Ed Note: A version of this post originally appeared on Anthropology in Practice on March 20, 2011.

People have different styles of waiting. Some need to pass the time by doing something—reading, listening to music, or knitting perhaps. Some become fixated on the event and hover in anticipation, checking their watch or—more likely—their phones every few minutes (or seconds). Some seem to handle delays better than others, though very few seem to be able to pass the time idly. Waiting is as much the product of personalities as it is the result of the social environment of the individual, and airports are a fantastic place to observe these behaviors in situ.

For example, let's say you've made it through security with your carry-ons and your assorted electronic devices, managed to get your shoes and belt back on, and are milling about the boarding area. You'll join a group of people who are doing the same thing: waiting. Some may be occupied by their assorted electronic devices. Some may be chatting animatedly or trying to restrain young children from escaping into the crowd. And some—though this number is small—are simply sitting, seemingly staring off into space. (These are the folks who seem to make others most uncomfortable. Perhaps because they seem to be more aware of others? Or because their lack of activity is suspicious?) And then the gate attendant arrives, and the mood of the crowd shifts. People start to pack up their modes of entertainment, and start to look expectant. It’s almost time for the event to begin! Soon you'll be able to board and take your pre-assigned seat!

The boarding process is no secret: parents with young children or those needing assistance are allowed to board first, and then the plane is filled with passengers seated in the rear leading the way. So then why do people anxiously begin to wait to board in front of the gate attendant’s kiosk before the attendant has even announced boarding will begin? All it takes is one person too. One single person who has packed up his gadgets or book, armed with his carry-on, standing expectantly in front of the kiosk will attract others—and as the crowd grows, so does the tension. People begin to glance at phones and watches, they sway back and forth, they sometimes glare at the attendant. I guess no one wants to be left behind. But we all have assigned seats! So why the rush to wait?

Waiting is the period we endure until the expected happens. We wait for all sorts of things: the bus, dinner, colleagues who are late for a meeting, the rain to stop, etc. Waiting is built into our social lives. And our waiting behavior is influenced by a fair number of variables. There isn’t a prescribed method for waiting, and yet waiting in certain contexts tends toward a similar pattern of group impatience leading to aggressive strategies that are meant to better position the waiting individual for the event.

It may be that people are responding to a need to defend their territory. Territories are defined as areas that are controlled through established boundaries that are defended as necessary (1). There are private and public territories. Homes are private territories that are largely controlled by residents with little to no challenge for ownership from outside parties. However public territories, such as waiting rooms and phone booths, are temporary territories where “ownership” or residence may be challenged simply by the presence of others.

Researchers Ruback, Pape, and Doriot report that traditionally people appear to leave an area more quickly when the space around them has been “invaded.” For example, people tend to cross the street faster when grouped with strangers (perhaps this explains New Yorkers’ tendency for speed walking?), and researchers have found that library patrons will change seats or leave if strangers sit at the same table (2). However, it makes sense that individuals will defend their position in a public space if the benefits outweigh the costs. In a crowded library, for example, patrons will be less likely to move or leave if there are few other available desks. The same is true of parking spaces: drivers take longer to vacate a spot if someone is waiting (3).

Ruback, Pape, and Doriot tested territoriality surrounding the use of public pay phones. They expected that people would experience discomfort if others arrived to wait to use the phone while they were in the middle of the call, and that as a result people would make their calls shorter. They also expected that those waiting would express a belief that public phone calls would be kept short (4). They found that those waiting did indeed think that callers should keep their calls brief if there were people waiting, and that if there were one or two people waiting, then the caller became uncomfortable and shortened the call. However, they found that as the number of people waiting to use the phone grew, callers tended to take more time to complete their call:

The fact that callers spend more time at a public telephone when others are around them is consistent with both distraction and territorial explanations. The fact that the effect is produced mainly by the presence of particular others, however, is consistent only with a territorial explanation. The distraction explanation would predict that anyone’s presence would interfere with talking on the phone. Yet the observational studies suggested that persistence was produced only by intruders, people who came to the caller’s area after he or she arrived, and not by the people who were already there or who accompanied the caller. Further, the experimental study showed that persistence was caused not only by the second intruder, the one waiting to use the telephone, but not by the first intruder, who used the adjacent telephone (4).

