A tribute to the joys of hanging around for others to turn up
These days, latency is generally viewed as a bad thing. In technical terms, it’s the delay from input into a system to desired outcome; to you and me, it’s that irritating delay between completing a sentence over the phone, and the other person hearing it, or the time required for a Web page to load. Latency impacts the degree to which technological – particularly Web-based – experiences can be enjoyed, or even used in any practical sense.
But, when I was growing up and starting my career, latency used to be considered a good thing; ‘thinking time’, we called it. Latency was the difference between your arrival time at an ascribed rendezvous and the other party reaching the scene. The ‘scene’ could be a café, restaurant, hotel lobby, bar; each location defining its own particular set of protocols. How long would you await the other party; how would you try and contact them in the event of a delay (pre-mobile phone); with whom could you leave a message (the barman or waiter….); what would the message be (I’ll return in an hour, can we reschedule, you can reach me on this number for the next hour, while you hang outside a phone box….)?
Such protocols would be defined not merely by the location, but also the purpose of the meeting; whether it was business or pleasure, whether it was a weekday or weekend. Every scenario would test the experience and resourcefulness of each party.
In those days, I never used to leave home without a newspaper; moments of social latency during the day provided the perfect opportunity to catch up on the news (its 1990, remember) and prevented my feeling awkward while waiting around. Forty-five minutes was my personal ‘latency limit’ in a professional content; this would be the duration of my wait before I sought to contact the other party. Any less seemed impolite, any more and I’d risk appearing desperate.
Social contexts offered an entirely new set of considerations. When meeting for continental breakfast – coffee and a croissant – the party arriving first was entitled to order and consume their first coffee; to wait would simply make the later party uncomfortable. And this is still the case, I think. If a full English breakfast was on the menu, not only would both parties be more likely to be punctual, commencing your bacon and eggs before the second party has arrived would be certainly considered a breach of ‘social latency’ protocol. All clear so far? I hope so!
Mealtimes and the presence of alcohol add further complexity to the norms. In a bar, my social latency limit would be measured in beer; probably around two pints.
While waiting at a restaurant for a dining companion, there are two key milestones; both of which required careful consideration – the ‘advance aperitif’ and the ‘starter concession’. The former was the practice of embarking on a first glass while awaiting company; this practice was generally considered good practice – a way to draw attention away from the late arrival. But poor application of the norm could lead to dire consequences. Do you choose a bottle of wine for the table (obliging the latecomer to accept your selection) or do you opt for a simple glass (but what type since you’ve no idea what you are actually going to eat)? Your decision on the ‘advance aperitif’ would also have consequences for the ‘sobriety protocol’; i.e. how inebriated you are when your dinner guest finally turns up. The unwritten ‘Consummation Ratio Act’ (circa 1995) defined it as poor form to spend more on your individual pre-meal alcohol (consumed alone), than on the rest of the meal combined; and especially if you were incoherent by the time your guest showed up. In such instances, it was invariably best practice to pay for the entire meal; partly on mathematical grounds but also as compensation for you’re the random, emotional and, often, load conversation!
The ‘starter concession’ was a type of acceptable social compromise, typically when in company; thirty minutes was generally considered an appropriate delay before embarking on a starter course, while awaiting additional gusts to arrive. As long as no one embarked on the main course (which would have been considered a gross protocol breach!), punctual arrivers wouldn’t be restricted to peanuts and mineral water, and late ones wouldn’t feel too embarrassed.
Such protocols also varied per country. In France, it would be considered rude not to commence an aperitif while awaiting a dinner guest; anyone arriving at a table to see you drinking a carafe of mineral water would simply assume that you were unwell (this is still true, in fact)! In Spain, an entire culinary movement has been established around waiting around for dinner guests to arrive – the tapas.
The truth is that social media – especially mobile – has destroyed the notion of social latency. People, particularly under 35, can barely withstand 5 minutes of waiting before firing off a WhatsApp message demanding the whereabouts and estimated time of arrival of their companions. Quite apart from appearing to lose the simple discipline of patience, I fear that our desire to account for every gap in our day is actually a false paradigm; it doesn’t lead to greater efficiency, just increased dependency.
Social latency is a good thing – it provides us with time for reflection and consideration, it creates occasions for discovery and moments of resourcefulness. We don’t always have to be in company to enjoy moments.
Maybe, my nostalgia is based on personal experience. In 2004, I was sitting in a bar in Paris awaiting some companions and I fell into conversation with a total stranger who, like me, was a foreigner in France. The person I met became my wife and this year we’ll celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary. On that occasion, I’ll certainly be raising a glass to the joys of social latency!