Standing Around

The nerve-piercing pain of sciatica provokes this question:  have you thought about how much time is spent standing around?  I’m not counting walking or running or any kind of hopping and skipping.  Just standing still, in one place.

Some small part of time thus spent is intentional.  Attending a cocktail party or reception, for example.  Or participating in a receiving line at a wedding or funeral.  While these are some of the least satisfactory forms of social interaction, they are a matter of choice.  Indeed, these occasions are all about standing about: it is integral to the nature of the event.

Standing is also intentional when it substitutes for alternative movement – such as standing in the elevator, on the escalator or moving stairway.  In those circumstances, we choose to stand rather than to exert energy climbing or walking (which may not, in situations like a 65-floor building, be feasible).  That could be said of standing on a bus or subway for that matter. However, though it is a choice, it is a means, not an end. Standing is not the essence of riding the subway. It is a collateral feature. One wouldn’t choose to stand on a motionless bus (though it does happen, in which case the intentionality of standing diminishes by the minute and feels more like coercion). It is only because the bus or train will get you where you’re going more expeditiously that you choose to stand around in its aisles.

When giving a speech or a lecture, standing is standard delivery, though not, strictly speaking, part of the act.  (In fact, I’ve found that a request for a tall stool and a lectern will usually be honored.)  A solo musician, say, a violinist, likewise appears in the venue, expecting to stand.  A cellist, on the other hand, or a harpist, expects to be seated.  The size and shape of the instrument dictates whether or not standing is required. Of course, the violinist could be seated (whereas it would be very difficult for the cellist to perform while standing).  The violinist is in fact seated when part of an orchestra.  But the solo violinist performs standing. It is standard, though not essential to the performance.

Which brings me to normative standing.  We are expected to rise and remain standing for many rituals, for example, the opening of the Ark, the entrance of a judge, the singing of a psalm or the pledge of allegiance.  Standing in such situations connotes respect.  It may be perceived as a non-verbal affirmation of shared values or beliefs. And, though age or infirmity may excuse sitting it out, those who are not so excused but remain seated (or kneeling) typically will be regarded as oppositional or ill-mannered.  There is an exception for sitting (or kneeling) as a religious or political statement, which is (usually, though not lately) respected as a form of free speech. This depends, of course, on who’s sitting and who’s standing, and their respective takes on the message conveyed by the conduct.  Absent such personal circumstances and principles, however, the words “please rise” are generally met with compliance and we stand until told to be seated. On some occasions, this can be quite a while.

A new consensus has apparently been built around the standing ovation.  The rule seems to be (based on personal observation) if more than 5% of the audience stands to applaud the performance or speakers, then everyone must do so.  (On Broadway, standing is the least obnoxious audience behavior when the curtain falls.)  Sitting it out, amidst frenzied clapping and stomping, exposes you to the quasi-hostile question: didn’t you like it?  Moreover, it is impossible to get that last glimpse of the stage unless you rise with the masses.  So, while a standing ovation may have a normative thrust, and increasingly feels ritualistic, it has a strong coercive element.

By far the most standing around we do is incidental: waiting your turn.  Standing on line to buy a ticket or obtain a boarding pass.  Waiting to clear passport control or security. To use the bathroom or the ATM.  To pay for your groceries.  Waiting for the light to change to cross the street.  Waiting is the most aggravating form of standing around and the mere prospect of it may incite misbehavior, mendacity and rudeness, especially in competitive contexts.

The sight of a long line can provoke a normally fair-minded person to push ahead of scores of passengers waiting to board a train at Penn Station. It may induce a shopper to grab the first place at a newly opened register at Whole Foods, to beat out the half-dozen ahead of him at the one that’s closing. It may lead a bar mitzvah guest to reach in front of an older woman to grab the last pumpernickel bagel. If challenged, the line-breaker will usually respond self-righteously — something on the order of “everyone’s doing it” or “it doesn’t matter” or “I can’t eat sesame seeds.” I’ve heard variants of all of these explanations, fiercely spoken but ultimately feeble attempts to cover up that someone feels her time lost standing around is far more valuable than anyone else’s, or his discomfort is more significant than another’s.

This ill-mannered behavior is fed by a strong competitive element. Angst over the possibility that you’re actually losing ground, that others are gaining on you while you are stuck in place, can make standing around intolerable and create a combustible situation.  Southwestern Airlines tries to curb the problem by corralling passengers in numbered lines, thereby mitigating the competition while actually prolonging the standing around (an excellent example of relieving a symptom rather than the condition that produced it).

Even in non-competitive situations, however, standing around to wait your turn may be construed as a waste of time rather than a contribution to social order. That, in turn, triggers high levels of anxiety and foolhardy conduct.  It was such an anathema to my father that he’d risk life and limb to tear across Fifth Avenue against the traffic.  The terror of seeing him dodge taxis has induced in me a healthy respect for red lights.  Which is not to say I’m patient standing around on the street corner, but I have lived long enough to write about it.