Standing In Line
October 22, 2008 12:41 AM   Subscribe

How do lines work where you live? I recently came across an article in the Encyclopedia Britannica [quote inside] about the novel introduction of the concept of "standing in line" by McDonalds in 1970s Hong Kong. Do other cultures today deal with lines differently? Where are lines accepted/rejected? Is the alternative a free-for-all, or are there other ordering schemes?
posted by Jeff Howard to Human Relations (76 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: From the Encyclopedia Britannica article on globalization:
"The social atmosphere in colonial Hong Kong of the 1960s was anything but genteel. Cashing a check, boarding a bus, or buying a train ticket required brute force. When McDonald's opened in 1975, customers crowded around the cash registers, shouting orders and waving money over the heads of people in front of them. McDonald's responded by introducing queue monitors--young women who channeled customers into orderly lines. Queuing subsequently became a hallmark of Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan, middle-class culture. Older residents credit McDonald’s for introducing the queue, a critical element in this social transition."
posted by Jeff Howard at 12:43 AM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

This previous question might be of interest.
posted by painquale at 12:47 AM on October 22, 2008

Response by poster: That question accepts lines as an element of the natural order, which they always seemed to me, growing up in the US. I'm looking for alternatives, based on the insight that lines were a relatively recent innovation in Hong Kong.
posted by Jeff Howard at 12:55 AM on October 22, 2008

Here in Korea, it tends to be free-for-all, but that's been changing in recent years. Middle-aged and older women will still elbow their way to the front of any line, unapologetically, most of the time, though. Banks and stuff tend to use numbered tickets these days. I don't recall ever seeing one of those snaking, velvet-rope-on-poles human cattle chutes here.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:19 AM on October 22, 2008

I found India to be a free-for-all much of the time. Airport check-ins there can best be described as resembling an unholy matrimony between rugby scrum and Wall Street trading floor (which ended up working in my favour as I'm much bigger than most Indians).

So much so that I heard when cultures melded with Indians emigrating to the UK over the latter half of the 20th century, Indians had to be instructed on how to queue as to avoid royally pissing off the British public into which they were assimilating, which views queueing with the utmost reverence.
posted by nudar at 1:22 AM on October 22, 2008

It used to be a free-for-all in Eastern Europe (except with very long queues for rare food items, in which a 200-person free-for-all would have meant revolution), but now lines are more common and more readily adhered to. Still, many young people complain that older people are a bit pushy, and don't respect things like the "space" needed between someone using an ATM and the next person (for matters of privacy.) But in 10 to 20 years, it'll be just like America.

I do notice that lines tend to go sideways in Eastern Europe. At bank in America, people will line up directly in front of the teller. Here, they seem to want to line up against the wall, if there's no teller at the next space and it's possible.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:41 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Queues here in Sweden are generally patient and orderly. A widespread alternative to queueing here is the system of taking a ticket with a number on it, then waiting until your number comes up.

When I lived in Italy, things were more fluid: for the most part order prevailed in queues, but cutting in was sometimes tolerated if accomplished with sufficient flair.
posted by misteraitch at 1:48 AM on October 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

I can really only speak for America and Germany.

In America, as many here are probably familiar with, there are these switchback things with the tensabarrier or "queue management systems". This leads to more orderly and polite line behavior because some Americans often need a reprieve from their normal headstrong can-do attitude and relish short periods where they can revert to more of a sheep-like mentality, much like that observed in those watching Cable News or listening to conservative talk radio. Anti-social behavior, while drastically reduced, does still occur. However, when it does, it is often at a heightened degree, and most often engaged in by a type of person known as an "asshole". Behavior generally consists of yelling, swearing, throbbing veins on foreheads, threats of legal action, threats of "having your job" and accusations of hating America or being a terrorist. Others in the immediate vicinity of the asshole, fearing that the asshole might brandish a firearm, generally tend to move away and give each other a look with a titled head and raised eyebrow which conveys the question, "Uh, what the fuck is this asshole's problem?"

In Germany, surprisingly, there are not so many "queue management systems", so things can and do get a bit ugly at the bank, post office, cinema, etc. In this case, the line forms a shape similar to a swarm of angry bees trying to exit a funnel at the narrow end. This causes Unordnung which many Germans are not normally accustomed to dealing with. This Unordnung brings Germans out of their normal comfort zone in which they are normally told or shown what to do. Most Germans can handle this and they remain polite and civil. However, some of them, without this corralling authority, revert to the law of the jungle and begin to flip out, because to them it means complete and total anarchy where they are no longer responsible for their actions. These actions might include pushing, shoving, obscene (for Germans) hand gestures, name calling, threats of calling the police and pressing charges and, in the worst cases, addressing each other in the informal 2nd person. In the event that threats are carried out and local police are actually called to the scene, the police officer usually just stands there with their face in their palm asking the parties involved to please just apologize to each other because he doesn't feel like filling out the paperwork and his shift was over 20 minutes ago, Verdammtnochmal!!!.

I hope this helps answer your question.
posted by chillmost at 1:59 AM on October 22, 2008 [53 favorites]

I'm an American in Portugal. Here they have little ticket machines everywhere (like you see at the butcher in the US, and almost nowhere else) where you pick up a "senha" (ticket) immediately upon entering a place. Since the waiting times can be long, particularly at some social service places, the senha is true currency which is ferociously protected.
posted by pjenks at 2:07 AM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

In Sweden and Norway most places have these machines where you take a number and it's considered unacceptable to skip that step even if you are the ONLY person in the room. At least once you have the number you can sit or stand where ever you want without losing your place. Sometimes you have to sign up on a sheet, sit down, and wait for your name to be called like when I signed up for classes.

