The Secret World of Doing Nothing

The Secret World of Doing Nothing

by Orvar Löfgren

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In this insightful and pathbreaking reflection on "doing nothing," Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren take us on a fascinating tour of what is happening when, to all appearances, absolutely nothing is happening. Sifting through a wide range of examples drawn from literature, published ethnographies, and firsthand research, they probe the unobserved moments in our daily


In this insightful and pathbreaking reflection on "doing nothing," Billy Ehn and Orvar Löfgren take us on a fascinating tour of what is happening when, to all appearances, absolutely nothing is happening. Sifting through a wide range of examples drawn from literature, published ethnographies, and firsthand research, they probe the unobserved moments in our daily lives—waiting for a bus, daydreaming by the window, performing a routine task—and illuminate these "empty" times as full of significance. Creative, insightful, and profound, The Secret World of Doing Nothing leads us to rethink the ordinary and find meaning in today’s hypermodern reality.

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The Secret World of Doing Nothing

By Billy Ehn, Orvar Löfgren


Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94570-8



In the early 1980s the Swedish diplomat Jan Eliasson and Prime Minister Olof Palme had an appointment with Saddam Hussein in one of his Baghdad palaces. They had to wait at their hotel for a few days before, late one night, a limousine with black windows arrived to pick them up. They were driven around in the city for an hour so as to make them lose their bearings.

Next they had to pass a security control and were led into a waiting room decorated with gold and oak paneling. After being left for a long time in this luxurious setting they were taken to yet another waiting room, where a chief of staff received them. Ten minutes later a door was thrown open and they were led to a third room, and there he stood: Saddam. With his staff huddled behind him, and holding a hand out stiffly, the dictator greeted the two Swedes.

It was insulting but also somewhat ridiculous, Eliasson remembers, and he pointed out that Saddam was using an age-old trick to diminish one's opponent and enlarge one's own importance (Kantor and Keller 2008: 42).

An Elusive Microdrama

Our interest in waiting as a mode of doing nothing started with less dramatic situations, among them the mundane scene in the supermarket described earlier. We began by looking for examples of inconspicuous non-events in unglamorous activities such as waiting for a bus and standing in line.

But we soon found that "waiting" covers a wide range of behaviors and emotional reactions. Refugees wait anxiously for asylum. Prisoners count the days until their discharge. Bored workers and schoolchildren look at their watches every five minutes toward the end of a day. Yet other variants include waiting for a plumber who never shows up, or for one's beloved, who is late.

What kind of "doing nothing" constitutes waiting? What lies hidden behind this insignificant and seemingly inactive pursuit, when one has to "simply wait," as Estragon expressed it in Samuel Beckett's 1952 play, Waiting for Godot? To explore these questions we started with the concrete infrastructure of waiting, the material locations where we observed the activity. From there we went on to look at the nature of waiting time. How do people experience and handle that kind of time in different situations? Next we turned our attention to how people learn to wait in different cultural settings. We investigated one of the most institutionalized forms of waiting—queuing or standing in line, a behavior that is permeated by rules, norms, rituals, and feelings. This theme took us further into the emotionality of waiting and how, as in our example from Baghdad, waiting links to power. Who waits for whom, who can make others wait, and what difference do gender and class make?

We have focused on waiting as a cultural practice, one shaped by shifting historical and social conditions and something that people learn to handle, a skill that must be trained and developed. The examples are collected from different situations and parts of the world, from hospitals, street corners, travel experiences, and the final weeks of pregnancy.

Waits can be short—as during the time it takes to ride with strangers in an elevator—but they can also feel interminable or fill an entire life. For some people waiting seems to be a full-time activity that takes up all their energy and being. This certainly applies to a Chinese physician named Lin Kong. In the mid-1960s he worked at an army hospital in a city somewhere in China. He was married to a peasant woman whom his parents had chosen for him and whom he did not love. He had left his wife in the village to take care of their little daughter and his old parents. In the city he fell in love with Manna Wu, a nurse at the hospital, and thereafter, every summer for seventeen years Lin returned to his village to ask his wife for a divorce. But in vain. Because the hospital authorities did not approve of a liaison between them, Lin Kong and Manna Wu refrained from a sexual relationship—day after day, year after year. Eighteen years passed before, in 1984, Lin Kong was allowed to divorce his wife and marry Manna Wu.

Ha Jin tells this story of extreme patience in his novel Waiting (2000). The reader might well wonder how it would feel to wait for a loved person for almost twenty years, seeing and talking to the beloved every day during that time. In Lin Kong's case waiting became a way of life; we will return to Lin and Manna, for the novel opens up interesting perspectives.

