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The Psychology of Waiting

We all do it, almost always patiently, though sometimes not.  We wait.  We wait in line at Starbucks for our coffee.  We wait in traffic, and wonder who is first in line, and why won't that person hurry up?

This morning, I observed my dog, Blue, waiting for me to get him some water, and I was struck by how patient he was, as I waited for the very slow faucet — the one that has the really good water — to fill up the cup that we both knew I was going to pour into his dish as soon as it was full.  Why are people (and by that term, I include dogs) sometimes patient, and sometimes very impatient?  Even Blue is sometimes impatient, so why was he so patient this time?  I think it's because he could tell I was waiting, too.  Then it struck me, that's why we are so patient in places like Starbucks, and even traffic jams.  (I speak of L.A. traffic jams, where waiting is a predictable daily occurrence, and despite widely publicized reports of "road rage", the vast majority of drivers are extremely patient and courteous.  Please don't get me started on my defense of L.A. drivers in general.  Just accept my high regard of them as an opinion, and move on!)  Now I see I've digressed enough that I should take a "breath" (read: new paragraph) and continue my story.

I think I know the reason Blue was so patient this morning.  Because we were both waiting.  He knew I was getting him some water, because after he made a show of licking his empty dish, he saw me examine the dish, and then he saw me go to the faucet with the good water, and start doing that stuff that humans do just before the dish is full again.  All four of his feet and both eyes were pointed in my direction, his mouth slightly open.  Two of my feet, and both of my eyes were on the slow faucet.  We were both waiting.  The funny part is that I took some comfort in knowing Blue was waiting with me.  Somehow it made the waiting easier.  And then it struck me that Blue must have found the same thing:

People are more patient if they are with others who are also waiting.

If this opinion has some basis in fact, then the fact can be exploited in business.  If people must wait, make sure they see they're not alone.  At a physical store, that's no problem.  The best stores for waiting are the ones like the Disneyland, the post office and Borders Books, where a single line is serviced by several service-givers, and so the line moves constantly forward.  But in a "virtual" store, such as a telephone call center, or an Internet store, we can't directly see the other people who are waiting.  The best of these businesses give frequent updates to the people who are waiting.  "We are experiencing high call volume," a call center might say.  "your call will be answered in approximately 15 minutes."  I think they could do a better job (by saying adding information along these lines:  we currently have 214 people on hold ahead of you, and 83 people in Bangalore servicing calls as fast as they can) but any information is better than none.