in moral slogans like “Patience is important,” “Time is money,” “Waiting is good for you,” or “Never waste a minute!” Often such norms are communicated in indirect ways that may hide their role as a disciplining instrument of class and gender. Lin and Manna demonstrated the self-discipline that was necessary to survive in China during Mao's Cultural Revolution. Victorian middle-class children received messages that were quite different from those that children receive a century later.
The power dimensions also surface in questions such as who has to wait for whom and who decides when you are entitled to get what you want. To be kept waiting produces strong emotions, and in contemporary Western societies waiting is rarely described as pleasurable—not even by the advocates of a Zen-like lifestyle who believe in Zen's long-term benefits to mental well-being. The predominant response to waiting is usually disapproval, and negative energy is directed toward people who do not behave as they ought in queues, car traffic, waiting rooms, or protracted bureaucratic situations.
(p.78) There are, however, exceptions. The delights of longing hopefully for something that is anticipated to happen may color the here and now rosy, for example when hoping for romance, expecting a baby, or anticipating a journey. There are also inventive strategies for turning a boring wait into a more enjoyable situation, as when people create temporary communities or develop secret games.
The emotions evoked in waiting have above all to do with the experience of time and how it is spent and controlled. When people feel like a hostage to restlessness and worry, waiting time can be experienced as an intense frustration—causing them to feel that they are just vegetating and blocked from real life.
The “doing nothing” variety of waiting shows itself to be a surprisingly paradoxical activity. Inertia hides what is actually a dynamic and morally charged activity. Doing nothing is not only a state of mind but also an ordered and symbolically communicated behavior that people have to learn and develop over a lifetime. It offers unexpected possibilities to counteract the very boredom, anxiety, and powerlessness that it generates. When trapped in waiting, people are often able to be simultaneously occupied with something else; likewise, people can be physically present in a waiting space and yet travel far away in the mind.
Above all it is the liminality of waiting that makes it a special kind of doing nothing. In-between events can make people feel stuck, but such events can also generate new possibilities. Waiting produces a “sleepwalking” mood, in which the asylum seeker or the pregnant woman may feel removed from the world or flow of time.
Waiting also makes some people see their material surroundings, the strangers next to them, and their own lives in a new light. Waiting can be a source of intense boredom but also of surprising insights. As we shall see in the next two chapters, this dual mechanism of opening and closing off works for other kinds of non-events as well, including those of routines and daydreaming.
(3.) The description of the waiting room for royalty is taken from Kantor and Keller (2008: 61); the materialization of class differences in waiting is discussed in Löfgren (2008). Among the many contemporary examples of upgraded waiting spaces, from business travel lounges to medical centers, much effort has gone into stripping away the cold, impersonal feel that so often characterizes waiting areas. Uncomfortable seating and a dismal atmosphere are out; designer décor, luxury-hotel-like service and museum-worthy art displays are in. See www.straightfromthedoc.com/50226711/luxurious_waiting_rooms.php (accessed 13 March 2008).
(4.) http://momhood.blogspot.com/2006/10/crabby-moms-guide-to-waiting-room.html (accessed 3 October 2008).
(5.) Another blogger, David Jack Bell, thinks that the biggest problem with waiting rooms these days is the television. He declares that waiting rooms are “no longer waiting rooms—they have become entertainment rooms. For some reason, doctor's offices and car dealerships feel the need to provide a t.v. in order to help us wait …. To my way of thinking, waiting implies quiet. Waiting is a calm, possibly frustrating activity, but it is not a noisy one. It is time to think, time to contemplate the next step. One may decide something important while waiting: I don't want to wait for her anymore. Or, She's the one I've been waiting for my whole life. But we can't think these things with ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ and Kenny Chesney screaming in our ears.” http://davidjackbell.blogspot.com/2008/01/waiting-room.html (accessed 15 March 2008).
(9.) Ad Pruyn and Ale Smidts (1999: 221ff.) have done research among patients waiting together for family doctors. Their conclusion is that when the wait is long, waiting with others becomes less acceptable because the presence of others results in “an enhancement of the individual's dominant behaviour, feelings or moods.”
(11.) The concept was coined by the German economist and sociologist Max Weber in his The Protestant Ethic and the spirit of Capitalism from 1904–1905 (translated into English in 1930).
(12.) There are, however, other theories that present waiting as a product of the bureaucratization of everyday life. Large-scale economic systems, segmentation of time, and a rigid separation of public and private spheres are said to increase waiting time for most people in such societies (see, for example, Henri Lefebvre 1971: 53).
(13.) Among American sociologists the study of “deferred gratification” became a theme in the 1950s. How was this virtue of learning to wait linked to middle-class values and what role did it play in upwardly mobility? See Schneider and Lysgaard (1953).
(14.) Dagens Nyheter, 13 October 2005.
(17.) Taken from the electronic free-access Journal of Mundane Behavior.
(18.) See also David Bissel's (2007) discussion about the corporeal experiences of waiting during the process of journeying. Although waiting may mark a “withdrawal from the world,” Bissel does not treat these “banal and prosaic hiatuses” as an immobile being-in-the-world, as slowed rhythms, or as somehow opposed to speed, but instead as incipient and rich durations, as “an ongoing active achievement of subjectification” (Bissel 2007: 287).
(p.233) (20.) Life is one big queue, constantly awaiting the next happening, said the mathematician Joseph A. Panico in his book Queuing Theory (1969), in which he analyzed the significance of waiting lines for business, economics, and science. “Queuing theory” is a mathematical study of waiting lines, applied to a variety of problems ranging from canal and airplane congestion, urban traffic jams, and rotation of hospital beds to the movement of customers through ticket counters and cafeterias.