Queues are everywhere...even at the bar. Where I previously lived in Illinois, you sort of stood at the bar counter and tried to get the bartenders attention, which is easiest if you are an attractive member of the opposite sex. In Illinois things were generally orderly, but we didn't have those machines and sometimes people would try to cut or generally invade your personal space.

When I traveled in Eastern Europe (Czech and Poland), I was quite uncomfortable with lines because old ladies kept invading my personal space, angling in a way that made it clear that if I let my guard down they would shove in front of me.
posted by melissam at 2:18 AM on October 22, 2008

American living in Kiev here - no lines. No concept of lines. Elbows and dirty looks are the norm. The only thing that seems universal is if someone is holding a child, they are allowed to go to the front of the mass of people that passes for a line, or do other things like sit anywhere they want on a plane (me: "um...that's my seat, says right here on the ticket" flight attendant: but they have a child" me:"......?").

There are a few exceptions. When waiting in line at the supermarket for the most part you won't get someone pushing ahead of you, and most of the time when you're waiting to check in for a flight it's kind of lineish, but I'm assuming that's mostly because of the people from line fearing countries that are there. Trying to line up when getting on the plane, however, is a joke. Arrgh. Makes me so angry just thinking about it. Hate the airport here. *Shakes fist*
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 2:19 AM on October 22, 2008

When I was living in Poland, I was told the sideways queuing came from the days of the long queue, people would move to lean against the wall to rest. There is definitely less personal space in a Polish queue, I was always subconsciously holding onto my bag in the Post Office, because the person behind was just a bit too close for my comfort.
posted by Helga-woo at 2:23 AM on October 22, 2008

As you might expect, lots of queues in Britain (though if you're reading the Brittannica you probably already know this?). Except in pubs, people seem to form queues spontaneously at shops, cash machines (ATMs) or anywhere else they have to wait. The only places I've seen using the numbered ticket system are places where forming a queue isn't sensibly possible, like waiting for assistance in a shoe shop or at the long cheese counter in a supermarket.

The strongest contrast I've seen is in Italy, whose inhabitants seem to rely on the scrum. My endlessly-polite father once spent 45 minutes trying to buy a stamp because he couldn't bring himself to fight off the locals who kept turning up and pushing in front of him to get served.
posted by metaBugs at 2:41 AM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Kate Fox in her fantastic book "Watching the English" writes about asking her (most English) anthropology students to go and do things in public that break their taboos. Apparently the hardest one is to deliberately jump a queue. I can totally believe this too. I'm Dutch, but I schooled mostly in England, and just thinking about it makes me anxious.
posted by atrazine at 3:25 AM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

When I lived in Iceland, it was a sort of nebulous mess. Banks had the same kind of tickets as seen in US deli counters. The airport had those ropes to herd people in somewhat of the right direction, at least preventing any sort of horizontal growth slowing things down. Any place where people were able to spread out, they did. There was no flat out shoving, and I found out that contrary to appearances, if you DID push your way to the front of the line, this is was definitely frowned upon. It was more of a sort of *squeeze* to the front. Everyone fans out and then the line squeezes itself down.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:26 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

In Canada, we cue for everything. I've even seen rather nice cues waiting for the next tram to arrive. The people waiting at the front of the cue get on the next tram, until it's full, and then the cue moves forward. No cue barriers or anything, just a nice spontaneous cue.

Growing up there, I feel so natural cueing that it's just sort of normal to me. And then I go travelling and get shoved around like a doll because I can't wrap my head around the "first person to get to the counter is served" mentality.

Someone mentioned above about bars being an exception to the rule, and it's the same in Canada. We have the nice crunch around the bar to get served. But as far as I can remember, that's the ONLY exception to the rule. If there's one person already waiting, you just get in line behind them automatically (really annoying, however, when they turn out NOT to be in line... grr.)
posted by Planet F at 3:37 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

In Senegal it is a crowd and push situation. People sometimes queue, but if you just show up somewhere and stand at the back of the line, you will never get to the front. If you know the person serving / behind the counter you will often get called to the front. People with higher social status almost always go right to the front. At the ATM, there is a line of sorts. Everyone stands in a crowd, and when a new person arrives, they ask who the last person in line is. In this way, everyone knows the person who they get to go after, though not the order of the line as a whole.

I am American, and have jumped to the front only in airports when I have been paged (late connections, etc) and here in Senegal when I have been called to the front by someone who recognized me. It is always uncomfortable.
posted by Nothing at 3:40 AM on October 22, 2008

Queues are everywhere...even at the bar

melissam, did this also refer to Norway and Sweden? If so, I don't recognize it. The bartender may try to serve people approximately by how long they've been standing, but they most often don't care.

When you come into a bank in Cuba, you find out who came in last before you, asking someone if you have to. Then you just sit around and wait until that person is called and it's your turn next. It's a source of confusion for foreigners but seems to otherwise work pretty smoothly.
posted by springload at 3:51 AM on October 22, 2008

These days in the UK, where relevant, you quite often get the one-queue-for-all- the-windows/tills/whatever system, where the person at the front takes whichever position is free next, thereby removing the issue over picking the slowest line. In small supermarkets and post offices this is implemented formally, with regulated lines and numerical indicators, but the same approach seems to be adopted informally in places like Pret a Manger shops.
posted by Phanx at 3:58 AM on October 22, 2008

In Norway, as mentioned, we have ticket dispenser at banks, post offices etc that gives you a number, and as soon as it is your turn, you go to the window or whatever that displays your number. About 20 years ago the norm was parallell queues, and it seemed like your queue always moved the slowest...

Cutting in is definately frowned upon, but you will probably get away with it. Personal space is important, and chatting up total strangers in queues is uncommon, but not unheard-of.
posted by Harald74 at 4:27 AM on October 22, 2008

Anyone who's waited at a short, crowded bar with too few bartenders knows the alternative - a crowd of people, with a great push forward into the space occupied by a patron who is leaving. This system is ideal for people who hate to wait and are unconcerned with bodily harm.

