I heard about Traveler X from Katie Ratajczyk, an account manager for a marketing company who was heading back to Wisconsin. She was waiting contentedly for her first flight in what would be a long day of stopovers and downtime. "He was in front of me at the ticket counter," Ratajczyk reported. "He was furious, screaming 'This is the crappiest airline!' and belittling the woman behind the counter."
A line at check-in had made Traveler X late, and he'd wrestled with a cordial but perhaps less than snappy ticketing agent. Rules no. 4 through 8 were in play: Traveler X had lost control of his destiny, he believed it wasn't his fault, he was anxious about missing an important rendezvous, and the trip he was taking was unimportant relative to his sense of his own worth.
Management theory nicely deconstructs X's sense of powerlessness. But a man who knows as much about the psychology of waiting as any academic, the Egyptian cabdriver who took me to the airport, introduced his own theory. Call it Mohamed's Law. According to Mohamed, it's a combination of rule no. 8 and cultural conditioning that cuts to the heart of wait rage. He believes there's a distinct contrast between American and foreign passengers. "When Americans land at the airport, they are so bitter," he said. "They've been waiting for flights, waiting for a taxi. They say, 'I don't care how much it costs—just get me to Manhattan!' People from poorer countries, from other cultures, say, 'I don't care how long it takes—just get me there in the cheapest way possible.'"
This formulation sheds light on the waiting behavior of my husband, who's not exactly poor but was born and raised in India. He can sail through the 17-hour economy-class flight from New York to Delhi with placid good nature. While I stalk the aisles and twist the Air India blanket into knots, he sleeps soundly in an upright position, shoes laced, tie straight.
Suffering is relative. A cadre of law students at the airport said they didn't mind their indefinite wait, as long as they didn't have to be near a book. And as a mother of three, I know that several unoccupied hours can feel like a spa vacation. Similarly, a Haitian might stand in line all day to renew a driver's license and be content doing so because he is not tripped up by rule no. 9 and is covered by Mohamed's Law.
Richard C. Larson, a professor of electrical engineering at M.I.T., who has studied the psychology and mathematics of queuing, listened to my theories about spoiled and impatient Westerners versus stoic Eastern people like my husband. But Larson set me straight, concluding that I must not have traveled in China or the Middle East. "Don't forget that India was part of the British empire," he said. "The British are very good at waiting. In China, though, it's sometimes not a line but mass hysteria. At some train stations, people don't just push to the front of the line—they actually climb over the people in front of them. I have videotapes to prove it. And in parts of the Middle East, the men go to the head of the line and leave the women at the back."
Even in the cradle of civilization, it seems, the jerk factor can ruin your day. And the cumulative wisdom of the queuing theorists can't eliminate the scourge of waiting, so we're left to devise individualized means of coping. For Mohamed, it's maturity that makes traffic jams and delays bearable. For Ballanco, it's his laptop. For Traveler X, Prozac may be in order. And one middle-aged mother, waiting at LaGuardia with three active children, turned out to be a master of the obvious, offering this priceless bit of wisdom: "You could bring a book."
Amy Finnerty has written for The Wall Street Journal,The New York Times Magazine, and the Financial Times of London.
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