An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one. George Mikes
It’s civilised to queue; it’s glorious to be polite. Chinese slogan in campaign to eradicate queue-jumping in Beijing during the Olympics
Queues occupy a special place in my life. I met my wife in a queue at the Escuela Oficial de Idiomas (the Official Language School) in Madrid. I had just arrived in the Spanish capital from England and I wanted to know if there was a club where I could meet the locals, while my wife was there because they had spelt her name wrong on a certificate. I suppose that it is hardly surprising that we should meet in a queue, as it is claimed that we spend around four years of our lives waiting in line. This does seem a lot, but think about the following incomplete list:
traffic lights, traffic jams and tailbacks
paperwork for the government
The English have a reputation for being master queuers. According to Joe Moran, in his look at everyday life Queuing for Beginners, the orderly queue began in the early nineteenth century, a “product of more urbanised industrialised societies which bought masses of people together in one place.” The queue is a spontaneous organic formation in the great English liberal tradition: it is self-regulating, and based on tacit understandings between people. The queue draws on British traditions of decency, fair play and democracy.
Queues also bring to mind central planning and socialism. In a radio broadcast in 1950 Winston Churchill coined the term Queuetopia to caricature Britain under the Labour government. In the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc the interminable queues were the butt of many a joke:
I want to join the waiting list for a car. How long is it?
Ten years from today exactly
Morning or evening?
Why does it matter?
A plumber is due in the morning.
How will the problem of queues in shops be solved when we reach full Communism?
There will be nothing left to queue for.
In the capitalist West it is Disney that is the acknowledged expert in queues and how to manage them. “The Happiest Place on Earth” is not my idea of fun. Why would I want to spend my holiday waiting in queues? But there is no doubt that Disney, which owns and licenses 14 theme parks around the world, has got it down to a fine art. In the rest of this post I am going to look at the psychological aspects of queuing and the solutions that companies such as Disney have found for them.
There is a significant subjective element to the experience of queuing. Research has shown that we overestimate how long they’ve waited in a queue by around 36%. Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time. This principle is behind the placement of mirrors near lifts. At Houston airport passengers were frequently complaining about the long waits at baggage reclaim. The airport increased the number of baggage handlers and the average wait fell to just eight minutes, but the complaints did not abate. It was taking passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage reclaim and seven more minutes to actually pick up their bags. So nearly 90% of their time, was spent standing around waiting for their bags. By moving the arrival gates away from the main terminal and sending the luggage to the furthest carousel, passengers were made to walk six minutes to get their bags. Complaints fell to almost zero.
“In-line” entertainment is a popular option at amusement parks. And in an experiment at Walt Disney World they’ve decided to eliminate the queue completely on their Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride. Visitors will be given pagers and invited into an interactive waiting area where they’ll pass the time until they are buzzed back to the ride. In a busy restaurant, the typical substitute for a waiting customer is a bar. At an outdoor attraction with long queues, a good substitute might be a marquee selling merchandise or food. Not only do these activities make the wait more tolerable for the customer, they are also an opportunity to generate additional revenue.
The length of a queue should coincide with the value of the product or service for which we’re waiting. The more valuable it is, the longer we will be willing to wait for it. We are more concerned with how long a line is than how fast it’s moving. Given a choice between a slow-moving short queue and a fast-moving long one, we will often opt for the former, even if the waits are identical. In a theme park you probably don’t want your visitors to see the whole of the queue, so you try to hide it.
Uncertainty makes waiting more stressful, while information such as expected wait times and explanations for delays reduces this uncertainty. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated leave happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Disney systematically overestimates waiting times for their rides, so that its customers will end up pleasantly surprised when they get on their chosen ride ahead of schedule.
A number of inventions have improved the queuing experience. A very mundane piece of technology, the metal pole with a rounded base and a strip of retractable webbed tape at the top, has become essential for more civilised queuing. Then we have those machines, first developed in Sweden, that assign a number to when you arrive. And the fast-food chain Wendy’s are said to have been the inventors of the serpentine line. This channels all the customers into one big snaking queue. On reaching the head of the queue, you are directed to the next available register, teller, etc. The serpentine line may not always faster be faster than multiple queues. But what it does offer is the guarantee that you will never see someone who arrives after you getting served before you.
Fairness, or lack thereof, is the biggest influence on our feelings about queues. We are most familiar with first come first served. However I am not sure this is universal. How people queue in different countries will have to be the subject of another post.
Unfairness can cause queuers to get angry and we hear a lot about queue rage and the violence it engenders. I read about one case at a supermarket in Milwaukee where a woman was so annoyed that the person in front of her had too many items in the express lane that she followed her out to her car, and chopped off half her nose with a hunting knife. But in reality people’s reactions to queue jumping can be surprisingly restrained.
The social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose experiments have featured in this blog before, had his assistants travel around New York to 129 different queues in betting shops, railway stations etc. and barge into queues. They followed this protocol:
1. Enter queue at between the third and fourth person.
2. Say in a neutral tone: “Excuse me; I’d like to get in here.”
3. Step into line and face forward.
4. Only leave the queue when someone admonished them or after 1 minute, whichever was sooner.
On only 10% of occasions were queue-jumpers physically ejected from the queue. And half the times nothing at all happened, – no verbal rebukes, hostile gestures or even dirty looks. I do find this hard to believe. However, Milgram’s findings were replicated in another study by social anthropologist Kate Fox. In her book Watching The English Fox argued that it was easier to jump a queue in England, where the queue has an almost sacred status, than in other countries where queue-jumping is just a minor misdemeanour. She put it down to the fact that other social norms come into play. The desire not to make a scene meant that the queue jumper was generally not confronted by the people in the line.
Waiting in queues can be frustrating and boring; the nagging feeling that we are queuing our life away invades us. To adapt that famous Ben Franklin quote – there are only three things in life that are sure – taxes, death and queuing. And in the UK you can’t avoid queuing even when you die, as it can take two or three weeks before you are buried or cremated. So the next time you’re in a queue or spot a queue-jumper you could engage in a bit of amateur psychology. We’ll never eliminate queuing altogether, so I recommend a stoic attitude.