When we considered more mundane situations of waiting we were struck by the ways in which they constantly alter shape, direction, and meaning. How to study such a multifaceted and elusive activity? At first we enthusiastically gathered ethnographic observations in train stations, doctors' waiting rooms, and ticket lines. Quite often we returned with photos and descriptions of what on the surface seemed trivial non-events, over which we often pondered for hours, trying to see below the surface.

At 12:25 P.M., a middle-aged woman in a blue gown arrives at the bus station in a Swedish town. She is looking around the waiting room with a gaze that finally stops for a few seconds at the electronic timetable high up on the wall. Then she walks resolutely toward one of the exits and takes a seat on an empty bench next to the door. She looks hesitant and a little nervous. Again and again she touches her hair, as if to check that it is in order.

After a little while the woman takes a cell phone and a magazine from her bag and holds them in her lap. She looks for the bus ticket in her purse and finds it. Then she sinks her chin in her hand and glances at a young couple in the corner of the waiting room.

Shortly before the bus is scheduled to arrive she joins other travelers in a short queue, everyone keeping approximately one meter's distance from the others. The woman waits patiently in fifth position, holding her phone, magazine, and bus ticket, until the bus arrives and the front door opens. It is now 12:37 P.M., and the woman steps on board.

Returning home with this description of an everyday moment we had to think about what was actually going on during this fifteen-minute wait for a bus. Interestingly, while trying to observe people in such situations we found ourselves caught up in the boredom and restlessness that emanated from our subjects. We found ourselves losing our concentration, our thoughts began to wander, and we forgot what we were there for and started thinking of other things. After all, nothing seemed to be happening, unlike situations where others are doing something—as, for example, after the waiting is over.

Doing Something—but What?

Like many other examples of "doing nothing," waiting turned out to be a phenomenon that is difficult to study head-on. Clearly we needed alternative ethnographic approaches to de-trivialize the mundane activity. We started by looking at artists who have explored waiting as a strange country, among them the Swedish artist Elin Wikström, who in 1994 molded the paradox of waiting as a passive activity in a performance titled Rebecka is waiting for Anna, Anna is waiting for Cecilia, Cecilia is waiting for Marie ...

For the duration of a performance, female volunteers selected by the artist come to a café at the gallery at a scheduled time and wait for fifteen minutes. They sit at a table among other gallery visitors, as if they were the first to arrive for a rendezvous and wait for their date. Occasionally they look at their watches, rummage through a bag, and read a magazine. At a prearranged time they leave the gallery, one at a time, to be replaced by other women, who continue the everyday theater of waiting for someone who never arrives. In this exhibition waiting is presented as a meaningless effort. The women's ostensible expectations are never fulfilled. Wikström puts it like this:

It's like when you're meeting somebody and you're the first one there. You're waiting for other persons and you go through a lot of emotions. You're worried about what happened to them, angry they're late, and it's also a loss of prestige because people are thinking, "Oh, she got stood up."

The performance wants to give an alternative view of women. In commercials and films, they are always depicted as waiting. Waiting to grow up, waiting for Mr. Right, waiting to have kids and waiting for those grown kids to come visit them. Always this passive idea of waiting. So for once, I wanted the women to be waiting for each other.

Even waiting in vain is at least doing something. Men and women resort to all kinds of mundane activities while waiting, as if to deny that they are waiting or to try to forget the fact: reading, talking, listening to music, watching television screens, making cell phone calls, or gaming, WAPing, and playing or working with their laptops. They also tend to be, to some degree, tense and irritated, as is obvious from their looking at clocks, wrist watches, timetables, graffiti, and litter on the floor, or staring absentmindedly into the distance with an inward look. In such situations there is always the question of how and where one should look when among strangers, or what strategies to develop for "averting the gaze so as not to engage in interaction" (Bissell 2007: 285). Some people watch eagerly for the bus or train they are waiting for, as if they could conjure it into existence. Or they may camouflage their pursuit by eating, drinking, or smoking, as if they were not waiting at all.

The choreography of waiting is rich. Depending on personality and circumstances, people stand or sit still, balance on their feet, lean against walls or pillars, squat, lie down, or walk to and fro; some people whistle, hum, sleep, or close their eyes. They wait alone or in a group, in an orderly line or randomly dispersed, with their arms folded or hanging loosely, hands in pockets or in their laps. For an ethnographer there is in fact much to observe. The dominant impression of passivity is contradicted by all the small movements and diversions.

Above all, however, waiting seems to be a state of mind, a psychological condition that is not directly observable. An observer can learn to see what is going on at bus stops, for example, or in the waiting room of a dental office. But no one can really know what others are up to, what they are feeling or daydreaming.

