This music is driving you nuts. It's so cheerful, it's depressing. It's so bland, it's offensive. Suddenly it stops, and you get all excited: Could this be an actual human? No, it's just the voice of that upbeat On-Hold Man again.

"Thank you for continuing to hold," he says. "While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call. Please hold for the next available associate."

You've heard this message so many times that you've memorized it. You hate On-Hold Man. You want to strangle him just to hear his upbeat voice gurgle and sputter and beg for mercy.

You're getting surly. You've been waiting for the repairman all day. The company promised he'd be here between 9 and 12, and now it's almost 3, and you've called to find out what happened. But before you could even ask the question, they put you on hold.

Now that music is back again. It's supposed to be soothing, but you're not soothed. You're seething.

"Thank you for continuing to hold. While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call . . ."

"Then answer it," you scream.

" . . . hold for the next available associate."

You curse. You rage. But what's the use? You sigh and settle into the quiet desperation of waiting, your body slumped like a beanbag chair. Foolishly, you begin to contemplate how much of your life has been spent waiting.

Waiting in line at the post office, where the clerks seem to move in slow motion. Or at the supermarket, where everybody in the 10-items-or-less line is shooting death-ray glances at the guy who piled 12 items on the conveyor belt.

Or waiting at McDonald's, where you always choose the slowest line, the one behind the people who freeze with indecision when confronted with the question "Do you want fries with that?"

Or waiting for trains and buses and subways, pacing back and forth, watching the other people who are watching you, everybody trying to avoid eye contact.

Or waiting for elevators that seem to have gone AWOL while you jab idiotically at the already-illuminated button, although you know it won't do any good.

Or waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles, a place so notorious for mind-numbing, soul-crushing torpor that the mere mention of its name brings a shudder to your stomach.

Thank you for continuing to hold. While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call. Please hold for the next available associate.

"Waiting is an insult to us," says anthropologist David Murray. "We feel we're being put down when we're forced to wait. We sense that we've been disrespected; hence, the anger."

Americans don't suffer waiting patiently. We are a busy people. We have schedules to keep and errands to run. We have date books and day-planners and lists of Things to Do Today. We're highly caffeinated, and our nervous systems are cranked up. We expect life to be full of action, one thing after another, bing, bang, boom. We see waiting as time taken from life, Murray says, while other cultures see it as a part of life.

"We feel we are living only during an event--the rest of the time we're hibernating," he says. "It's a particularly American or Western attitude. In nonindustrial tribal societies, the rhythms are slower and waiting is part of life. In the absence of clocks and hard-and-fast punctual expectations, it's hard to be frustrated by waiting."

Several years ago, Ryszard Kapuscinski, the great Polish journalist, found himself stuck in a Siberian airport for four days, waiting out a blizzard, bored out of his skull. "It is a dreadful sort of idleness, an unbearable tedium to sit motionless like this," he wrote. "But on the other hand, don't millions and millions of people the world over pass the time in just such a passive way. And haven't they done so for years, for centuries?"

Sitting in that snowbound airport, Kapuscinski recalled the countless scenes of waiting he'd witnessed during three decades of covering the Third World: "Everywhere, everywhere the same sight--people sitting motionless for hours on end, on old chairs, on bits of plank, on plastic crates, in the shade of poplars and mango trees, leaning against the walls of slums, against fences and window frames, irrespective of the time of day or of the season, of whether the sun is shining or the rain is falling, phlegmatic and expressionless people, as if in a state of chronic drowsiness, not really doing anything."

You recall a statistic printed and reprinted everywhere a few years back, attributed to a Pittsburgh research firm called Priority Management: Americans spend five years of their lives waiting in lines. For a 75-year-long life, it comes out to more than an hour and a half a day.

Can that possibly be true?

There are other statistics floating around: On an average day, according to a book called "On an Average Day" by Tom Heymann, Americans spend 101,369,863 hours waiting in line. That's 37 billion hours a year.

And that's just waiting in line. But waiting is a many-splendored thing: Waiting for the weekend. Waiting for the Messiah. Waiting for the waiter. Waiting for your ship to come in. Waiting for takeoff. Waiting with bated breath. Waiting for a phone call: "Modern times," wrote cultural historian Peter Conrad, "added a new image to the annals of human unhappiness: a person in a room who watches the phone and wills it to ring."