Of course, it can be dangerous at things like bus stops and rock concerts.
posted by muddgirl at 5:24 AM on October 22, 2008

The U.S. line experience is similar all over the country. But I've noticed there are varying degrees of "buffer space" between people. Here in Montana, people like a lot of room. Unless it's crowded, most lines have several feet between people. Anything closer feels like a serious invasion of personal space.

I was raised in Detroit, and there was a little store across the street from my school ("George's") where the kids would buy candy or cheap plastic toys on lunch or after school. I didn't realize at the time how unusual the "system" was in that store: a mob of kids around the counter, holding money and yelling out what they wanted, with George yelling out, taking money, and handing out merchandise. I was never an assertive kid, but for some reason it never intimidated me to be just as pushy there as everyone else. It's just how it was. After completing your purchase, you had to shove your way back through the crowd to get out the door. One time I went to George's on a Saturday, and it didn't even look like the same place without a mob of kids. I hadn't ever seen the floor before.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:24 AM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

yeah, germans and lines are weird. if there is visibly posted rule it shall be obeyed and you'll get called out by other bystanders for jumping ahead but take a trip on a bus or airplane and you'll see a hundred folks trying to be the very first off.

I'm kind of surprised that mc donalds was supposed to be the first to introduce this concept. this sounds like something the Bundespost would have had instituted in 1955 and the brits have always been somewhat famous for queuing tidily at bus stops, though that has long changed.
posted by krautland at 5:36 AM on October 22, 2008

Except in pubs, people seem to form queues spontaneously at shops, cash machines (ATMs) or anywhere else they have to wait.

There's generally a queue in the pub as well, its just an invisible one in everyone's head.

Queuing is definitely part of the national psyche here. People moan about kids not being brought up badly and not queuing properly but that's just kids being kids and it's always happened.

I can't fucking stand queue jumpers though. In fact, the only time I can remember even coming close to being involved in physical violence in recent years was over some queue jumping.

The story is a bit long, but it probably helps build a picture of attitudes to queueing here in the UK:

If you ever want to see British queuing at its best, go to Victoria Station in London during the rush hour and watch the people filter out of the station and queue for the buses - long snaking queues stretching patiently across the concourse, some with gaps in to allow buses (and people) to go through.

Except, that is, when the Underground Train drivers are on strike. When that happens, every single Tube commuter tries to use the buses instead, and a significant portion seem to decide that the queues obviously don't apply to them because their journey is far more important and must be completed RIGHT NOW!!!11ONEONE.

In other words, they become queue jumpers.

Queue jumpers are generally a weasily and cowardly lot who like to pick on the weak. In contrast, I'm a big stocky bloke with a shaven head. It doesn't matter that on the inside I'm a nerdy bloke who generally wouldn't hurt a fly, when John McQueuejump skulks into view he generally scurries quickly past me avoiding my gaze and looks for better prey.

This was exactly what happened one day, when I found myself part of the aforementioned queuing at Victoria during a Tube Strike.

A suited, and obviously late, business man bustled up from the closed tube entrance, took one look at the queue and then sighed. I was ten feet away from him virtually at the front of the queue, and from that moment I knew he was going to queuejump.

And queue jump he did. He walked to the front, carried on walking past the various blokes and was about to push in ahead of a lady with a push chair who was two people in front of me when he suddenly realised I was looking straight at him with that most dreaded of English expressions - RAISED EYEBROWS (dun dun dun!).

He changed his mind, lowered his gaze and walked quickly past me before cutting back in line ahead of the old lady directly behind me.

I turned round and said, politely, that there was a queue here and that perhaps he'd missed it.

"I'm in a Hurry." He said.

I pointed out that a lot of people in the queue were in a hurry but they seemed to recognise the need to queue, so maybe he should consider heading to the back of it.

"Mind your own fucking business." He said.

Well obviously I did the only sensible thing a man can do in that situation.

I turned to the old lady behind him, smiled sweetly at her and said:

"Would you like to go in front of me madam?"

And she did, the queuejumper being forced to shuffle back as I did to let her in.

Then i turned to the bloke who had been behind her, and said to him:

"Want to go in front of me mate?"

And he did as well.

In fact, the next sixty or seventy or so people all replied in the affirmative as well, and slowly but surely I (and the queuejumper) shuffled further and further back the line until we reached the end of the line and the end of our strange comedic queue-based dance, me holding eye contact with him the whole time.

By the time we got there he was furious, but was still unwilling to risk saying something to me.

Then as the bus finally pulled up, from the front, came a shout. It was the old lady who I'd first let in front of me.

"Young man! Do you want to go in front of me?!"

"That would be lovelly - thanks!" I shouted back, still holding eye contact with the queuejumper. I shot him my warmest (and smuggest) smile...

...and suddenly he snapped.

With a roar of primaeval anger he lunged at me, fist swinging. Luckily I'm quicker than I look and managed to sidestep just in time. His swing whistled past my nose, missing by milimetres. Overbalanced and unable to stop, he tumbled arse-over-tit onto the ground as everyone looked on in a mixture of shock and amusement.

As he fell I felt a strong but firm hand on my shoulder and turned to see a member of the London Constabulary there with a huge grin on his face. Him and his partner had been watching amused from a distance as the whole scene had unfolded.

"You want to press charges?" He said, laughing.

"Nah." I replied, "Not fucking worth it."

"Fair enough," He said, "You better go get your bus. Don't worry about tosspot here - we'll make sure he won't forget today in a hurry anyway."