Instead of guessing at what people were thinking while waiting we decided to try a more physical approach. What could an "ecology of waiting" be? How is its infrastructure organized? What kinds of social interaction are involved?


Any location can become a waiting area, but when asked to name the first places that came to mind people cited those traditionally associated with waiting: ticket offices, highway toll booths, department stores, and the places connected with waiting for transport—gates, lounges, platforms, benches, and shelters. Other oft-cited places included schools, prisons, business offices, hospitals, and dental offices. All these "container spaces," as David Bissell (2007: 282) has called them, "are designed to hold the body, where the body is prompted to remain inert in a form of temporary stasis."

Such places possess a character and traditions of their own. Lining up at the supermarket is not the same as standing in a theater queue. Waiting one's turn at a golf course is surely different from waiting in a courthouse corridor. Both the physical context of the place and the cultural expectations of the individual affect the experience of waiting.

Some objects—the life vest under the seat, for example, or the emergency ladder on the wall—fall into the standby category. Other things inhabit a mode of alert passivity—the fire station, the rocket on the launch pad, the bottle of vintage wine being saved for a special occasion. Still others, among them certain electrical appliances, must never go out; they must rest with one eye open, watchful technological wild beasts.

And then there are settings and objects that rest in a kind of cultural latency. This condition has been discussed by Jonas Frykman (2005), who exemplifies his case with the many monuments left over from the Communist era in Eastern Europe, which people don't know what to do with. For the time being, many statues and monuments have been left in parks and marketplaces awaiting whatever future use or destruction may lie ahead.

Ecological Supports

Above all, waiting transforms the location in which the waiting occurs. Back in the 1960s and 1970s the American sociologist Barry Schwartz (1975: I5ff.) made several empirical studies of what he called the ecological supports of waiting and queuing. Through what means are queuers channeled to keep the order of "first come, first served," he asked.

He found that queue discipline is always tightest in those settings that provide a good infrastructure for waiting. In the United States, for example, barriers, signs, and directions of all kinds—including twisted cords and red ribbons between chrome poles in cinemas and amusement parks, and painted floor lines with foot-shaped marks—suggest where one should stand in line or what distance to keep from others in the queue. Some places even have line managers and queue supervisors, with or without uniforms. These kinds of props all have their own history and reveal interesting national differences.

Take, for example, the advent of what was called the "thinking ticket machine," which was developed in Sweden in the 1960s and came to revolutionize waiting. The technology could be puzzling to the neophyte, for there were no orderly queues but only a seemingly disorganized crowd of people holding little paper slips with numbers, which they glanced at now and then. It was no longer possible to know who was next in line. Yet today these machines are part of the waiting ecology at many service facilities around the world, where they have transformed collective waiting in queues into a successful individual activity.

One of the most obvious ecological supports for waiting is the transit shelter. The Swedish architect Lena Hackzell (1999) developed a passion for this service to travelers. For several years while traveling all over the world she documented different kinds of waiting shelters.

Impressed by the diversity of forms and functions they represent, Hackzell describes these shelters not only as accommodations for waiting but also as places to meet, and thus places that are often permeated with the magic of travel. She observed that many dreams can be symbolized by the little buildings that provide protection against inclement weather. She also noted that the length of time travelers are expected to have to spend in a shelter to a great extent governs its design. Travelers to the Galapagos Islands, for example, can have a long wait for the boat taxi. Thus the hard benches here were supplemented with comfortable hammocks. One of the photos in Hackzell's book shows men lying down and talking while they wait for the boat.

Shelters in the Indian countryside where traffic is sparse have special requirements. Passengers who have missed the only bus of the day are allowed to sleep overnight on the roof of the shelter, where it is cooler and safer. The women of the village make sure that pitchers of fresh water are always available. The roof also has a specially designed surface and a shelf, where it is possible to cook.

Hackzell found that a shelter can have a double function. It can be built as both a classical temple for worship and a gathering place. Even those who do not actually intend to travel get together there just to look at other people and feel a part of things. All over the world human beings have always congregated at bus stops and railway stations, to be with others and see life in action. Such places tend to be full of possibilities and surprises, and there the magic of travel overshadows the tedium of waiting. The very fact that someone is sitting in a shelter with a suitcase arouses the imagination of those who see her. Where may she be going?


Excerpted from The Secret World of Doing Nothing by Billy Ehn, Orvar Löfgren. Copyright © 2010 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Billy Ehn is a Professor in the Department of Culture and Media Studies at Umea University and Orvar Löfgren is Professor of Ethnology at the University of Lund, both in Sweden. Löfgren is the author of On Holiday: A History of Vacationing (UC Press).

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