Thursday, March 29, 2018

Reflections on impatience

ne of my most challenging character flaws is impatience.

I’ve been aware of the problem for decades and I’ve tried to control it, with varying degrees of success. Sometimes I can almost get through a day without an incident – but then I’ll head out to dinner at a restaurant, and be told there’s a 20 minute wait for a table in a dining room that is half-empty. This situation will end one of two ways: I will either suggest to the hostess that there appears to be plenty of tables available right now, or I will go eat somewhere else. Usually I do both.

Patience at that moment would be, as it always is, a virtue – but I would counter that in that particular circumstance it is also unnecessary.

Indeed, as I’ve gotten older I’ve started to reconsider my aversion to impatience, because when I feel it, it’s usually justified.

Example – I do not get impatient at the Department of Motor Vehicles, a destination so infamous for interminable waits that it’s often compared to a circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno – and not one of the better ones.

But at the DMV location where I renew my license, there are more than 50 service windows, and more than 95% of them are open for business. Yes, it still took just over 90 minutes the last time I had to get new plates for my car. But it was obvious that an effort was being made to serve the public.

Contrast this with, say, a trip to Target, where there are 20 checkout lines spanning the entire front of the store, but cashiers at just three of them, all of which have lines. A rather obvious solution to this problem presents itself, but Target doesn’t feel a need to adequately staff its store to minimize customer wait times.

Thankfully they have since added an automated self-checkout option. Before that, I won’t tell you how often I’ve abandoned carts of merchandise because I refuse to stand behind four shoppers in aisle 3 while aisles 6 through 17 are unattended.

Southern California traffic has also tried the patience of millions of commuters. But when I’m on the 405, inching past LAX on my way to the Valley, I look around and see five lanes in both directions, and a plethora of surface streets as alternative routes. They did what they could. The city just got too big, and people there just like driving more than other forms of transportation.

Where I live in Southern Nevada, it’s another story. City planners had population projections decades ago, acres of empty land and time to prepare for future transportation capacity, and they didn’t do it.

Thus, my impatience is not a Pavlovian response to uncontrollable delays. It is borne instead from a belief that someone, at some point, decided my time was unworthy of value. This is not a sense of entitlement; it’s a belief that no one deserves to be treated this way.

I’m not unaware of the economic realities that prompt businesses to rely on skeleton staffing – they are convinced that cutting expenses to the bone, which includes personnel – is the only way to compete with online retail. But perhaps if they invested more in qualified, courteous, well-trained salespeople and cashiers, they could provide the kind of shopping experience that cannot be delivered through a computer. Someday someone will try this and it will actually work.

And memo to the banks: you don’t get to hide behind the economic argument: so stop figuring one teller is enough for most weekday afternoons.

The absolute worst places on earth (or at least in the United States) for impatient people are hospitals. Thank heaven I’ve been fairly healthy all my life. But when I’ve had to go with a relative, whether it’s the emergency room or a scheduled outpatient surgery or just waiting to be released, the time required for even the most basic actions can be interminable. These are “times three” places – meaning the span of time required to do something anywhere else will be tripled once you enter a hospital.

At the other end of the spectrum are places that hype expediency as one of their advantages, such as “fast food” restaurants and “express lanes” in supermarkets. I put these descriptions in quotes because they usually prove inaccurate.

A 12-item limit at the grocery store does nothing to offset chatty cashiers, customers who act like it’s the first time they’ve seen a debit card reader, price checks, and customers that request a pack of cigarettes, requiring a cashier to set out on a journey to the plexiglass safe at the other end of the store where these products are kept, unlock it, and then try to remember if the request was for Marlboro Red or Marlboro Gold.

And fast food? Try ordering a Quarter Pounder without pickles and see how long it takes. Unless you’re at In-n-Out Burger, the service will likely be substandard.

What makes such moments more tolerable is when I spot someone in line sporting an exasperated expression and nervous tics similar to my own, sighing audibly as the line continues to not move, who seems just seconds away from the kind of vocal outburst that, to date, I still manage to restrain in most situations. At some point our eyes will meet, we recognize a kindred spirit, and we feel a little less alone surrounded by all these idiots. And then we just keep waiting.


  1. Dave: great essay. What I hate are the 15 item limit, and people have 30 items. Oh, 20 yogurts count as one yogurt, right? they are all the same. I also hate when cashiers scan all 20 yogurts, rather than being able to scan one and multiply by 20. I hate the DMV; near 5:00 pm, they had about 100 people still waiting, and half the employees went home. No. You've got 100 more people. close the door, and get them through. I love online shopping. Peter

    1. I work weekends as a cashier, and in my case, we're only allowed to multiply if there are 12 or more of a certain item. We also can't repeat the last item by pressing a button, the way I did when I was a cashier 1 summer in the mid-1980s, so a lot of the slowdowns are due to store & register policies.


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