"I fucking HATE queue jumpers" His partner muttered, as he held the guy down on the ground. "Should be a law against it..."
posted by garius at 5:39 AM on October 22, 2008 [1395 favorites]

What's interesting in Canada, that in places like Chinatown, with a high immigrant population, the old scrum rules apply. There is always confused conflict because for the most part, most people throw up their hands and go with the flow, and then there are others who would like their own community to behave more 'Canadian' and queue up!

I have also observed the invisible queue in Canada, similar to the bank in Cuba. Where you arrive somewhere and there is a jumble of people. No line, no numbers. You look around and check out who was before you. You might ask, is it you or me next? And people, for the most part, won't jump the line. It's weirdly orderly and works okay.

Fuzzy Skinner - George's sounds like the best candy store in the world!
posted by typewriter at 5:48 AM on October 22, 2008

In Canada, we cue for everything.

True enough; indeed, the default queueing system for a row of ATMs (and, occasionally, rows of staffed booths of whatever sort) seems to be a single large line which frays at its head to the individual service points. That is to say, rather than each of the three kiosks having a line, there is but a single one: the person ahead of you may go to the far left, you to the far right, and the person behind you to the middle. I have known some visitors to be unfamiliar with the set-up which nets them furtive dirty looks.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:49 AM on October 22, 2008

Queueing vs free for all can be an aspect of topography and circumstance as well as culture. I live in London* and where pavements are narrow people will form an orderly queue for the bus but where there is a lot of space and people its tends to be a free for all. Ditto trains: getting on the train in the morning people distribute themselves along the platform feigning casual indifference (though in reality jockeying for position while pretending otherwise) then make a mad dash for the doors when the train turns up; a one queue for two windows system always spontaneously emerges when it comes to buying tickets in the ticket office. Tube stations sit somewhere in between: queues emerge at the last possible minute from a spontaneous mass. (Something close to a maximally efficient system for getting a large number of people through a fixed number of barriers I suspect, fewer barriers and bigger queues emerge sooner).

*Any body who thinks the British are born queuers has never caught a bus outside Brixton tube. Though I did one see a line of sixty plus people spontaneously form, snaking its way around a cramped pub, queueing to buy drugs. All the while people in it were standing around chatting among themselves as if this was just how they happened to find themselves in conversation. The polite fiction at its best, or most ridiculous.
posted by tallus at 6:00 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Garius - that is a veritable High Legend of London tales. That should be in the dictionary under Britain. Good fucking show. Fucking hate queue jumpers.

British pub queuing is really interesting, socially speaking. As said upthread, everyone standing at the bar has a rough idea who was at the bar before them, and if they're polite and understand the unsaid etiquette, will refer the bar person to anyone who was there before them until eventually they are served themselves. It's almost a human bubble sort. It also mirrors the smaller 'bubble sort' in men's barber shops, where upon entering, you have no idea of the order in front of you but just mentally mark your place. The barber, or bar person normally has a rough idea of the order of serving too (unless it's really busy or they are inexperienced), but if it is super busy and they come to you before someone else who's been there longer, and you point them to the other person, they'll nearly always come to you next.

In my experience, the people that jump this informal queue in bars are either not British/not aware of the etiquette, first time young 'uns who treat it like the tuck shop queue or coked up wankers of both sexes.
posted by Happy Dave at 6:08 AM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

My Argentine friends told me that there are long lines for everything there. When it seemed like a pretty accurate description.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 6:33 AM on October 22, 2008

What springload described is not limited to the banks in Cuba. It's true in shops, ice cream parlors, hospitals, government offices... everywhere. Basically, the queue is a sort of mental construct. Order is respected, but the queues are completely unrelated to any sort of geometric notion of a "line".

You just arrive at the edges of a loosely-knit mass of people, loudly ask "who's last?" and then simply remember that you go AFTER that person. As long as you pay enough attention to notice their turn, you're fine. (And the next time someone comes up and asks "Who's last?", it's YOU, bub, so you must remember to answer them.)

Nobody ever seems to cheat, and in my experience, if someone goes out of turn, they'll be lectured by the nearest 90 year old woman. Then they'll blush brightly, mumble apologies, and return to the waiting huddle. Organizationally, the group waiting remains a messy scrum. People wander off, come back later, and so on. As long as you remember who you follow, though, the "line" seems to work out pretty well. I've seen queues of many hundreds work this way, but it's also the rule in force at every three-person pizza shack.
posted by rokusan at 7:01 AM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

Incidentally, I had a girlfriend who had grown up in the Soviet Union and when she came to the west, she was startled by the biggest lines being not for bread or vegetables but for movies.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:02 AM on October 22, 2008 [12 favorites]

Like most Americans I line up for everything except buses and trains. Trains because they have lots of doors and buses because, well, I dunno--somehow buses seem different.
posted by dame at 7:03 AM on October 22, 2008

Oh and like many New Yorkers I will totally jump the line at the movies and just blend in when they start letting people in. Yes, I am a bad bad person (with good good seats).
posted by dame at 7:04 AM on October 22, 2008

One of the most glowing examples of queuing is in an "old-fashoined" mens barbers shop (where they still exist). Not those nice gleaming hair stylists, but an old barber shop. People wander in, sit anywhere and patiently wait their turn. Nobody really knows who is in front of them, only who came in after them. But everyone seem to instinctively know whose turn it is next and everyone gets their trim in the correct order. Nobody ever gets mad or yells if someone takes their turn early - in fact if someone is waiting for their favorite barber then they will not take their turn, but nod to the the barber they are waiting for and everyone instinctivley knows that they will take the next slot for that person.

Must be something in guys genes I guess.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 7:14 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

In the Swiss Post office, there is a number-dispenser. However, my first time there, I was the Only One. Of course I ignored the machine. When I went to the window, however, a pretty lady, about half my age, growled at me for not having a number. Ordnung, I suppose.
posted by Goofyy at 7:55 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

In Spain, different queuing situations are treated differently - buses, for instance, have no particular structure - whoever the doors are in front of when the bus stops is at the front and everyone else is second.

