Off Piste: Confucius says he who waits contemplates

Jon F. Baldwin finds the slow-moving Saturday night queue at his local Chinese takeaway sometimes provides the only opportunity for self-reflection in an otherwise frantic week

September 10, 2009

Takeaways on a Saturday night - it has become a ritual for many of us, has it not? We work all week, rushing from here to there. The first office email is pinged off before breakfast is finished, we drop the kids off at school, and school is then followed by football, hockey, netball, music lessons, parties and other after-school stuff. Work, cook, eat, sleep, work, cook, eat, sleep. Monday to Friday is madness and rush, but somehow you manage to squeeze everything in.

You are where you need to be pretty much when you need to be there. You fill the brief spare moments between appointments with emails, snatched telephone calls and annotations to endless documents. Busy-ness, perversely, creates more time for yet more work. Gaps are filled and priorities subconsciously established. Living or existing? You decide - but what has to get done somehow gets done.

Then Saturday comes and somehow you find yourself in the takeaway at almost exactly the same time you were there the previous Saturday. The very word "takeaway" conjures up the notion of another way of extending that week-long rush to squeeze everything in. "I'm tired; there isn't time to cook; we'll have a takeaway - maybe a Chinese. It will be quick and convenient; I will even nip down in the car." But then you arrive at the takeaway and see the queue, and now you remember that there is always a queue around this time. The experience does not seem quite so fast, or quite so easy or "takeaway", and you remember it was not fast or easy the last time you visited either. But yet here you are, back again, in the same takeaway, in a sense in the same queue at the same time.

The queue is being dealt with, sort of, by a single member of staff. That in itself seems quite inadequate and annoying, but given the economic situation, it's forgivable. More annoying still is the telephone behind the counter. The queue moves even more slowly than it should because it soon becomes apparent that the disembodied voices on the phone have a peculiar priority over the people standing patiently in line. The takeaway can't miss new business. Those here in person have already committed to being customers. They come here every Saturday at exactly the same time and they haven't been put off yet, so they can wait.

Indeed, some people in the queue are simply collecting food. They used the phone to place their order before driving over, so any frustration or agitation they may have with the unknown callers is somewhat misplaced. For the rest of us, though, the queue makes us feel perplexed and slightly aggrieved. I want a straightforward queue, a queue where I understand the rules - the old Post Office snake queue. I do not want to wait while an invisible telephone person barges in front of me. It seems rude. However, as usual, just like every Saturday, I nod and I smile and I attempt to be at least briefly distracted by the TV in the corner of the room or the single, crumpled, local free newspaper on the chair in the corner.

Wait. I may be missing an opportunity here. Perhaps, if you pardon the takeaway pun, I should not fritter away this valuable time. Should I, perhaps, take a moment to mull over an article for Times Higher Education on which UK universities are the Chinese takeaways of the education system? Is there a British university where the systems are slow, you get no help with the navigation of a confusing menu of courses and options, where customer service is patchy and where interruption and distraction is common - no, that is too depressing a thought.

But I'm in the mood now. Perhaps there is an opportunity to get one of our MBA students on the case. I am sure this could be a great case study for some hotshot young business analyst to look at queueing dynamics and work out how to improve the customer experience. Or maybe I could get one of my own keen young academic administrators to come by and apply their PRINCE2-accredited project management qualifications to planning a better way of managing and helping this slow-moving line of hungry humans, both practically and psychologically. I admire both those groups of people - MBA students and academic administrators and, increasingly, the combination of the two in the form of academic administrators with MBAs. Their agile minds and lateral thinking have made many a problem facing my university evaporate, and even turned them into opportunities. But for some reason I do not want them right here, right now. Curiously I want to hold on to this unnecessarily long little loop of time for some other purpose.

I'm still waiting. Perhaps this is an ideal moment to get the BlackBerry out and plough through the endless tide of emails. The first three are spam, spam and more spam. I then recall that my favourite association with the word "spam" is a Monty Python sketch set at the counter of a cafe that ends in an amusing but pointless song, and I decide that checking the BlackBerry for emails is perhaps just too pompous and ironic an activity for a takeaway queue. I might get away with it if I were looking at something more frivolous, such as Twitter. My communications office people tell me that at least one registrar tweets regularly - I don't know how he finds the time unless he stands in a lot more fast-food queues than I do.

Joy. When I reach the counter I pretend to study quickly the complicated menu but then I simply order what I order on every occasion. "Evening, mate. Sichuan chicken, fried rice, kung pao chicken." But why do I do this every week?

Progress. I have ordered and now, once more, I am waiting. I have nothing to do but wait, using up the precious time I have been so expert at maximising throughout the working week. That crumpled-up freesheet isn't, frankly, terribly inviting, and I have brought nothing of my own to read. I should have, because, as ever, I have brought a 2ft-high stack of committee papers and other written material home from the office, but once again I have not brought a single item out with me to read.

OK, perhaps the attachment to the senate papers on the latest list of external examiners to be approved by the Science Faculty Board may not be either the most exciting or the most easy-to-read paperwork in a queue such as this, but I could have brought the latest shiny edition of Times Higher Education. Its recent redesign makes it a much easier read for queues of all kinds, but somehow, yet again, I have made a conscious or subconscious decision not to bring anything work-related with me to fill the time.

All I seem to be doing is waiting, and it seems it's mostly my own fault. I knew there would be a queue if I came at this time and I have failed to bring anything with me, failed to plan or do anything to fill that time. It feels distinctly odd. The final option open to me is to begin a conversation, but this being a very British queue, no one wants to cope with the horror of actually talking with their hungry neighbour. Well, that is not entirely true - some of my fellow takeaway patrons do seem to be talking to themselves.

Twenty years ago, hearing and seeing people talking to themselves anywhere (but particularly in a queue) would have been a very worrying sign and a clear cue to leave quietly but quickly, and then find a fast-food outlet with much saner patrons. However, in the 21st century, we just assume these people are all perfectly sane and are simply babbling into their Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone microphones. This is obviously a great technological advance for the 21st-century British queue. No need to pretend to be aloof and uninterested in our neighbours; now we have a much better excuse not to talk to those around us. We can pretend to be having vital phone conversations with people we do care about, or at least don't actually have to look at while talking. Failing that, we can of course always pretend to be busy tweeting our many "friends".

So it seems I really am just waiting and, because I'm waiting, I'm bored. Am I simply unable to cope with waiting, with doing nothing? If I can't, why am I here again and why have I not come better prepared and brought one of the many things I could have used to productively fill the time? Maybe it is indeed a subconscious thing. Perhaps the takeaway queue is the first place all week that forces you to just, well, stop.

I never thought that a takeaway was a place for contemplation and for positive thought. But, while being busy creates time, it then also immediately fills it with more work. Just once every week, I think the takeaway rhythm is actually rather good for me. It's just a pity that the cholesterol isn't.

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