The waiting game

I know this is hardly a unique experience, but over the past few weeks I have spent a lot of time waiting for the services of certain tradespeople. Plumbers, electricians, officials handing out licences or authorisations, deliveries from shops of goods paid for a while ago, and so on. But actually, waiting is part of our everyday fabric now. It is almost impossible these days to ring an office or company or retail outlet without hearing some electronic version of Bach and an invitation to press ‘4’, followed by the hash key, if I actually want to talk to anyone.

On Friday I was in a public office applying for a permit. I could have done this by post, but the office is close to mine and I thought I’d save everyone the postage by going there directly. I waited for about an hour and 20 minutes. I got my permit, and I cannot fault the person who served me (who was polite and helpful), but nevertheless it was all built around the modern culture of unnecessary waiting.

Also during the past few days I ordered some goods that I wanted to have delivered, and was offered a date some three weeks away. When I pressed them to arrange something much earlier, I was eventually offered the next day. When I asked why they hadn’t suggested that in the first place, the very nice young man serving me conceded that he just automatically went for a date a few weeks later, as that seemed ‘more natural’.

Is my problem that I  just dislike deferred gratification, or have we constructed certain social norms that are calculated to inconvenience and unsettle? In fact, do we do any of this in education also?

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11 Comments on “The waiting game”

  1. Al Says:

    Graduates waiting for their certs that intend to immigrate?

  2. anna notaro Says:

    I don’t see any problems with disliking deferred gratification, although it has to be said that the waiting game enhances some types of gratification (while waiting too long kills them).
    Thinking for a minute about its opposite, instant gratification well…then this is a psychological mechanism that marketeers and advertisers know very well, actually our whole social and economic order is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase goods and services for our instant gratification, such type of ‘conspicuous consumption’, as the sociologist Veblen would put it, a ‘shop therefore I am’ type of mentality
    as the conceptual artist Barbara Kruger would have it in her prints http://www.tate.org.uk/magazine/issue3/consume_image2.htm
    is pervasive enough and spills into education as well, particularly with regards to its increasing commodification…it has been pointed out (by religious leaders and not just) that the recent UK riots have shown how the desire to possess goods, electronic gadgets or trendy trainers – while bookshops were mostly ignored by looters – was the sign of a generation hooked up on consumption, how can we as educators, in this cultural climate, buck the trend and explain that education is for the medium and long run rather then for the instant one? That it is worth waiting for its benefits to become apparent, not for too long, admittedly…


    • Part of the problem is that we contribute to the trend we’re trying to buck. Here in Australian higher ed. our typical measures focus obsessively on the impact of education in the short term. So, student evaluations ask students how they feel right at that minute about what just happened; and course evaluations aren’t much better (especially when tied to the effort to prize contact details out of soon-to-be-alumni). I realise that we have to collect this data because it’s what we can get, but I think we should also handle it with care, or we’re going to be continually over-valuing things that make people feel good quickly, over those which have them still thinking years later.

      Brian, I followed the science of wait management for a while (and I hasten to say that this was an entirely amateurish curiosity, I have no background in this area at all, except that I have done my share of standing about in lines). There’s significant industry devoted to crafting media and marketing opportunities for those becalmed times. So while I agree that waiting represents business waste in certain ways, I find it more problematic that this belief is promoting practices that cause us to become less and less skilled in waiting without diversion.

      • anna notaro Says:

        yep, fully agree with you that we (universities) contribute to the trend, although one should specify who the ‘we’ exactly are here, i.e.the ones exercising the power of devising the strategy.. when I was writing that I had of course in mind the most recent White Paper on education in the UK, only the latest in a longer line of interventions to favour a short term approach…not surprisingly short-sighted is the best definition I would use to describe current education policies in England, when I’m not angry, that is..

    • don Says:

      Anna, Isn’t the Latin for ‘shop therefore I am’ ‘Tesco ergo sum’?


  3. Waiting is a waste from an economic point of view (particularly if you have to wait in a queue). However, it requires some skill for a provider to get rid of these waits. In general this is not part of the training of tradespeople. As customers we are generally prepared to accept this insofar as we don’t agree to pay more for better service and so it continues. Although, again, we probably think things are bad when in fact from my memory we used to queue and wait a lot more when I was younger.

    Queueing and waiting is also a phenomenon cause by a mismatch of supply and demand when price is not used to match them. If the price is less that the optimum required to balance a queue will build up. Some people will eventually leave the queue and so eventually you will get an equilibrium with a specific length of queue.

    On a lighter note, have you heard about the tantric sex position called the “Plumber”? You stay in all day and nobody comes.

  4. Vincent Says:

    What in Holy Gods Name can you be doing that requires licences or authorisations in the multiple.

  5. don Says:

    Ferdinand, in relation to your closing question, can I get back to you on that one? I promise…next week…

  6. Wendymr Says:

    have we constructed certain social norms that are calculated to inconvenience and unsettle?

    Having flown transatlantic twice in the last five days, my answer would be an unequivocal yes


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