In shops and at markets though, things become infinitely more personable. When you enter, you ask "¿El ultimo?" ("The last?") and whoever is last says "Yo." You remember who answered and become "El Ultimo" yourself, until someone takes the position from you. Then you just watch the person who answered you until they've been served, at which point its your turn... Heaven forbid though that you take on the positon of "El Ultimo" and then decide to leave without telling someone else, because the chaos which can ensue when no-one actually knows who's last is something that has to be seen to be believed!
posted by benzo8 at 8:16 AM on October 22, 2008 [3 favorites]

Australian egalitarianism mandates queueing in most situations, though you occasionally get pushy bastards in Sydney. Sydney bus queues are sort of proximity arrangements, with people attempting to position themselves where they think the bus door will open. Pub etiquette is similar to the UK.

This looks like an interesting read, even if it's from 1969: "Principles of etiquette are illustrated with empirical and anecdotal evidence from the study of Australian football queues."
posted by zamboni at 8:35 AM on October 22, 2008

In mainland China it is still pretty much a free for all scrum, which you learn to use to an advantage if you are a big westerner. Lines are becoming more and more common though, either enforced by rails or a security guard. The personal space in lines is minimal. I find when I go home I feel weird if I am not right on top of the next person in line, which has earned me some dirty looks.
posted by afu at 8:58 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

In India, as mentioned, people crowd up as close to the object of their desire as possible, and push, shove, elbow and squeeze, all whilst avoiding eye contact, so as to not be rude to one another. This even applies to situations outside of India, for example your connecting flight into Mumbai, this will be the scene at boarding, the queue is a suggestion, and many Indians have seen it done, but in practice, it is so rare as to be unseen.

Now, however, I am in New Jersey, where we don't wait in line, we wait on it.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:20 AM on October 22, 2008

I used to work at Disneyland, and remain fascinated by the engineering that goes into designing a good queuing system. The queues vary from attractions, of course, because the attractions were designed and built at different times and with different purposes. The best queues...

* ...make the queue part of the attraction experience itself. For example, the queue area for the Indiana Jones attraction is enormous, and besides the artwork, features hidden codes on the walls, an instructional film, and even a "collapsing ceiling" prank the people can play on other people in line.

* ...are segmented, so you can't get a really good look at how long the queue really is from where you're standing.

* ... feature a look into the ride itself. Space Mountain, for example, gives you darkened glimpses into the roller coaster area.

* ...wind past the loading area, so you can see what you're getting yourself into. Again, in Space Mountain, the queue walkway does a complete circle of the loading area before you actually walk down to it.

* ... are physically separated from the rest of the park, to discourage line-jumping. Kind of hard to jump the line at Big Thunder if you have to climb over rocks and fences to do it.

This all adds up to a nice, largely sedate experience for tens of thousands of people every day, coming in from all cultures and all walks of life.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:27 AM on October 22, 2008 [21 favorites]

After traveling for 14 months in a ton of places where lines were non-existent (try buying a subway token in Uzbekistan or India!) I came back to the US (Chicago) and found that when I did wait in line I was standing uncomfortably close to the person in front of me. I had to really try not to stand so close because it made people nervous. I was standing less than a foot away from them whereas most people left 3-5 feet between themselves and the person in front of them.

So I'll say that it really varies. Lines are sometimes just adapt to the surroundings, sometimes there's ropes, sometimes tickets (but not often). In a lot of countries I had to start using my elbows because in Uzbekistan if I was standing and talking to a teller someone would literally walk up and stick his hand into the hole to buy a ticket despite my hand already being there.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:39 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Middle-aged and older women will still elbow their way to the front of any line, unapologetically, most of the time, though.

San Francisco is a bit of an anomaly compared to other US cities - I remember the first elbow to the ribs I got from a little old asian lady no taller than my collarbone (I'm not very tall). This elbow came with a scowl that would peel paint. I've noticed in the years since then that I and all other locals who know the score just let them get on first - which starts the free-for-all which ends with no line to speak of. There's no pushing (although there might be elbows) but it's not orderly.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 9:43 AM on October 22, 2008

When I lived in Italy, things were more fluid: for the most part order prevailed in queues, but cutting in was sometimes tolerated if accomplished with sufficient flair.

This is sort of what I experienced in Italy. People would definitely try to get in front of you (especially if you are a blond American-looking person), but if you backed them down with a look, they got all "scusi" and "prego."
posted by Pax at 9:52 AM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I've traveled a lot in Central America, and nothing's worse than trying to climb on a chickenbus at a busy bus station. There's always a nice line until the bus opens its doors, and then STAMPEDE! One of the only times I've ever actually had a person duck under my arms to squeeze on the bus before me. I consider myself acceptive of cultural differences, but.... what a jerk.
posted by changeling at 10:30 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tourists line up for Broadway shows, tickets in hand. I don't get why- seats are assigned. So I always jump to the front.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 11:06 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tourists line up for Broadway shows, tickets in hand. I don't get why- seats are assigned. So I always jump to the front.

Seats are assigned on aircraft, too -- do you jump that line as well?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:15 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Tourists line up for Broadway shows, tickets in hand. I don't get why- seats are assigned. So I always jump to the front.

Um....Broadway is very strict about letting people in after the show has officially started, so if jumping to the front means that you've kept someone from getting in on time, that may not be the best idea...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:18 AM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Uh, in NYC line etiquitte varies wildly from situation to situation. In my neighborhood (Greek/everything else) small stores there are a lot of places where you kinda push to the front and the people at the counter will pick people out to serve. Then if you have exact change you don't have to wait at all, you just put it on the counter, make eye contact with the person at the counter, and leave.
posted by sondrialiac at 12:52 PM on October 22, 2008

Another voice for the India/Pakistan examples. I found that different social situations resulted in different outcomes depending on the culture and caste and class of, and power dynamics between, the people involved.

