On Queuing

Queue is built in
Queue is built in

Today I saw in The Daily Telegraph that queues are forming outside stores in readiness for the sales which begin after the Thanks Giving holiday. It seems that, in American, it is considered acceptable to pitch a tent to maintain your place in a queue.

I hate queuing. If I can possibly avoid it I will. I recall returning to England from abroad one time and seeing people desperately queueing in the cold for lottery tickets. After that I never queue for a lottery ticket.

It seems to me that our hyper commercialised society implements queuing deliberately. Think about it: You are designing a call centre. You’ve done some research. You reckon that you get an average of 100 calls per minute at peak time and 20 at low time. How many call centre “operatives” are you going to put on each shift? You could put 100 on the peak shift which would mean that all the calls were answered but this would leave some of your staff doing nothing for part of the time. Doing nothing is something that our society cannot abide and so, rather than putting a broom up their arses, only 25 operatives are employed so that each caller has to wait in a queue. Of course the numbers will be much more finely tuned but the point is that the designers of the system will deliberately build in a given queue depth. This is true at the supermarket, at the railway station and wherever a an individual deals with the corporate machine. I believe that this has been driven by information technology allowing society to fine tune it’s systems. Prior to the information technology revolution it would be possible to find dead zones. You might discover that you did not have to queue in the bank in Bishop’s Stortford on a Thursday afternoon because it was market day and everyone was down the pub. You might be able to travel in space and comfort on the London Underground if you worked unsociable hours. Not any more.

The bean counters and the number crunchers have collated all available information and smoothed all anomalies away.  We queue at the super market, at the petrol station, at the cash machine, to get on the bus, to get into the underground, to get through airport security and for just about every interaction with the corporate machine. All trains are equally packed and uncomfortable. All counters have permanent queues. This is more than pursuit of efficiency it underlines the unbalanced power structures in our society. The corporations are important and busy and we must wait patiently for their attention.

In less industrialised countries queuing is merely shoving yourself up against the person in front of you and leaning. I recall at trip to Leh in the Himalayas in 1988. We discovered that the office for bus tickets opened at 9am so we arrived around that time and stood outside the idiotic little window placed at waist height. A bunch of western backpackers attempted to queue while a bunch of locals tried to do what is normal for their culture which was to press in around the ticket window and gradually edge their way closer. The tension between the westerners rigidly trying to maintain the queue while the locals surged in around them was surreal.

Queuing does take place in non western countries. In Nigeria it seems to be a mix of the Himalayan and the western. A serial queue with each person leaning into the person in front of them. In England personal space is more important and gaps are maintained so that people do not touch. In some situations the gaps become overly large and the it becomes unclear whether we are talking about a queue or a bunch of people standing around waiting, an interesting philosophical question in it’s own right. This state of affairs usually continues until some bright spark walks up tot he front and then everyone hurriedly resumes a more formal arrangement.

I believe that the Americans are better at queuing than the English. The English are too reserved. I recall standing in an enormous queue for a “water taxi” in West Cowes on the Isle of White. It was late at night and people were a little merry. Occasionally a group of people would walk bypass everyone and disappear up at the front. Having spent some time in America I now try to simply tell the people that there is a queue. In America this simply results in the person apologising and walking to the back or explaining that he has his own boat or some other reason. In England this results in abuse and your friends considering that you are a trouble maker looking for a fight.

An interesting variant of queuing was employed at a doctors surgery in Dalston. You would be told that your doctor was behind a given door number. You then entered a room where a bunch of people sat and waited. You’d ask if anyone else was waiting on your number and then sit down. On occasion a number would be illuminated for about half a second and that would be the signal for the next person to go in. The tactic was to keep an eye on the guy in front of you; once he moved you knew that you had to keep your eyes fixed on the numeric display in order not to miss your slot. If you started reading a magazine and lost track of what was going on things could get very confusing.

One answer to this is ticketing. Another idea I’ve heard of is registering your presence in a queue and then receiving a text message when it’s our turn. If this latter idea catches on we can expect to see queueing replaced with loitering.



  1. I like what they do at Panera, a chain of pannini eateries in the US. After you order, they hand you a black electronic box that will light up flashingly when your meal is ready for pickup. In the meantime, you can find yourself a comfortable seat and read the paper.

  2. Yes I have seen the boxxes lighting up flashingly…but on in England for soem reason.

  3. I have just been listening to BBC Radio 4’s Food Program. They interviewed a guy who works with mobile food sales. He mentioned food stalls at Glastonbury selling burgers. He said that stall holder should always keep a queue. If the queue got too long then work faster but if the queue got too short then slow down. He said it was something about the English that we “trust” a queue. Presentably we think that the food must be OK if other people are queueing for it.


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