An elephant in the emergency room

An elephant in the emergency room

Do you ever experience that inconvenient feeling that crawls over you when somebody sits down next to you and his thick winter coat leans into your elbow? Do you ever find yourself scrolling through old magazines that are way past their expiry date, looking at a dry coffee spot on the floor? Or do you ever have thoughts like a voyeur, looking at the others around you, anxiously looking for their ailment? That moment when you can feel the unconscious alertness of all of you focused on that one spot in the room: the entrance door to the doctor’s room: the only escape to change. “Waiting”, or the feeling that we have to pass time without being able to do something with it, might be one of the greatest frustrations of the health care sector. But why does it feel so bad?

Time is a strange concept. The dictionary defines it as the system of those sequential relations that any event has to any other, which is as valuable as saying that a bunch of grapes consists of individual grapes. According to physics, time is a dimension to express how elements in our environment relate to each other. Time can be regarded as a fourth dimension besides height, width and length measurable with a clock, once related to the speed the earth is rotating around its axis according to the sun. Once we defined this absolute concept of time, it became a lot easier to schedule parties and meetings.

But this does not mean 14 minutes are an absolute concept. If you need to brush your teeth, put on your coat, run down the stairs en bike towards the train station are over in a wink compared to the 14 minutes of delay your train might have. Niklas Woermann, sociologist at the university of Denmark, and Joonas Rokka, professor of marketing at the NEOMA business school in France, published an article recently. They looked at the difference between people lying carelessly on the beach for hours though becoming irritated after standing in a line for 5 minutes.

They discovered that the feeling of being in a hurry or impatience derives from a discrepancy between our internal need for time and our external etiquette of time in that situation. In a doctor’s waiting room you are expected to sit down quietly but at the same time your body feels sick and wants to get in the doctor’s room as quickly as possible to be relieved from its pain. That results in an inconvenient feeling.

Animals also experience the speed of time differently. A group of biologists in Ireland recently published a study in which they showed smaller animals percieve time slower than bigger animals do. Rodents registered more images per second than elephants do. In order to catch an even smaller fly which moves very rapidly, evolutionary this is very logical. But should we conclude than that our culture and our physical appearance makes it impossible for us to experience a doctor’s waiting room as a pleasant place? Not really.

Since time is a subjective perception, it is possible to influence it. This is also an important concept in oriental martial arts. To master the skill of actively slowing down time in order to be react faster than your opponent can be of crucial importance. We see this principle in other fields as well: Roger Federer returning a 100km/h serve or a vascular surgeon suturing a ruptured aorta. To the spectator, the reaction seems almost like magic. But experience allows the master to deal with 90% of the situation unconsciously and only has to focus on the 10% that is different. Well, but if we can slow down time, can we also speed it up?

Our society is impatient. Even more, our consumption industry triumphes because of our lack of patience. We are unsatisfiable and rapidly distracted. We get stuffed with en endless flow of sensory input every moment we are awake: whatsapp messages, breaking news, music in cafes and shops, commercials, etc. A moment of true silence is extremely rare. On the contrary, doing nothing is regarded as lazyness. Therefore, during our time in the waiting room we swipe and we like endlessly on our smartphones and our tablets. At least, we don’t have the feeling we are just waiting.

We have gotten so used to getting directly what we want. Spotify gives me music wherever I am, Whatsapp gives me my friends whenever I want, food is always available. We basically forgot how to wait.

At the same time, the popularity to experience the now is immensely big. Millions are joining courses of mindfullness, yoga and meditation. We are industriously looking for a moment of pure silence. We want to enjoy the slowness of life, but only if we scheduled time to go slow. Because when somebody keeps us waiting, his inefficiency is spoiling our most precious time. This is were our sore spot lies.

If we are able to truly find peace in slowness, we can let go of our urge to control the situation. The biggest benefit is to be generated from things that didn’t have any value in the first place. Time in a waiting room is still your time. So next time, if you are sitting with a fever, think of an elephant and time will fly.


Not a sad story from Africa