Waiting rooms

Posted in Uncategorized by Sean Holton on August 28, 2009
A modern waiting room

A modern waiting room

A hospital waiting room in Ghana
A hospital waiting room in Ghana



I’ve been spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms lately. They can be very interesting places. Here’s what reader Leslie had to say about her son’s own experience with them during his journey through brain-cancer treatment:

“My son traveled the same road you’re on–mask and all. He was first diagnosed in 2001 and was treated with surgery and chemo. He had a recurrence in 2006 — this time treated with surgery and radiation. He currently has MRI’s every 6 months We trekked to Yale New Haven Hospital 5 days a week for 6 weeks for John’s treatments. I found the waiting area in the radiation center to be a place where all ‘masks’ were removed. I listened to the hard core biker giving tips to the high school Spanish teacher on how to keep his 12-year-old vehicle running for another 10 years. I watched the wife of a business executive who was being treated, dressed in her usual designer duds, hold an infant who had vomited all over himself while the mom, who was on Medicaid, (everyone discussed their insurance plan openly) went to the parking lot to get clean clothes for the baby. And there was the Yale Professor and the woman who worked cleaning offices in New Haven for the last 35 years doing the crossword puzzle together every day. These are all people that probably would have never crossed paths and would have not had the opportunity to view life through the eyes of someone who would have otherwise been foreign to them. Hospital waiting rooms are the great equalizer.”

I don’t think I could describe that phenomenon any better than Leslie did. I can only say that it is consistent with my past few weeks in waiting-room settings where people share emotions and talk about the common experience of fighting for their lives. 

But way before now, I had already been paying some attention to what’s been going on with waiting rooms in general. I had taken note of the overall decline of the old-fashioned idea of the waiting room.  It used to be a fairly common experience to have to sit in a relatively confined space with total strangers awaiting some mutual unpleasantness with no way to pass the time but to find interest in one another’s company. Even when lives were not at stake, you might strike up worthwhile conversations with people you’d otherwise never have occasion to meet. You’d get to know those people a little bit, if only to talk about jobs, politics, sports, traffic or some other superficial subject. Some types of waiting rooms — such as the small holding areas outside medical offices or driver’s license bureaus or in auto-repair shops — tended to be more intimate and conducive to this type of random interaction than others. And even in larger, more impersonal areas –such as an airports or train terminals — you might not start a conversation but at least you could sit there in silence, reading a book or a newspaper and consciously sharing a common physical space for a little while.

In today’s society, for better or worse, changing technology has turned space for random, in-person human interaction into a endangered habitat. Opportunities for flesh-and-blood togetherness, even it its most unremarkable forms, are growing more rare.

The first encroachment came a long time ago, when blaring television sets routinely began to be mounted on brackets high on the walls of small waiting rooms. Sure, providing a television seemed like a nice thing to do to help people pass the time. But is it really that nice when there are lots of people and only one screen that is dominating the entire room? I’ve been in relatively small spaces where groups of up to two dozen people have suddenly been taken hostage by the tastes of someone who had decided earlier to tune the channel to something like Judge Judy or COPS or Bill Cosby Show reruns. When the TV is blaring, most conversation stops — unless it is to react as a group to something outrageous or hilarious that has just unfolded on the screen. Few people ever have the nerve to get up in front of such a group and change the channel, let alone turn off the TV.

But the real death blow to waiting rooms was dealt more recently — by cell phones, e-mail, texting, and laptop computers. Now people in waiting rooms don’t even have to acknowledge one another’s presence or pretend to share the same physical reality at all. They can just stay lost in their own, remote cyber-worlds. Even the shared experience of sitting at an airport-terminal gate area and waiting to board the plane has completely changed. It no longer exists, really. It’s just like any other place to park your body while your mind and the rest of your life are somewhere else. The idea of the common social context of a public waiting room — however mundane — has been blasted away.

I don’t know if that’s really such a horrible thing, especially considering what we have realized in return: Instant and constant communication with people we love, global connectivity, more speed and efficiency in conducting personal and business matters, new support networks (such as the one that has popped up here for me) that transcend physical boundaries, the works. I just think the disappearance of the old waiting-room experience is something worth noting. And without passing judgment, we should at least be obliged to consider what we lost at each step in exchange for what we gained.

The old-style waiting room experience was based on what database and communications experts would call the “one-to-one” relationship: One person talking and listening to one other person and both sides deriving pretty much equal value from the exchange. Pretty homey, but also pretty primitive.

When we traded up from that to the blaring TV on the wall-bracket, we ventured into “one-to-many” territory: One central source of information (the blaring TV set) transmitting to several receivers (the people in the waiting room). Very efficient in terms of transmission and reception of a single message, but very little value in the way of exchange. Was that trade-off worth it? Who is in charge of the message?

