Opinion: The lost art of waiting in line

United Airlines recently changed its boarding process in an attempt to save two minutes per plane on the ground.

A plane on the ground is not making money for the airline. Lining up to board a plane has become a stark indicator of how our society has commodified the very act of waiting. The more you pay, the sooner you can get on the plane and the less likely you will have to check a bag, which results in more waiting at the other end of the flight.

Maggie Mulqueen - Maggie Mulqueen
Maggie Mulqueen - Maggie Mulqueen

But as one who has been in Group Six and faced the glare of others while walking to my seat at the back of the plane, I can only hope this change will be good for passengers too.

It’s not just airlines, it’s also museums, online purchases and amusement parks where VIP status can help you avoid lines. You can even avoid the line to see Santa by purchasing a photo package in advance.

When did the act of waiting get such a bad rap?

As a practicing psychologist, the concept of waiting is a major part of my work. In psychological terms, waiting is often framed as a component of delayed gratification and is contrasted against instant gratification.

I know due to my training and clinical experience that, from a mental health perspective, the ratio of instant gratification to delayed gratification is weighted heavily towards taking the long view — with occasional treats of spontaneity.

The very act of waiting can enhance our appreciation of something. We savor the anticipation like a child waiting for Christmas or summer vacation. Perhaps the person waiting in line to see their favorite singer perform in concert relishes the night more because of the time invested in getting into the venue.

But as our world has sped up, this desirable balance between instant and delayed gratification is at ever greater odds with the current expectations of many, if not most, people. This change has a negative impact on mental health both individually and collectively. When we denigrate the act of waiting, we risk losing an important part of our shared humanity.

Having to wait is taken as a sign of being less well off or “not in the game.” It encourages privileged impatience and disdain for those who are caught waiting. Amazon, GrubHub and the like can be at our doorstep in less than an hour. We can stream the latest movies from home. We can even arrange a date from our phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Patients report feeling embarrassed in situations, like the joke is on them, for not understanding how to avoid being caught flat-footed while others around them have figured out the system. One father in my practice told me, “My kids looked at me like a loser when we showed up to Disney and I hadn’t understood the ticketing process to avoid lines.”

The gap between those who must wait, and those who can buy or maneuver their way out of waiting, is growing larger as more of life is “up for sale,” furthering an imbalance of power.

But the capacity to wait is a foundational part of a civilized society and thus an important skill to have. If we lose our ability to stand in line or to wait our turn, we suffer from the stress of a world on steroids. If we label people who wait as “losers,” we unleash potent primitive urges to grab what’s ours at any cost with no concern about those we leave behind. We see the people in line as “other,” not like us, and that dehumanization is dangerous.

When waiting is seen instead as a necessary part of life rather than a passive stance, we can enlist our full psychological reserves to prepare us for what lies ahead and influence the outcome.

Incorporating waiting into our planning can improve our relationships with our fellow citizens. Rather than seeing other passengers as a personal affront to my ability to arrive at my destination on time, I understand that we are all part of the larger whole trying to go about life. After all, we are all on the same plane.

Of course, we should not have to wait patiently for everything. For example, there are times when injustice deserves immediate action. Asking people to wait can be a calculated impediment to change and a misuse of power. And waiting due to inefficiencies or incompetence can range from annoying to illegal.

It remains to be seen how effective United Airlines’ new policy for boarding its planes will be, but part of its success will hinge on how willing people are to wait their turn and how well the airline executes the change.

In a larger context though, it behooves all of us to understand the act of waiting not only as a necessary evil but also as an important function which allows us to participate fully alongside our fellow travelers in life.

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