Why we hate to wait

  • Article by: JEFF STRICKLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 20, 2014 - 2:25 PM

If you want to complain about waiting, you'll need to get in line.


Air travelers waited in line to go through TSA security screening at the airport.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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When John Tauer takes his sons to the State Fair, they’ll know what to expect: waiting in lines that at times seem to stretch all the way from Sweet Martha’s cookie stand to the Giant Slide. They also know better than to complain about it.

Tauer, a professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and a blogger for Psychology Today, has researched the psychology of waiting in line and is aware of how frustrating it can be. But he’s also aware that having a bad attitude only makes the waiting worse. “If you’re not willing to wait, don’t get in the line in the first place,” he said.

His two sons got a lesson in his waiting-in-line mind-set during a family vacation to Disney World last year.

“I told them upfront, ‘As soon as we complain about a line, we’re leaving. If you want to be in a line, that’s fine. But we’re not going to stand here for 40 minutes and complain and then we get on Space Mountain for two minutes. The glory of that two minutes just got ruined by the 40 minutes of complaining.’ ”

Waiting in lines is common in some parts of Europe, but Americans — with our fixation on time management and obsession with instant everything — are much less tolerant about such things. When we get stuck in a line, even at the all-you-can-drink milk booth, we tend to take it personally.

“Waiting too long in a line is often perceived as a violation of our right to manage and control our time,” said Carol Bruess, a St. Thomas professor specializing in communication behavior.

“We live in one of the most individualistic cultures in the world, which means we want what we want — and we want it now, and it better be quick and easy,” she said.

Bruess said, “The notion that we should be able to meet our needs without waiting too long, coupled with the reality that many of us get a bit irritated or anxious when we have to wait too long for something we think we need or want, is so deeply and culturally ingrained in us we come to believe it’s ‘natural’ to not want to wait longer than we think we should.”

In a society that believes that time is money, waiting often is reduced to a cost-reward ratio: Do we consider what we’re waiting for to be worth the time spent doing so?

“At the end of the day — or, at the end of the line — our choices about lines come down to a basic tenet of human behavior: meeting and fulfilling needs,” she said. “If what comes at the front of the line is important enough to us, we’ll wait for it. And your perception of what’s important might be dramatically different from mine.”

Elizabeth Lincoln and John Lauber understand that. The Minneapolis couple were biding their time on a pleasant evening outside the Tin Fish restaurant at Lake Calhoun, expecting a 45-minute wait before they would get to the window to place their order.

“I usually don’t like lines, but I’m OK with this one,” Lincoln said. Her husband agreed: “If whatever is at the end of the line is good, this is worth it.”

How to offset irritation

Our relationship with lines isn’t all negative, Tauer said. In some circumstances being in line can be an ego boost — for instance, queuing up outside the hottest nightclub even though other clubs have plenty of room.

“It’s a status thing,” he said. We reason that “the other clubs must not be as important because they’re not drawing the attention.”

There are four basic approaches to studying the psyche of waiting, Tauer said. “You can look at this at a cultural level, at a social-environmental level, at the individual level and the physiological level,” he said.

Knowing what factors are at play can help offset some of the frustration. For instance, as a culture, we tend to be impatient. The environment deals with the nature of the place we’re waiting; is it a comfortable, even enjoyable spot? Physiological issues include our reaction to being in the midst of a crowd, and the individual aspect is how much we want the thing that we’re waiting for.

Good etiquette also can make the wait less stressful, said Marilyn Pentel, founder and CEO of Twin Cities-based Mannerly Manners.

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