Today’s waiting room full of cell phones and handheld computers  is a model of the “many-to-many” relationship: Many transmitters and receivers of data, many messages, all coming and going at once, no physical boundaries, communications value piling up faster than you are able to even measure it. The immediate environment matters no more than the brand names of the computers being used to transmit the messages. The specific waiting room you happen to be in is irrelevant because you have escaped its confines. The entire world is now one big waiting room. We’re all waiting for our next e-mail, our next phone call or voicemail, the next post on our favorite blog. So is that a good thing? Is that how we really want to live? 

Waiting in cyberspace: Shannon, Ireland

Waiting in cyberspace: Shannon Airport, Ireland

A couple years ago while waiting in the gate area to board a plane at Kansas City International Airport, I was watching all the other passengers lost in their fragmented cyber-worlds. Then I started thinking about all the people on the other ends of all those cell phone conversations and text-messaging sessions emanating from my waiting room at that precise moment. I thought it would be an interesting idea to bring those remote participants together as characters in a play.  They’d be even be more alien than total strangers, they would be strangers to the second power. Not only would they have never met before, but they would have no reason even to be sharing the same physical space until the curtain was raised on the play. It would be only through the artifice of drama that they would have been brought together from all over the world into one windowless room with no television set and no other means of communicating with the outside. They would have comfortable chairs and refreshments and they would be able to interact with one another.  But what would they talk about? Would they understand why they were all there? What would they think they were waiting for? How long would it take them to figure out that their only common link was that in the instant before coming together in that room, each of them had been communicating with someone who was at that moment waiting to board a Southwest Airlines flight from Kansas City to Orlando? Would they ever figure it out? If not, would they be able to find that they had anything in common? In the hands of a good playwright, I think it could make a pretty decent story. Maybe someone has already written it — or some variant of it, perhaps as a Twilight Zone episode.

I wouldn’t know how to do it, which is why I’m just throwing the idea out there. Meanwhile, I will continue to savor my time in real hospital waiting rooms, sitting with other cancer patients, one-to-one, talking about what it is like to be alive. Right now.


6 Responses

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  1. RebelliousRenee said, on August 28, 2009 at 8:12 am

    what brilliant insights…. it’s true, because of this medium, you and I can have a relationship of sorts…. but it does come with a price. Every choice we make means another choice is being ignored.

    I did have an unusually good time in a hospital waiting room last fall. My mother was getting cataract surgery. I was driving her to and from the hospital…. it was around a 3hr wait. Most people were dropping their loved ones off and making plans to come back. However, I decided to stay and read. The waiting room had a card table off to one side with a partially made puzzle on it. I started to work on the puzzle. A few minutes into it another women came over to help me. Then another woman shortly after that. We decided to move the table more into the center of the room so it would be easier for us to work. We had a great time and talked… even exchanged names. Maybe that’s a solution…. more puzzles in waiting rooms.

    My thoughts and prayers as always are with you.

  2. Lois Grebowski said, on August 28, 2009 at 9:30 am

    I usually find a way to talk to people in waiting rooms. You get all sorts of stories and histories. Shoot, any line, waiting area, etc. I am always trying to converse…

    Yep, that’s me, the social goofball!

  3. artcricket said, on August 28, 2009 at 12:15 pm

    The waiting room at the imaging center I go to removed all the magazines due to GERMS! That is what they told me when I asked where all the magazines had gone. I won’t subscribe or buy People but look forward to a visit to the drs. to catch up on back issues – LOL! A great equalizer in the waiting room is just throwing a comment out like, “how ’bout that octo-mom” and you can have the whole place engaged.
    All that fun is gone now — instead everyone is left ruminating about their situation.

  4. Jamie said, on August 28, 2009 at 2:10 pm

    Waiting rooms have become a symptom of the “bowling alone” phenomenon. Reality is the places we work and those on the ends of our fingertips.

    On the drama idea, I think they would figure it out fairly fasit .. “What were you doing just before you got here?”. The real drama would be in what they did about it and would they like bloggers leap from the person they knew to the person to which they were now connected?

  5. Mary Frances said, on August 28, 2009 at 3:13 pm

    Your Ghana photo reminded me the time in 1982 when I volunteered for a couple weeks at a hospital in Haiti (my cousin, a Duke student who was barely older than me, was the interim administrator that summer), where the waiting room was the dirt yard outside, full of patients’ relatives squatting over cookfires — there were almost no nurses, and certainly no cook! Patients’ families fed and looked after their loved ones — just wanted to let you know we are ready to start the cookfires whenever you need!

  6. David Kellas said, on August 29, 2009 at 8:47 am

    mary i agree

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