Godot on hold (Part 1)

The perception of waiting time

The range of different clever pronouncements on the subject of “waiting” demonstrate  the ambivalence of perception. While some emphasise its benefits (Leo Tolstoy: “Everything comes in time to him who knows how to wait.”) others prefer to emphasise the impatience aspect (Damaris Wieser: “Waiting for something only robs us of the time we won’t have later when we need it.”)

Waiting is the “experience of time” and therefore this ambivalence is hardly surprising. Anyone who has children knows about the “Are we nearly there?” after about three minutes of driving, which is often used interchangeably with “I need the loo!” but that doesn’t matter. The critical reader may argue that this example is about boredom, i.e. forced idleness coupled with lack of stimulus, which is also a form of waiting, only in an intensified form. In the same vehicle, however, the parents are happy about the holidays that have begun (anticipation).

The term “wait” comes from medieval Anglo-French waitier “to watch with hostile intent, lie in wait for, plot against,” or from Old High German wahten “to watch, to guard, to stay awake.” Here the time invested brings reward or at least protects from loss.

Unused time is dead time. Waiting time is considered a cost factor. “Time is money” was proclaimed by Benjamin Franklin as early as in 1748 and this view of waiting is reflected worldwide in concepts such as “just-in-time” and “lean management” (Toyota). The price of goods decreases or profit increases when the waste of resources, which includes time, is reduced. By implication, we value highly what we are willing to wait for.

Waiting and social justice

The unpleasant side of waiting is perceived as a loss of control. Neurobiologists such as Henning Beck attribute this to the experienced lack of possibilities of influence as threatening. This can be seen convincingly in the 1979 Italian film “Traffic Jam” (L’ ingorgo – Una storia impossibile).

Waiting is a social phenomenon and in this context an expression of power. The political scientist and communication expert Harold Laswell already formulated in 1950 that politics is ” Who Gets What, When, How,” i.e. ultimately it is about possibilities and the time of access to power.

Waiting times were and are a means of control and an expression of social justice. The aristocracy-loving English gave expression to this around the 16th century by calling servants at table “waiters.” Those of high standing were served first. Our cultured Scottish friends, on the other hand, are considered the inventors of the so-called greyhound principle of “first come, first served,” which substitutes social inequality with the timing of the request. Other good things, like golf and whisky, also come from Scotland, not England. But they have at least adopted it, albeit with the side effects that Pierre Daninos, French liaison officer to the British army in World War II described: “English people are the only people who even queue to get in a queue.“

Despite such encouraging changes, social inequalities still exist today and are reflected in waiting. Anyone who has ever had to wait in uncomfortable local government corridors knows about impotence. And anyone who hasn’t experienced this, however, will know about their own feelings in the security queue at airports. And anyone who doesn’t know that must belong to the oppressors!  Nowadays, however, these inequalities are quickly subject to suspicion of abuse of power and consequently need to be justified and legitimised. 

Dealing with waiting time

Waiting rooms are designed to show how aspects of waiting can be reinforced or weakened. Some allow certain kinds of waiting, others do not. Ugly corridors with uncomfortable or insufficient seating have already been mentioned. In Berlin’s underground stations, the benches were retrofitted with armrest-like metal tubes making lying down impossible. Transatlantic flights in business class and the associated lounges also make differences clear. But measures affecting waiting times can be observed on a smaller scale too. Who doesn’t know the teasing little progress bars that sweeten the waiting time for us. The magazines in the doctor’s waiting room and the theatre programme help us to bridge waiting times and get a grip on the negativity of useless hanging around. I’ve specifically excluded opening acts at concerts here, because most of them really are awful.

And sometimes we like to wait. Waiting becomes part of the experience. Alfred Hitchcock elevated waiting to an art form. What would his films be without it?

And then there is religion, where the promise of paradise in the future even necessitates corresponding waiting. In this context, however, I am not sure to what extent this still contributes to the manifestation of social inequality.

Waiting and uncertainty

People can talk about the future. Ideas about the future and goals of waiting are communicable. Current research attributes this to animals only to a very limited extent and only in relation to short periods of time between stimuli and the occurrence of the expected (Pavlov’s dog). In contrast, humans are able to uncouple waiting from the stimuli. Researchers call this “dissociation” and define the human background of waiting in terms of freedom of action, self-stimulation, temporal range and the aforementioned communicability.

The hint to young people to make timely provisions for old age, but also the promise of paradise are examples of the temporal distance between stimuli and the expected.

In the so-called marshmallow test (around 1970), children were given the choice of either devouring the scrumptious titbit immediately or getting a second one later, provided they abstained now. This was to test under which conditions something attractive would be given up in the short term for the achievement of long-term goals. Some children did without, others did not. Interestingly, these same children were revisited a few years ago to see what had become of them. In fact, a statistically positive effect was found between renunciation and social and professional success.

The uncoupling of waiting from the stimulus entails higher uncertainty with regard to the probability of occurrence, which is increased by the temporal extension. Particularly with regard to provision for old age, this is quite entertaining, because the probability of reaching a certain age depends on how old one already is. At age 62, the probability of reaching 63 is much higher than at age 16.

So far so good. But now we have reached a point in the article where I can move on to one of my favourite topics: dealing with uncertainty (for buzzword lovers: VUCA world), but this time in the context of waiting. But that will only be in the second part next week, when the waiting for Godot will also come to an end. Or, to paraphrase Woody Allen: “Eternity takes a long time, especially towards the end.”

Original text: RGE
English translation: BCO

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