Free polio immunizations given by upper-class Rotarians to illiterate slum-dwellers' children? Perfect lineup, no pushing, no wandering to the front.

Two white people sitting on the Ataari train platform, transcribing 500 Urdu-speaking Pakistani passport holders' information onto the Indian Hindi/English customs forms, to speed the border crossing process? Perfect, silent lineup, no queue jumpers.

Shimla post office containing no fewer than four enormous signs in English and Hindi instructing customers to line up or they will be denied service? Total chaos, your elbows were your friend.

It all depends...
posted by Mrs Hilksom at 1:15 PM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

I was once told that in Mexico they don't queue but when you enter a service office (like say a bank) you say something is spanish to the effect of "Who was last?" and the person was the last person who walked in raises their hand. Then you can sit where ever you want until that guy has his turn and then you know you're next. In effect, you are also now the last guy for the next person who enters.

I thought that was pretty cool.
posted by like_neon at 1:19 PM on October 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I live in NYC where we stand ONline. I visited a friend in San Francisco and we were waiting for an elevator. There was a lot of space in front of the elevator but everyone was hanging back so I went to fill that space, though not blocking the doors. My friend grabbed me and said that we have to wait online for the elevator, in an actual line! I think in NYC things are more crowded so in situations like that, we tend to gather and crowd rather than form actual lines, as lines block traffic flow more than crowds. We treat elevators like subway cars. I think fluid dynamics would prove this more efficient and NYC is all about efficiency.
posted by kenzi23 at 2:43 PM on October 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

Everyone knows Japan is very orderly and so forth, but it took me (an American) a few months of living there to learn that you really do have to be breathing down the neck of the person in front of you not to get cut in line.
posted by liverbisque at 4:13 PM on October 22, 2008

Tourists line up for Broadway shows, tickets in hand. I don't get why- seats are assigned. So I always jump to the front.

You're not supposed to do this. It's equivalent to jumping the line at the MetroCard machines.
posted by oaf at 7:03 PM on October 22, 2008

British pub queuing is really interesting, socially speaking. As said upthread, everyone standing at the bar has a rough idea who was at the bar before them, and if they're polite and understand the unsaid etiquette, will refer the bar person to anyone who was there before them until eventually they are served themselves. It's almost a human bubble sort

There is an upgrade planned for Britain 1.3 (2010 Cameron) where this will be upgraded to a quicksort.
posted by atrazine at 10:29 PM on October 22, 2008 [4 favorites]

Just to flesh out what others have said about India, there is a kind of token acceptance of queueing, in the sense that there will usually be a higgledy-piggledy line of people snaking towards a service window - say at a railway ticket office.

When I say it's token, it's because of a few behaviours that run against true respect for queues. First, you need to show that you are intent on queueing. If your crotch is not jammed right up against the ass of the guy in front of you, you're not trying hard enough, and somebody will shove in front of you. No matter that you might be 20m and 300 people from the head of the queue - every last drop of space needs to be squeezed out.

Same if you are momentarily diverted. Hesitate in pressing forwards for a second (you might be rummaging through your bag or something) and you've instantly lost a place or ten.

At the head of the queue, it becomes another world. There's usually a glass screen, with a small semicircle cut out for handing over your cash or forms. Everybody within reaching distance is required to shove their hand through this hole, and wave their money or paperwork around in front of the customer service guy. If you just stand there - front row centre - & don't join in with this hand-shoving & paper-waving, you'll be ignored as if you weren't interested; just standing there for the fun of it, or something.

Meanwhile (in fact the entire time) men will stride right past the entire queue, position themselves beside the window-scrum, or lean over or through it, in order to assault the service guy with shouted enquiries. You see, it's OK to queue-jump and waste everybody's time if you're only asking a question.

The fact that it transforms from crotch-to-ass pressure to a full-on scrum as you near the front has one great advantage: the womens' queue. This is an invisible & usually non-existent queue (since men do most of the travelling & the manly stuff like buying tickets). To avoid being groped (or "eve-teased") in the regular queue, women are entitled to walk right to the front & form their own line.

They still need to negotiate access to the window, but that's usually achievable through a combination of wedging themselves in from the side, along with a good deal of shouting at the guys to keep their distance. Travel with a woman in India, and you'll save many hours on what is otherwise a very slow & frustrating experience.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:20 PM on October 22, 2008 [6 favorites]

True enough; indeed, the default queueing system for a row of ATMs (and, occasionally, rows of staffed booths of whatever sort) seems to be a single large line which frays at its head to the individual service points. That is to say, rather than each of the three kiosks having a line, there is but a single one: the person ahead of you may go to the far left, you to the far right, and the person behind you to the middle. I have known some visitors to be unfamiliar with the set-up which nets them furtive dirty looks.

Ah yes.. I used to refer to this as "Shopper's Drug Mart Rules", but they seem to have disavowed that system in more recent store designs. I feel sadness and frustration each time a venue degrades to the inferior multi-que system.
Don't forsake me Mountain Equipment Coop, or I'll burn my membership card, and my shares! You don't want to know what happened to my Optimum Club card!
posted by Chuckles at 12:05 AM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here in Singapore, people love their queues! We're really orderly too so we flock naturally into queues. In fact there are queues everywhere, from conventions to product launches, hairdressers to cell phone shops.

Food fads are common here. A recent one was with flavoured donuts, and queues can be long, especially when things are given out free. We've also seen bubble tea, Portuguese egg tarts, coffee buns go this way. Now that the economy isn't doing too well, we have longer queues for free food, too. In fact, other than food and perhaps shopping, queuing has to be the favourite activity of locals.