There are two ideas at work here. First, the notion that people will want to hang on to coveted resources longer if those resources are not readily available (e.g., a desk in a crowded library, or a working public phone in a phone bank). And second, that the presence of others interrupts the individual’s experience of the event, causing them to take longer to complete the process. In a world inundated by mobile technologies, this example may seem outdated at first glance, but in fact, it helps us understand part of what may be happening as flight passengers—as well as others—hurry up to wait.

Though seats are paid for in advance, air travel passengers are preparing to navigate a public territory that they will have to share for a given period of time. And while everyone will definitely have a seat, there may be psychological benefits to being able to settle yourself into your seat—and claim a convenient space in the overhead bin if necessary—before your seatmates arrive. There is no shortage of the resource (seats), but there is no overabundance either, and passengers may be preparing to establish the boundaries that will define their space for the duration of the flight. The very act of seeing others prepare in this case, will compel others to act similarly. Think of it as walking into a crowded, self-service eatery where tables are available, but fill quickly. It isn’t uncommon (in New York at least) for individuals to lay claim to space by leaving an article of clothing or other loss-friendly item to hold their place for them.

How does this translate into the expression of frustration and other “aggressive” type waiting behaviors? If people truly attempt to remove themselves from public territories when they feel that their space has been invaded, then we have to understand that what is created in the “hurrying to wait” model is a space of tension. People are purposely positioning themselves to have their space invaded as well as to be invaders. And both positions create a sense of tension—particularly in a space where social norms from different groups are forced to mix.

Airports are transitory spaces. People from all over the world are asking to inhabit the same spaces, and they bring with them particular world views. This includes perceptions about interdependence and independence:

Members of independent cultures strive to maintain a sense of autonomy and emphasize the value of personal values, attitudes, and convictions, whereas the principal goals fo members of interdependence cultures pertain to fitting in or harmonizing with other people (5).

Independent individuals have greater personal distance requirements than individuals who are interdependent. The culture of the US as a whole (there may be slight regional tendencies) is independent, but the act of traveling itself and having an assigned seat may also impart independent proclivities in individuals who are from areas with interdependent cultures. Independent and interdependent personalities are not wholly culturally constructed—rather, they are somewhat contextually dependent. For example, research participants who were exposed to their own first name (an element meant to trigger independent identification) were likely to sit farther away from occupied chairs than individuals who were not primed in this way (6).

Having a seat may trigger an independent self identification, which in itself has certain expectations that runs counter to the experience of waiting or preparing to occupy a shared public territory. These factors change the expectations associated with the event itself. So now that all these passengers are standing around the attendant kiosk with their carry-ons and boarding passes in hand, perceptions of time change. Though there may not actually be delays, anticipation for the event (boarding the plane) increases. And we can’t overlook the monetary aspect of this: Passengers have paid for the experience of sharing a tight public territory and “if consumers have to pay for waiting, they will be less willing to wait” (7). Hence, the dirty looks directed at the kiosk attendant after about five minutes or so.

So what sort of air traveler are you? Do you hurry up to wait at the kiosk? Or do you sit back and watch the complicated social dance that unfurls as people jockey for position to take their assigned seat?

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Antonides, G., Verhoef, P., & van Aalst, M. (2002). Consumer Perception and Evaluation of Waiting Time: A Field Experiment Journal of Consumer Psychology, 12 (3), 193-202 DOI: 10.1207/153276602760335040

Holland RW, Roeder UR, van Baaren RB, Brandt AC, & Hannover B (2004). Don't stand so close to me: the effects fo self-construal in interpersonal closeness. Psychological Science, 15 (4), 237-42 PMID: 15043640

Ruback, R., Pape, K., & Doriot, P. (1989). Waiting for a Phone: Intrusion on Callers Leads to Territorial Defense Social Psychology Quarterly, 52 (3) DOI: 10.2307/2786718

Ruback, R., & Juieng, D. (1997). Territorial Defense in Parking Lots: Retaliation Against Waiting Drivers Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 27 (9), 821-834 DOI: 10.1111/j.1559-1816.1997.tb00661.x


1. Ruback, Pape, Doriot (1989): 232. | 2. Ruback: 232. | 3. Ruback (1997) | 4. Ruback: 239. | 5. Holland et. al. (2004): 237. | 6. Holland: 239. | 7. Antonides, Verhoef, and van Aalst (2002): 201.

I would be remiss not to direct Readers to Jason Goldman’s (The Thoughtful Animal,) excellent three-part series on animal territoriality on which can be found at his former blogging home here, here, and here.


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