Queues

Lining up, waiting in line, queuing, is vastly different across the globe. The most extreme form of orderly queuing in my personal experience is in Hong Kong. If there is a line, many people will join it just because they assume they should be in the line. At bus stops and taxi stands, there is normally an orderly queue during peak times, so it really is first come first serve. If there is a free give-away at McDonalds or Starbucks, there may even be a neat single file line around the block. In the UK, where the word queuing originates, you often have neat, orderly lines, though there definitely aren’t clear queues around bus stops during rush hour when there’s a tube strike. In Turkey, queuing was a little more haphazard, slightly nebulous, less personal space than in the states, more personal space than in Hong Kong. In Egypt you might pay someone baksheesh so you can avoid the queue entirely. In Taiwan, there are orderly queues for the MRT at all times, and people are even incredibly polite as they shuffle into the train.

In the States, it is everyone for themselves, unless there is a roped off guideline for the wait or a ticketing system. Everyone seems to always think they are the exception, and should definitely be treated first. There is also a lot of variation for courtesy–sometimes a man will let a woman on the bus in front of him, sometimes people will let the wheel chaired passenger board first, sometimes a person will say they have 5 minutes before their flight, which boards in 20 minutes, and try to get in front of you in airport security when your flight is literally on its last call because of your late connection (real life example!).

In airports you tend to get all sorts of cultural queuing strategies: people who seem like they’ve never seen a queue before and wander into the gaps between at the front, people who place a family member in one line and another in the next line to hedge their bets, people who are all too used to air travel and pick the line with the officer who looks most efficient. This is the sort of thing around which it is easy to develop stereotypes after years of travel. One might refer to it as the queuing scale–from the extreme rigidity of Hong Kong queues, where I once had to get a number to wait for a document even though I was the only person in the room, to the seemingly near chaos in the Cairo airport.

Having taken a brief hiatus from blogging due to travel and what not, this may not seem like a particularly important topic. Yet, queues can often be fun little microcosms of society (see academic paper on queuing as society). Orderly queues are manifestations “distributive justice”, wherein your effort/cost should be proportional to the reward. Queuing properly can be a moral act, with prosocial motivations, while disrespecting a queue could demonstrate a lack of altruism, or respect for social norms. Differences in queuing culture may even be influenced by faith in one’s culture’s infrastructure and is definitely influenced by social structures. Queuing may seem incredibly democratic, but in every culture there is a way to avoid the line, usually with money or connections.

As interesting as queues are, the unfortunate truth is that normally the thing for which you are waiting is actually quite unexciting, whether it be talking to an immigration officer, taking a driving test at the DMV or purchasing a ticket to a football game. Hopefully the final outcome will make all that time pay off.

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