Rain? People come prepared, ensuring that this exciting pastime will not be disrupted by inclement weather. In fact, they even draw up a diagram of the queue, as it can snake all over the place when the number of people in queue increase.

Naturally, Singaporeans, being the patriots they are, love the country. And what better way to show that love than by queuing up during National Day? Singapore even loves Microsoft products, as this MS Singapore press release shows.
posted by wei at 1:01 AM on October 23, 2008 [3 favorites]

These days in the UK, where relevant, you quite often get the one-queue-for-all- the-windows/tills/whatever system, where the person at the front takes whichever position is free next, thereby removing the issue over picking the slowest line

The technical term for that is the 'snake'. I actually prefer that form of queueing myself, as it eliminates that awful choice one has to make when one approaches two or more queues of relatively equal length but is paralysed by the fear that the one chosen is the one that doesn't move.

Of course, I believe studies have been done to explain why the 'snake' system isn't preferred because the line constantly shuffles along, rather than stopping and starting in bigger strides, giving the impression that it lasts longer (when it's actually more efficient).
posted by macdara at 1:37 AM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

In Poland, until recently, when you walked into a government office or doctor's waiting room, you would ask, "Who's last?" The person who was last in line would look up and tell you or at least make a positive sign. You would then know that you had become the last person in line and you would know who you were behind. When another person arrived and asked who was last, you would let that person that you were last. It was like managing a linked list: you just needed to establish a pointer to the last person in line and then be ready to announce that you were last in line.

This has been vanishing over the past decade or so as queue management machines have been installed. Now you walk in, press a button, and tear off a little numbered slip of paper that comes out of a slot. When your number is called or appears in lights over a desk, you take your turn talking to the woman behind the counter.

In some situations, however, there was never any ambiguity about line order and so no need to do anything fancy to manage it. For example, the line at the grocery store was always quite obviously a physical line of people with baskets or carts standing, so there was no need to ask who's last or to take a number.
posted by pracowity at 2:21 AM on October 23, 2008

A big part of the reason I, a Finnish guy, integrated so well with British culture was because we share the same beliefs about queueing.

My integration into Spanish culture has not been so easy...
posted by slimepuppy at 3:24 AM on October 23, 2008

Incidentally, I had a girlfriend who had grown up in the Soviet Union and when she came to the west, she was startled by the biggest lines being not for bread or vegetables but for movies.

I mentioned this yesterday to a coworker who grew up in a Warsaw Pact country in the eighties and she said, "That's because we lacked bread; what your culture lacked was entertainment."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:44 AM on October 23, 2008 [8 favorites]

Queues are everywhere...even at the bar

melissam, did this also refer to Norway and Sweden? If so, I don't recognize it. The bartender may try to serve people approximately by how long they've been standing, but they most often don't care.

I think this may be a phenomenon of the student bars at the "Nations" in Uppsala and Lund, but queuing is indeed quite a thing in most of them. Last night when one opened I waited in line to first check my coat and then I got in another line for a beer. Quite strange....
posted by melissam at 8:38 AM on October 23, 2008

British pub queuing is really interesting, socially speaking. As said upthread, everyone standing at the bar has a rough idea who was at the bar before them, and if they're polite and understand the unsaid etiquette, will refer the bar person to anyone who was there before them until eventually they are served themselves.

You know, I notice this a lot in the rural area of Texas I currently live in. When I've lived in Big Cities, lines were more the thing when waiting for service, but here it tends to be more amorphous. For example, when trying to buy something at a convenience store there are often a few people standing at different distances from the counter, but not in line. When a space opens up everyone looks at everyone else and either the person who's been waiting the longest moves up or you start the game of "You go ahead" "No you go." Often men let me go first because I'm a woman, but often I try to let older people go first. Or the person with the fewest items goes first.

There really is a huge difference in politeness out here.
posted by threeturtles at 8:43 AM on October 23, 2008

Back in the day at Cedar Point, they had DJ's and refreshment stands along the way as you got closer to riding the Magnum or some other roller-coaster. At one point, they would whip out giant beach balls and let people play volleyball with all the other people waiting in line. It was always fun to keep passing the same hot girl as you winded your way to the front.
posted by jasondigitized at 9:01 AM on October 23, 2008

At the head of the queue, it becomes another world.

Yep, this is the case in India, and in most of Indonesia, too. However, I had no idea about the honorary women's line in India, and apparently wasted a good bit of effort there as a result. However, no such thing in Indonesia, I can attest to, as the grannies were in there swinging elbows with everyone else.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:04 AM on October 23, 2008

Also, bar queue? Surely you mean to get in, not to order drinks at the actual bar. I can't imagine anyone nodding to a stranger to indicate he was first in such a circumstance, unless the bartender's-preference method of serving has disappeared and with it the ensuing everyone out for themselves ethos.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:05 AM on October 23, 2008

My favorite queue method has to be Russian style. Which is to say, every one of those suckers standing patiently -- sighing and farting and shuffling and picking their noses discreetly -- is just landscape. If you're not interested in buying a ticket/vodka/pack of counterfeit cigarettes, well, you won't shove your way to the front and slap your money on the counter, will you?
posted by electronslave at 11:32 AM on October 23, 2008

On my scan I'm not seeing much of Africa. Of the dozen or so countries I've been in there, its generally the free-for-all scrum as mentioned above that is also found in parts of Asia. Everyone just pushes their way to the front.