There's the intense waiting of childhood, that aching anticipation of good things to come: Waiting for Christmas morning. Waiting for the last day of school. Waiting through endless car trips: Are we there yet? Waiting to grow whiskers. Waiting to grow breasts. Waiting to grow up.

There's the bittersweet waiting of romance and procreation: Waiting for her to notice you. Waiting for him to ask you out. Waiting for her to get ready. Waiting for him to pop the question. Waiting for your period. Waiting for the results of your pregnancy test. Waiting through your ninth month of pregnancy, which seems as long as the previous eight combined.

Then there's the waiting room. "I hate the waiting room because it's called the waiting room so there's no chance of not waiting," wrote comedian Jerry Seinfeld. "Why would they take you right away when they've got this room all set up?" And you sit there with your little magazine. You pretend you're reading, but you're really looking at the other people. 'I wonder what he's got.' Then they call you and you think you're going to see the doctor but you're not. You're going to the next smaller waiting room. Now you don't even have your magazine. You've got no pants on."

Some waiting is more painful than others: Waiting for the jury to reach a verdict. Waiting for the results of a biopsy. Waiting in refugee camps. Waiting in prison, where your punishment is to wait for years. Or waiting for your teenager, who is out in your car, and it's 2 in the morning, hours after her curfew, and she hasn't called, and your mind conjures grisly scenes of crashes and screams and sirens. . . .

Thank you for continuing to hold. While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call. Please hold for the next available associate.

The poor wait more than the rich.

They wait in soup lines and welfare lines and unemployment lines. They sit for hours in emergency rooms and free medical clinics. They stand in line for surplus cheese. They cannot pay with money, so they pay with time--little chunks of their lives.

The poor wait for buses and subways while the rich zoom past in cars or glide by in limousines driven by chauffeurs who are trained to be waiting and ready to open the car door when their bosses appear.

Once, Louis XIV stepped out of his palace to find his royal driver just arriving in the royal coach. The king was not happy. "I almost had to wait," he grumbled.

The rich don't have to do much waiting.

"If you have enough money, you can buy someone else's time," says psychologist Robert Levine. "You can pay people to run your errands. Your time is worth more than their time."

In his book "A Geography of Time," Levine codified what he calls "The Rules of the Waiting Game." One rule was "Money buys a place in front." Another was "Status dictates who waits." In other words, Levine says, the higher your rank, the more people you can keep waiting--and the longer you can keep them waiting.

When the president of the company wants to see you, you drop everything and hustle to his office. Then he keeps you waiting, cooling your heels in his waiting room, watching his secretary make phone calls for him. He's too important to wait for someone to answer. So she gets them on the phone and says, Please hold for Mr. Smith.

It's nothing personal, just a reminder of who's boss. And it's nothing new. In the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory VII is said to have forced Henry IV, the Holy Roman emperor who had challenged his authority, to stand barefoot in the snow for three days before meeting with him. Henry's heels were quite literally cooling. In 1949, Joseph Stalin kept Mao Zedong waiting for 17 days in a dacha in the freezing Russian winter before meeting with him. Mao had just taken over China, but Stalin was showing him who was boss in the Communist world.

But you don't have to be a pope or a dictator to play the game. Lowly clerks enjoy this pleasure, too, when they make you wait in line for what seems like hours and then suddenly hang up a sign that says "Closed" and amble off for a leisurely lunch.

"Making a person wait is an exercise in power," Levine says. "There is no greater symbol of domination, since time is the only possession which can in no sense be replaced."

Thank you for continuing to hold. While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call. Please hold for the next available associate.

And now on-hold music is back again. It's so nondescript that you can't tell if it's the same song or a new one. You wonder: Why don't they play some rock-and-roll?

Because rock-and-roll didn't test well with the focus groups, that's why.

James Kellaris, associate professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati, did the tests. He was hired by a company he cannot name to determine what kind of music makes time pass quickly for people stuck on hold.

"They can't really control the waiting time, so they use all kinds of strategies to distract people," Kellaris says. "They hoped I could engineer some music that would shrink perceived time in relation to clock time."

Perceived time is how long people think they spent on hold. Clock time is how long they actually spent on hold. Perceived time is inevitably longer than clock time, Kellaris says: "Time passes slower when you're waiting."

