NEW YORK—To queue or not to queue? And why is the queue you’re not standing in always the best?
David Andrews went in search of answers and unearthed a world of science, history, and cultural norms about the often stressful, sometimes nonexistent, and usually time-consuming act of waiting in line.
He collected his observations and those of others in a new book out in November from Workman Publishing, “Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?”
Andrews’ interest stems from his stint in the Navy and the time he spent during boot camp either lining up for things—chow, checkups—or at attention. He also recalled his childhood in the early 1990s in post-Communist Romania where his parents were missionaries, chasing lines for life’s basics.
“There were long lines for everything. Milk, eggs, gasoline,” he said in a recent interview. “You always carried around a bag just in case there was something for sale.”
Andrews, 33, notes the United States wasn’t always a nation of line standers. Agrarian-based societies have little use for the line, he explained. In the early years of cities, and still in spots around the globe, chaos is king, but starting as early as toddlerhood, Americans were slowly trained to respect the line.
Queues, Andrews concludes, in one form or another, are “essential to the machinery of modern life,” yet some rail against them as evidence of the “machine-made man,” ever-obedient and lacking outside-the-box creativity.
Other gems on the myths and mysteries, secrets and psychology of waiting in line:
Birth of the Queue
The modern concept likely made its way from revolutionary France to English shores around 1837, Andrews writes. He attributes the spread in part to Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian historian, satirist and social commentator who wrote a history of the French Revolution.
Among the head choppings by guillotine and street mobs Carlyle chronicled was reference in Paris to the queues—or literally in old French “tails”—at bakery shops, at a time of massive famine and bread shortages among the peasants.
There were also political connotations.
“The slogan of the French Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,’ Andrews writes, so to “patiently wait one’s turn was to hold everyone as equals.” Or as Carlyle put it: “Patriotism stands in queue.”
In America, “we believe that all are created equal. So, too, do we stand in line,” Andrews adds.
Clearly, lines, or at least attempts at lines, existed elsewhere and at other times in history. So what about the longtime reputation of the British and their embrace of queuing? A relative, recent fiction, Andrews writes, citing Joe Moran’s “Queueing for Beginners.”
The myth that the British are willing, patient, and even eager to stand in line dates to World War II propaganda during a time of shortages and rationing, Andrews writes.
“Queues were in fact often tense and politically charged affairs that had to be policed in case of riots.”
Rise of Civility in Cities
Dates vary from city to city and country to country, but at some point, Andrews said, leaders decided to deal with the rabble of their urban centers. They wanted, in simple terms, to tame the crowd, and they tried through creation of straight, well-organized streets.
Whether it was the grid of New York City or the grand boulevards, gardens and squares of Paris, linearity became a thing of beauty. Sidewalks were built to separate pedestrians from traffic and keep them walking in a straight line, he notes. Police forces were told to “keep people in line.”
With order came queuing as the norm—and schools played a role.
Teaching manuals offered tips on how to get children to queue. Kids are taught not to cut in line, mind the rules and watch the clock. Not everyone was happy about that, Andrews writes.
In 1891, Congressman George Cooper of Indiana delivered a eulogy for Congressman Frank Spinola of New York, bemoaning as a side note:
“At the doorway of our schools, the children stand in line; having entered they are graded and classified, and the necessity for discipline and methods in dealing with numbers leaves little room for the orderly exercise or development of individual traits.”
Soccer and ‘Star Wars’
Andrews describes two studies that focused on lines.
Leon Mann looked at lines of soccer fans that once formed overnight for play-off matches. F. Neil Brady studied lines of “Star Wars” aficionados who in 1999 camped out for a week or more outside theaters around the U.S. for tickets to “The Phantom Menace,” the first new film in the franchise in 16 years.
Both studies revealed a social system in miniature, according to Andrews, complete with competition and cliques. Queuers at the front formed alliances, creating rules that allowed people to leave while others protected their spots.
Brady discovered more complex systems, including a case at a New Orleans theater among the first 60 spot-holders to reorder the line based on the number of physical hours actually spent in it. A logbook was kept. As long as a line stander was among the original first 60, they could take off as much time as they wanted, with the final order tallied at the end, based on hours spent in the line.
People talked more to each other the closer to the front of a line they were. They cooperated and established disciplinary rules, the researchers found.
“They shared interests, they played games, they prepared food, they told stories, they did favors for each other, they fought, they resolved disputes, they sought leadership and conferred authority,” Brady observed.
Beijing and the Olympics
In 2007, the Chinese government’s Office of Capital Ethics Development was busy in the lead-up to the Olympic Games the following year, especially in Beijing.
Public spitting and littering were discouraged, and thousands of pamphlets were handed out educating citizens on proper “street etiquette.” That included the common practice of cutting in lines and the importance of being patient. Authorities were trying to neutralize pushing and shoving and encourage orderly queues.
“‘Where there are more than two people, they should wait in line,'” Andrews wrote of the official announcement of Voluntarily Wait-in-Line Day on the 11th of each month.
The effort was made amid years of complaints from tourists and expats about the lack of queue etiquette. Andrews considers the choice of the 11th day of each month inspiring: The Chinese character for the numeral 11 resembles two people standing in line.
The ethics office plastered bus stations with signs that read in Chinese: “I wait in line and am cultured. I display courtesy and am happy,” and, “It’s civilized to queue, it’s glorious to be polite.”
Other variations read: “Voluntarily wait in line, be polite and put others first” and “I care about and participate in the Olympics and set an example by queuing.”
The personal favorite of Andrews is: “I am a member of the queue.”