Instant Gratification Nation
Last spring the Hidden Pearl coffee shop opened in downtown McHenry. Just two blocks south of us on Green Street.
It changed our lives.
And our hopes for the neighborhood. Which has endured its share of economic downturn fallout. As well as a major fire.
Over the summer, every time Peter sent me off to write for a few hours, I hurried down to the Hidden Pearl, hoping to find that my favorite corner—over there by the window—was free.
She lives up to her name in every way. This Hidden Pearl. She is a bit hard to spot—even though she sits on one of the busiest streets through town, between the old movie theater and a new tattoo parlor. Her exterior is brown and bland, and her signage is subtle. White chalk on a blackboard in the window. Almost every time I’m in there, I overhear another new customer ask the owner, “How long have you been here?” And when he says, “Six months.” Or seven. Or eight. The typical reply is, “I had no idea.” The tone is usually a mix of both shame and delight. Shame at not discovering her sooner. And delight, because it only takes a moment for new patrons to recognize the truth.
That she is also precious. The Hidden Pearl. A rare gem in our struggling town. The coffee is rich. The baked goods are delectable. (And don’t get me started on the ham, egg, and cheese croissant—with just the right amount of fresh cracked pepper.) The staff is kind, and they know you by name. But it is perhaps the décor that I love the most. The attention to detail and beauty. The latte-colored walls. The turquoise Victorian couch and vases on the shelves. The vintage posters of Paris. The leafy palm. The Hidden Pearl is an oasis. She defies the busyness of life and invites you to linger.
One afternoon Peter and I were doing just that. We were sitting on the sofa, catching up over coffee. Daryl and Amelia were sharing a cookie. Several other customers were sipping drinks and savoring goodies, and there was the pleasant buzz of conversation.
Then a woman came in.
I didn’t hear her order. And I didn’t notice her waiting. Until suddenly—out of the corner of my eye—I saw her stand up, say something at the owner, and storm out. I saw the startled look on the owner’s face. Then I saw him hurry to the back of the shop, letting the door slam behind.
Sometime later he reappeared. Still shaken.
When he came to clear our cups, we tried to console him with compliments about the chocolate cake. Then Peter asked him—straight up—if everything was okay.
“She doesn’t get who we are,” the owner said.
And we agreed. “If she just wants her coffee fast,” I said, “there are plenty of other places to go.”
And we shook our heads in disbelief. How could someone be so self-focused? So blind?
That afternoon the same woman took her outrage to the internet, posting a scathing review on the Hidden Pearl Facebook page. She called the service poor and the wait ridiculous. And how could they even call themselves a coffee shop when it took them so long to make a cup.
When I saw that woman, I saw our society. I saw in her behavior that day a simple and singular example of a pervasive problem.
I don’t have to tell you that we are a people on-the-go. With our fast food and our speedy checkout lines and our ability to have just about anything delivered to our doorstep—tomorrow—if we are so inclined. We invest much time and money into figuring out how to make things move more quickly. And this need for speed has crept into every area of life. From our transportation, to our technology. From our education, to our work. From our health care, to our finances, to our relationships, and even to our worship.
We value speed over safety. Efficiency over integrity. Convenience over quality. Immediate profitability over patience and commitment and good old fashioned hard work.
And one of the most difficult things you could ever ask us to do is to wait.
Innumerable fascinating studies have been done to try to quantify our obsession.
Last year computer science professor Ramesh Sitaraman examined the viewing habits of 6.7 million internet users. He monitored how long we were willing to wait for a webpage or a video to load.
A grand total of two seconds, he found.
After that, we start abandoning. “After five seconds, the abandonment rate is 25 percent,” he marveled. “When you get to 10 seconds, more than half are gone.”
In another 2013 experiment, Frank May and Ashwani Monga tried to determine what factors influenced people’s willingness to wait. In one study, they offered grocery-shopping survey participants the option of a $5 gift certificate today or a $10 gift certificate that wasn’t valid until next week. And they found that people’s choice was, in part, connected to their perception of their own power. People who had a greater sense of autonomy and control were more likely to pick the later prize. But those who felt in some way helpless, unable to effect change, who saw themselves at the mercy of some outside force–life? fate? God?–were more inclined to need their reward now.
In a companion study, May and Monga set up a website to sell sunglasses to university students. After each purchase, the students were able to select either standard shipping or expedited. Then, at the end of each transaction, students were asked—straight up—how they viewed Time. Is it a negative force working against them or a positive force that was on their side? Is it a source of pain or pleasure? Is it a good thing or bad?
As you may imagine, Time has a significant image problem.
But our perception of Time not our only trouble.
Last month in an article called “Instant Gratification” in the American Scholar journal, Paul Roberts makes another—related—observation. Not only are we a society that wants things in a hurry. But we also want them in a very particular way. He describes our consumer culture as “almost too good at giving us what we want.”
Then he delivers this indictment: “I don’t just mean the way smartphones and search engines and Netflix and Amazon anticipate our preferences. I mean how the entire edifice of the consumer economy, digital and actual, has reoriented itself around our own agendas, self-images, and inner fantasies…It is now entirely normal to demand a personally customized life. We fine-tune our moods with pharmaceuticals and Spotify. We craft our meals around our allergies and ideologies. We can choose a vehicle to express our hipness or hostility. We can move to a neighborhood that matches our social values, find a news outlet that mirrors our politics, and create a social network that ‘likes’ everything we say or post. With each transaction and upgrade, each choice and click, life moves closer to us, and the world becomes our world.”
What does this mean? We live at a time and in a place that affords us an unnatural and unhealthy level of control.
But it is pseudo-control. And we are pseudo-gods.
Revving our pitiful engines. Pressing our feet hard on the pedal. Racing around and around. Chasing after the wind. Banging our fist on the wheel when the engine stalls or a tire blows. Failing to listen to the Voice in our ear until He slows us down or brings us to a screeching halt. Forgetting the fact that obtaining some pseudo-prize–the next object, the next experience, the next accolade, the next life stage–isn’t even the point.
How has our cultural obsession with speed affected your life?
How have you observed our need for a “personally customized life”?
Categories: In the Waiting Room