He gathered focus groups in Indianapolis and Los Angeles, and had the people listen to various kinds of music and then guess how long they'd been listening.

Rock-and-roll was the worst. It made perceived time skyrocket. "The music was so familiar that hearing a segment of a song inferred the entire song and maybe the entire repertoire of the artist," he says, "so it had the effect of expanding perceived time."

Kellaris found that men and women had different responses to different music. For men, classical music reduced the perceived time on hold. For women, light jazz reduced it. Which didn't help the programmers much.

"They could have set up a tape that said, 'If you're female, press 1. If you're male, press 2,' " he says, "but that seemed too controversial."

Kellaris isn't the only professor who studies waiting. Down at Duke University, Ziv Carmon, a professor of consumer psychology, has developed a computer simulator that enables him to subject volunteers to the horrors of waiting in lines without actually putting them on one. Up at MIT, Richard C. Larson, a professor of electrical engineering, has created computer systems designed to help airlines, banks and department stores deal with their line problems. He also teaches a seminar on "queuing theory" and "the psychology of lines."

Carmon and Larson find themselves at odds on the biggest controversy in contemporary queuing studies: Which is better--one long serpentine line or many short lines?

This is a serious issue for businesses: Should you line people up in one long line, like they do at most banks? Or in many short lines, like they do in supermarkets? Single lines look longer, which can scare customers away. But multiple lines can be frustrating for customers who watch as people who arrived after them get served before them.

Larson is a single-line partisan. He has a theory about this, the theory of "Slips and Skips." Slips occur when somebody slips ahead of you in a multi-line system. Skips occur when you slip ahead of somebody else. The problem, he says, is that the thrill of skipping is dwarfed by the pain of slipping.

"When somebody slips by you, your psychological cost is high," he says. "You're going to remember that. And maybe next time you'll go to a place with a long serpentine line."

Carmon takes a different view. He says that some businesses--fast-food restaurants with nearby competitors, for instance--should use multiple lines because they look shorter and faster to customers who might flee if they see a long line. "With a single line," he says, "the length is misleading, and people tend to feel bad as they approach the line."

Larson scoffs at this. "That might be true for a naive, first-time customer," he says, "but after you've done it, you realize what's going on."

Thank you for continuing to hold. While we do have an unusually high call volume at this time, we value your call. Please hold for the next available associate.

Vickie Lemons had more than 10 items in her cart that fateful night in April 1998 in a Kohl's supermarket in Milwaukee. But there was nobody in the express line, so the cashier there invited Lemons in. Another woman pulled in behind Lemons with less than 10 items and promptly started complaining. Out in the parking lot, the complaints escalated and police said the second woman whipped out a pocket knife and sliced a hunk off of Lemons's nose.

"There's something called queue rage, which is similar to road rage," Larson says. "As our pace of life gets more hectic, our tolerance for waiting in line goes down."

Obviously, we've got a problem. We keep creating products to eliminate delay, but we're still bedeviled by waiting.

We got tired of waiting in restaurants, so we invented fast-food joints. We got too impatient to wait for conventional ovens to cook our meals, so we invented microwave ovens to cook them faster. We got tired of waiting for the mail carrier, so we invented FedEx and fax machines and e-mail.

And now we grumble about the lines in fast-food restaurants. And we stand in front of our microwave wondering why it's so slow. And we grouse about how long it takes the computer to boot up.

It's a vicious cycle. Every timesaving device allows us to put more on our schedule, which makes us more obsessed with time and less tolerant of waiting. James Gleick, the best-selling science writer, discusses this phenomenon in his new book, "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything." But who has time to read books anymore?

Hello . . . Can I help you? . . . Hello.

You're startled. Somebody has answered your call. An actual human is talking to you.

You stammer out an explanation of your problem: You've been waiting all day for the repairman. When is he coming?

Oh, you want the customer service department, she says. This is the customer relations department. I'll transfer you.

No, you say. Stop. Wait!

But it's too late. The phone is ringing.

Thank you for calling the customer service department. All our lines are busy now, but your call will be answered in the order in which it was received. Please hold for the next available associate.

CAPTION: On hold till eternity: Donald Griffin in a D.C. production of "Waiting for Godot."