There are some weird situations like the airport and such where people are forced to queue and it is certainly a lot of fun to watch how incapable so many people are of dealing with that concept. They usually stand so close behind you that they are touching you, sometimes if there is room they stand right next to you. As a westerner who likes his personal space, it definitely took some adjusting. Generally I won't say anything until I get to the front, but at that point if they're still determined to pretend I don't exist, I'll make the case for my existence in a very loud manner, and the attention that generally garners is usually enough to scare even the biggest local back into place.

But if you're not at an airport or a bank or something else with guards and whatnot, its much more free-for-all. The deli at the grocery store, the bar, a taxi stand, whatever. You're on your own and there's more of them then there are you, most of the time. Of course in those situations the westerner is often favored among the crowd of pushers as its assumed he has the most money in his pocket.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:45 PM on October 23, 2008

In Asia, no one queues like the Japanese do. Very orderly and patient. No one cuts the line.
posted by gen at 4:26 PM on October 23, 2008

I'm Canada, so queues are the norm. I work in a public library where literally everyday I have someone come up to me that just moved to Canada that day and wants a library card. So it is interesting to see how people learn how to behave in lines. Sometimes we see men or older people shoving ahead of waiting women and children because to them, that is normal, they are more important and of course the lesser people should wait. Sometime too, it is older white people that try to shove ahead of youngsters but we send them back. Staff and patrons are actually VERY polite in explaing the rules of queues in Canada.
posted by saucysault at 8:36 AM on October 24, 2008

Slightly off topic, but economists point out that you could virtually eliminate lines for a lot of commercial things (or at least the long ones created by being over capacity) by charging more at peak hours. Charging some premium to let people go to a shorter premium line makes a lot of sense too (as you see occasionally already in "fast track" services at concerts and the like), mainly because it delegitimizes cutting even for people with urgent needs.
posted by abcde at 2:03 PM on October 24, 2008

I've lived in Canada (Toronto, London), the USA (Chicago, Bloomington IN), France (Paris) and Germany (Berlin), and there are some similarities and contrasts when it comes to ordering drinks at the bar. Generally, it's still Bartender's Preference rules, with the presumption that a good bartender can keep track of who is next. The only difference I've noticed is that in Canada, if the bartender screws up and approaches you too early, you're more likely to nod to the next person in the conceptual queue; in the US, France and Germany, on the other hand, you just bought your drink and maybe left a larger tip. It may have had something to do with the clubs I went to, but in Berlin I found that I got faster-than-usual service by making eye contact and smiling (regardless of the gender of the bartender).

Getting into clubs, on the other hand, is another story. Queueing in Canada is pretty strict and even letting "late-arriving friends" into line with you can get you called out. Frace was the other extreme, where it was not uncommon for a group of 10 to materialize at the last moment and merge with that one friend that was in line in front of you, with no complaint. In the USA, it was less of an issue (most of the clubs I were going to in Chicago didn't have crazy-long lines). In Berlin, it was generally OK if the number of people you were letting in was less than the number of people already waiting in line (unspoken rulke of thumb, here, don't quote me on it). But at certain Berlin clubs (e.g., Berghain), the bouncers repeatedly scan the lineup and sometimes bounce you to the back of the line if you're merging into a "friend's space." On the other hand, the bouncers at these same clubs might also recognize you as a regular and take you directly to the front, without much complaint from the lineup.
posted by LMGM at 5:38 PM on October 24, 2008

I didn't know that McDonald's was responsible for proper HK queuing behavior. I always attributed it as a thing that the British gave them, along with Milk Tea, Olvatine, wigged judges, baked beans, driving on the other side of the road, three pronged electrical outlets, and high quality painted road markings.

When I was on Hennesey Road in Causeway Bay, I was amazed at the bus queues, and thought they were better formed than what you find in some areas of London.
posted by sleslie at 2:47 PM on October 25, 2008

Small anecdotal Midwestern USA experience: Cornell College in Mount Vernon, IA prides itself on not having any lines in the cafeteria. In fact, the area where food is served to students is nicknamed "The Scramble" because students do not form lines. Instead, they pile on top of each other and reach in to grab food.

Other colleges in the area ask their students to wait in queues.
posted by yellowbkpk at 10:27 AM on October 26, 2008


About 20 or so years back, we went to DisneyWorld, which had apparently not had their washrooms remodeled since they opened, but at the original time had used the most high-tech, state of the art plumbing fixtures available. So the commodes flushed when you stood up, the faucets produced water, and the paper towel dispensers did their thing automatically. The trick to it was, if you didn't wave your hand or your butt in exactly the right place and sequence, it didn't happen automatically.
Now there are people here from everywhere but Klingon, and I wouldn't bet about that. Fortunately, most of them are in native dress, so you could tell they were not from Around Here.
Everyone was very polite and orderly, queued neatly, just confused. Each person who was second in line watched out for the the person ahead of them, and if they had difficulty, would politely show them exactly where to wave their hands to cause water or paper towels to happen at the appropriate time. If there were kids involved, the second person would show the kid how to flush or do it for them.

It was the coolest display of manners I've ever seen anywhere.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 4:12 PM on October 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

What's interesting in Canada, that in places like Chinatown, with a high immigrant population, the old scrum rules apply.

Funny - on the Spadina streetcar line in Toronto (which runs through one of our Chinatowns), there is queuing at a lot of the stops (which I'm not so used to for buses, being from the semi-suburbs).

I've watched around the transit system in Toronto, and the really weird thing is that different subway stations have different queuing cultures. Islington station, for instance, is definitely a station where everyone stands around, and then clumps when the bus comes. But in some more dowtown stations, there is a definite queue formed for major buses. Perhaps it's because, while the Islington bus is busy, it's never so busy you won't get on, and usually you can get a seat. Whereas there is much more pressure on the transit downtown.
posted by jb at 11:26 PM on October 30, 2008

« Older How do I access my network storage from my new...   |   When did we get to start voting for voters instead... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.