waiting in line
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Good things come to those who wait—right? Not so fast. Amy Finnerty explores the ups and downs of hanging around.
Tom Ballanco was trying to sleep on a makeshift bed in the main terminal of New York's LaGuardia Airport, which ranks first in the country in flight delays. He'd pushed together two angular settees but acknowledged that they were "designed to keep you from sleeping." So he got up and logged on to his laptop to "run my law practice from here." It was two in the afternoon, and he'd been at the airport since 6 A.M. "This being New York, I stayed out all night and got here early," he explained. "It's really my own fault because I missed my flight last night." Ballanco, a Los Angeles environmental lawyer, faced at least four more hours in the terminal but was taking it in stride. "If you get upset, you only hurt yourself," he said. "You can choose to make do with what you've got, and I got work done." What most enrages some delayed travelers, he hypothesized, is their powerlessness. But armed with electronics and a California cool, he was relaxed, even happy.

Much happier than Tracy Brown, a New Yorker who'd been marking time here only briefly. "I've been waiting for a friend's flight for 30 minutes," she said through pursed lips, arms gripped across her chest. "The flight information said 'on time,' but it's not, and I'm ready to get out of here. There's no entertainment, no TV, unless you're on the other side of the gate. They only give you TV if you're paying to fly, or in the bar paying for drinks."

Brown and Ballanco could be case studies for an academic subject—pursued in business schools and psych departments—known as the psychology of queuing. Whether we know it or not, we're emotionally managed from the minute we walk into an airport, bank, or grocery store.

M. Eric Johnson, a professor of management at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, told me a simple way to distinguish between good and bad waiting conditions: "Just ask yourself, What would Disney do?" Disney, he explained, is expert at getting its theme-park patrons to behave themselves in long lines, and even to feel good while they're at it. "You spend a vast portion of your time at Disney World waiting," he said. "So they entertain you while you're in line, and snake the lines around so you can't see how long the wait really is." The truth would be demoralizing. At the same time, he went on, Disney gives you just enough information to dispel the sense that you're being kept in the dark: "They put up signs that say YOU'LL BE ON THE RIDE IN 15 MINUTES, so you feel that you know what's going to happen." In short, Disney follows what behaviorists have come to think of as the Rules of Standing in Line.

Some essential truths about the mind of the involuntary idler:

1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time.

2. "First contact" with a service provider (for instance, checking in with a host in a crowded restaurant) makes people who are waiting feel better, even if it gets them no closer to their goal.

3. Human beings have a natural fear of being forgotten.

4. Anxiety makes a wait seem longer.

5. Any unexplained event or circumstance increases anxiety.

6. Perceived unfairness makes waiting seem longer.

7. Waiting alone is worse than waiting with one or more companions.

8. The greater the ratio of the patron's personal wealth to the value of the service, the more impatient she will be. (In other words, the rich won't wait around for just anything.)

9. An unexpected wait feels longer.

The rules explain Brown's anger. She was told that the flight was on time. When it wasn't, rules no. 4, 5, 6, and 9 came into play. It was wrong for the airline to misrepresent the facts, and her sense of injustice was heightened by the denial of entertainment to nonfliers. The uncertainty about the flight's arrival made her anxious, which made the wait seem longer. Ballanco, on the other hand, believed it was fair that he'd been bumped, since he'd missed his flight. He knew he was booked on a later flight, diminishing uncertainty. He was occupied with work (taking care of rule no. 1). And he had come to the airport expecting a wait (rule no. 9).

A dozen or so passengers interviewed at the main terminal on the same day were slightly skewed toward what Disney might consider good waiting. The weather was fine, and there were few flight delays. But one jarring exception, a man I'll call Traveler X, had fallen afoul of enough rules that he became antisocial. Or, possibly, he was just a jerk. (The "jerk factor," my own contribution to the science, can apply to both service providers and customers.)

Next: Hurry up and wait: Involuntary free time is what you make of it.

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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