Rare is the person who enjoys waiting in line. Yet, wait we must, because invariably there’s someone or something ahead of us that’s determined to impede our progress—or at least it often feels that way.
The experience of waiting might be even worse when you can’t see how many others are ahead of you, such as in Doree Shafrir’s experience waiting in a virtual line to get tickets to a show. After “getting in line” as soon as the ticket office opened and waiting waiting waiting, the system told her forty-five minutes later that she didn’t get tickets. Frustrating!
Maybe there’s hope since there’s an entire body of research on lines and how to reduce how long we have to wait in them. Indeed, there’s special terminology associated with waiting in line , and if you’re going to be a skilled wait-ologist, you might want to learn them. For example:
Jockeying: The act of switching to a parallel line
Reneging: When a customer leaves a queue he believes he has spent too much time waiting in
Balking Index: Part of an equation that predicts when someone will abandon a line that he feels is too long
First In, First Out: The principle stating that the person who has waited in line longest will be served first
Consider these points if you want to make waiting less onerous for yourself, those you’re with, and those you’re serving and supporting:
Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time, which may be why some supermarkets have installed television screens to feature cooking tips and such at the checkout lines.
People want to get started, which is why some restaurants quickly hand out menus or at least stop by your table and say, “I’ll be with you shortly.”
Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits. People will often tolerate a wait, even though they’d rather not, as long as they know what’s going on.
Feedback on how the line is progressing is important. In a study of telephone waiting times, participants on hold heard either music by itself or music plus one of two spoken messages. The first message apologized for the wait and asked the caller to stay on the line. The second message specified where the person was in the line, such as fourth in line. People who were told their position in line abandoned the call 50 percent less often than those who heard the music or the apology, and they described the experience as much better. Without an indication of the wait time, people overestimate it by 23 percent, so it seems even longer than it really is.
Beating expectations of how long the wait will be buoys our mood. Disney is the master of psychology of waiting, typically overestimating wait time for rides, so that visitors are surprised and pleased when their turn arrives sooner than expected.
Doree Shafrir has a formula for how long she’s willing to wait in line voluntarily:
If anticipated line-waiting discomfort (outdoor temperature, bathrooms, will I have to stay overnight, etc.) (A) x expected time in line (T), squared < my hourly earnings (E) x desire for the object or experience (D) x anticipated fun in line (F), then it seems worth it.
On the other hand, just figuring out this formula while waiting in line will make the wait seem shorter!
Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.