(21.) One of the public arenas for these exchanges of views is the Web site http://standinaqueue.wordpress.com, where people show pictures of queues that they have been standing in lately and tell stories about their varying experiences.
(22.) On the Internet it is possible to find instructions for how to enjoy the experience and pass the time while waiting in the supermarket queue. One suggestion for livening up the dull waiting time is the game “Checkout Chicken,” www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/pda/A506404?s_id=2 (accessed 18 February 2008).
(23.) The business economist Alf Rehn (2006) has made some observations on the tacit rules of queuing. People use minimal cues to show each other what kind of behavior they expect in queues, among them that one should keep one's position, not edge the line, and follow the rhythm of the other queuers to avoid disturbing gaps.
(25.) The order of arrival is also contradicted in special cases of so-called preemptive priority (Schwartz 1975: 190). Ladies, children, and old persons are given priority in emergency situations and allowed status as authorized queue jumpers, as are those with physical limitations as well as, occasionally, parents with small children.
(27.) http://forum.wordreference.com/showthread.php?t=41444 (accessed 17 February 2008).
(29.) Dagens Nyheter (accessed 29 January 2006).
(31.) Economists have for years been discussing waiting time as an important determinant of export demand for manufactured goods; see, for example, Margaret Greene (1975). In hospitals, waiting lines are commonplace. Compared with the United States, waiting times are the aspect with which citizens who use British or Swedish health services, for example, have expressed their greatest dissatisfaction (see Yates 1987, Hanning 2005, and Ivarsson 2005).
(33.) These observations were formulated in more exact scientific language: “The lived experience of waiting is a vigilant attentiveness surfacing amid an ambiguous turbulent lull as contentment emerges with uplifting engagements” (Bournes and Mitchell 2002: 58).
(34.) See Svendsen (2005): 127.
(35.) The communication of boredom is often used as a protection or avoidance. Teenagers take this defensive pose when in the company of elders as a mode of distancing themselves. The same goes for subordinates in relation to their bosses at workplaces.
(37.) Boredom is thus a matter of relativity; what is boring to one person does not have to be so to another. It is also possible to learn different ways of dealing with it, for example by moving into what Erving Goffman (1967/2005: 133) has called “aways,” just leaving the situation.
(38.) By that Musharbash (2007: 10) refers to an increased focus on the self, as well as the belief in one's entitlement to happiness, the work-leisure distinction, overload, and standardizations of time organization. The question is whether boredom can be seen as an indicator of the Westernization of indigenous peoples or whether something else is going on.
(39.) There is, of course, a large body of literature on the genesis of the car society; see, for example, Featherstone et al. (2005), Virilio (1995), and Miller (2001). For a comparison of the United States and Sweden see OʼDell (2001) and Eyerman and Löfgren (1995).
(40.) Dagens Nyheter (accessed 10 February 2008).
(42.) One of the pioneers in this field was the Swedish anthropologist Brigitte Jordan with her 1978 book Birth in Four Cultures. Subsequently Robbie E. Davis-Floyd (1992, 1997), among others, expanded our knowledge about different aspects of this phenomenon throughout history and in different cultures.
(43.) The “technocratic model” of pregnancy and birth has made this kind of waiting an object for scientific knowledge about medical birth, although elsewhere in the world there are, of course, other ways to give birth (see Jordan 1993, Davis-Floyd and Sargent 1996).
(44.) http://stramenda.blogspot.com/2007/10/pregnancy-waiting-waiting-waiting.html (accessed 12 May 2008).
(p.235) (45.) According to Davis-Floyd (1992: 21) pregnant women sometimes find that their public symbolic transformation is negative. As their bellies grow, some formerly friendly men begin to avoid them. During conversations people stare at their stomachs instead of their faces, increasing their sense of being made into objects. On the other hand they also meet people who rush to open doors and pick up dropped things, who carry their suitcases at the airport and give up their seats on the bus. In these cases pregnancy has strengthened the stereotype of the weak female.
(46.) Songs that come to mind include ABBA, “I've Been Waiting for You” (1975); Beach Boys, “I'm Waiting for the Day” (1966); Beatles, “Wait” (1965); Depeche Mode, “Waiting for the Night” (1990); Buddy Holly, “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” (1959); Kinks, “Tired of Waiting for You” (1965); New Order, “Waiting for the Sirens' Call” (2005); Stevie Nicks, “I Can't Wait” (1985); Pretenders, “Wait” (1980); Rolling Stones, “Time Waits for No One” (1974); Diana Ross, “I'm Still Waiting” (1970); Seal, “Waiting for You” (2003); Van Halen, “I'll Wait” (1984); and Velvet Underground, “I'm Waiting for the Man” (1967). (Thanks to the folklore researcher Sven-Erik Klinkmann of Vasa, Finland, for compiling this list.)
(47.) Lars-Eric Jönsson is a colleague at the University of Lund.
(48.) The rule of not “keeping the boss waiting” is sometimes contravened by the powerless servants who delight in keeping their superiors doing just that.
(49.) There are many fictional waiting women, as described by Bränström Öhman (1995). In Annie Ernaux's novel Simtie Passion (1991/2003), for example, a woman has made waiting for love a full-time occupation. She does not do anything but wait for a man to call or come to her. See also Marguerite Duras's The Lover (1986), which describes waiting women in Indochina during the 1930s.
(50.) The capacity to make others wait belongs to certain roles, Barry Schwartz (1975: 119) has argued. Petty bureaucrats or bank clerks may possess little that is of value to others, but they guard access to resources that are. As a result, they are able to keep anyone waiting for as long as they want.