The Age of American Impatience: Why It's a Dangerous Syndrome

"Wrap Rage" is a new phenomenon. It has nothing to do with music, as in rap music. It has nothing to do with "road rage," which is quite common on our byways and highways. "Wrap Rage" is product-related. It is the frustration people report feeling when they have to open shrink-wrapped packages. Yes, people actually report annoyance and anger with having to use their teeth or scissors or other devices to tear open packages. Consumers want things these days to be easy -- and fast.

Wrap Rage is the latest example of American Impatience -- an age in which we live, characterized by increased anger, frustration, and simple unwillingness to wait.

Waiting is in short supply. Why wait when cash machines enable us to avoid lines at the bank? Movie tickets -- purchased on-line or videos downloaded on demand give us instant access. If our Internet is anything less than immediate, we phone an 800-number and complain. People pay extra to avoid an airport line, check-in early, and be the first to de-plane. Heck, if we could fax ourselves overseas we might do it except for the fact that telephone lines are too slow.
Who is to blame for American impatience?

1. Technology -- iPhones, texting, Instagram, and other interruptive or disruptive technologies create data flows like lava flows that overwhelm us. Technology brings real benefits. Patience just happens not to be one of them.
2. Economics -- For many the 2008 economic downturn brought real hardship. It is hard to feel patient when you are fighting a daily struggle to find work or feed your family. It is unfair to ask Americans under daily duress to focus on the long-term future of the country.
3. Political leadership -- Impatience is not a partisan issue. If you look at PEW polls over the past 10 years you see, with a few exceptions, a decline in America's patience with politics and leadership -- particularly impatience with Congress.

The steady drumbeat of war has also strained American patience. In 2003, Americans were supportive of U.S. involvement in Iraq. By 2006, public patience dwindled. Similarly, as the war in Afghanistan dragged on, U.S. patience grew thin. The same could happen with today's public support for action in Iraq and Syria if "results" are not forthcoming.

American impatience is something worth ruminating about. Impatience has serious consequences.

For one, it means that peering into the future -- if the future is anything longer than a minute -- is onerous. Try to engage an impatient public in the risk that our planet is over-heating and that 50 years from now the Arctic will have melted. That is a tough task. Most meteorologists will only give you a five-day forecast. Explaining climate change or the fact that we might have trouble feeding 9 billion people in the future is a tough sell.

Secondly, impatience breeds impatience. Each time we can accomplish a task with more speed, we want more speed. We keep raising the bar. That means that the absence of immediate results equates with failure. If, for example, we continue to deploy airpower in Iraq and Syria, will Americans demand that we not only hit targets but -- see "results" -- as defined by what or whom? President Obama has rightly warned that this could be a long battle. Staying engaged and committed in a faraway place may require more resolve that we might have.

Lastly, it is expensive to live on a short fuse. It means that emergencies are always emergencies instead of well-planned events. We all know that if you fail to pay a traffic ticket on time, the fees double.

American impatience is not a passing fad nor is it minimal in scope. How to reign in the impulsivity that governs us is a major task. It might take national therapy -- if we have time and patience to explore it.

Tara S. Sonenshine is former under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and currently teaches at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs.