Unless you live alone in the woods, waiting in line is a near-universal experience—though as any international tourist will find, the etiquette of doing so varies from place to place. Whether you queue politely or wait in line (or “on line,” as New Yorkers insist on saying), how you wait and how you feel about waiting is more about perception than the actual time that elapses, as writer David Andrews explains in his recent book Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster? Here are 12 facts about standing in line to make your next wait feel a little more bearable.
1. THERE’S A SEMANTIC DIFFERENCE IN THE WAY AMERICANS AND THE BRITISH LINE UP.
According to cultural critic Robert J.C. Young [PDF], there’s a difference in attitude between “to stand in line” and its British equivalent, “queue,” which can be a verb or a noun. In American usage, a line is “something you have to submit yourself to,” he writes, while “if you queue, you remain linguistically and in some broader, important sense an agent, an active subject, part of a particular social consensus about how to behave in a particular situation that requires some measure of equality and fairness to all.”
2. LINES ARE A MORE RECENT PHENOMENON THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.
As late as 1775, the most exhaustive English dictionary yet written contained no word to describe the act of standing in line. In 1837, in a history of the French Revolution, Thomas Carlyle carefully defined the method through which revolutionaries waited their turn, writing that “the Bakers shops have got their Queues, or Tails; their long strings of purchasers, arranged in a tail, so that the first to come be the first served.” He wasn’t the only one who thought the concept strange and foreign. An American traveling through France in 1854 took care to describe his experience standing “en queue” (emphasis in the original) with college students to get into a library.
3. INDUSTRIALIZATION MADE LINES NECESSARY.
Factory employment changed people’s daily schedules. Suddenly, everyone started and ended work around the same time, creating crowds waiting for buses to commute to and from the factory and to punch their time cards. Because people could only shop and run errands during specific off-work hours, banks, shops, and post offices filled up with hordes of off-duty workers trying to get things done on their lunch break or right after clocking out.
4. THERE IS A WAITING-IN-LINE ROBOT.
Xavier was created at Carnegie Mellon University in 1995. He was programmed to stand in line at the coffee shop at the university’s Robotics Institute. His creators tested their own comfort levels in lines to figure out how much personal space Xavier should give people in front of him, and how much space probably constitutes someone just standing around not in a line. He queued correctly 70 percent of the time, occasionally messing up when the line curved too sharply or when he misjudged whether a person was actually queuing.
5. CUTTING IN LINE TAKES A LOT OF MENTAL ENERGY.
Infamous psychologist Stanley Milgram, known for studying people’s willingness to obey authority at a high cost to their personal ethics, also studied line-cutters. In the 1980s, he got student volunteers to cut in line at ticket counters without giving any reason. Half the time, no one protested. However, the students themselves hated the experiment. They felt anxious and embarrassed. Milgram hypothesized that our unwillingness to cut is a logical calculation of social cost. If you cut in line and someone puts up a fuss, you might be verbally or even physically attacked, and will probably end up at the back of the line anyway. If you’re in line, it behooves you to keep quiet when someone cuts ahead, because you’d have to step out of line to shout down that person way up in front, and you might lose the place you were fighting to protect, anyway.
6. IN TRAFFIC, BEING A LINE-CUTTER IS ONLY RIGHT.
Sitting in traffic is a form of standing in line. When drivers wait until the last minute to merge into traffic while trying to avoid a lane closure or exit the highway, a lot of people look at it as if the procrastinating mergers are cutting in line. People who politely moved into the congested lane long before they absolutely had to and waited their turn to exit get angry at cars trying to wriggle in as late as possible. But from a road design standpoint, those late mergers are just doing the most sensible thing. More lanes have more capacity, so if your two-lane highway suddenly turns into a one-lane highway, traffic can flow more quickly if cars merge later and utilize both lanes for longer.
7. THE FOUNDER OF WENDY’S WAS OBSESSIVE ABOUT LINE EQUALITY.
People feel better about standing in line at Wendy’s compared to McDonald’s or Burger King, a study of the three major fast food chains found. That’s because Wendy’s guarantees customers will be served in the order they arrived in, using a single-file line bounded by those crowd control belts also seen in airports. Company founder Dave Thomas abhorred uneven wait times. Meanwhile, the other chains let people line up in front of cash registers willy-nilly, meaning that one line might feel faster than the other. And there’s nothing that pisses people off quite like watching the other line move faster.
8. THOSE COMPLICATED WHOLE FOODS LINES ARE GOOD PSYCHOLOGY.
Rather than trying to suss out the shortest line in a long line of checkout queues, Whole Foods customers in habitually busy stores (such as those in urban areas) line up in front of colored screens that direct them to the next available cashier—essentially, a more tech-heavy version of grabbing a number at the deli. No one gets to find that mystical extra-short line, but no one waits any longer than anyone else. “No more of that emotionally fraught exercise of hunting down what you perceive to be the shortest line, and feeling frustrated when the other lines move faster than yours,” Andrews writes of a future of single-line grocery store check outs. As a result, “people would experience the wait time as shorter,” he says.
8. THERE’S A WAITING IN LINE BOARD GAME.
Kolejka (“queue” in Polish) is a board game created in 2011 by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. The whole point is to line up in front of various empty shops, trying to be the first player to complete a shopping list as deliveries come in to restock the empty shelves. Based on the reality of living in the Soviet Union, where lines were a ubiquitous part of life, players can draw cards that allow them to jump ahead in line, such as using “carrying a small child” as an excuse or getting the goods under the counter.
9. SOMETIMES LINES ARE A GOOD THING.
You may not think so when you’re there, but at theme parks, lines are a feature, not a bug. If there are no lines whatsoever at a park, you would rush through and become bored much more quickly, spending only an hour or two at the park instead of the whole day. Theme parks’ economic model relies on walking the line between having short enough lines that people still want to wait, and long enough lines that people are forced to hang out (and buy snacks) for hours.
10. LONG LINES AT DISNEY CAN BE AVOIDED WITH A LITTLE RESEARCH.
Statistician Bob Sehlinger began publishing The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World in 1984 after two years of research and field trials on the study of lines at the Orlando theme park. Decades later, he and his Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and Disneyland co-author, computer scientist Len Testa, founded Touring Plans, a website and app devoted to helping people navigate various theme parks using data and mathematical modeling. Touring Plans and the Unofficial Guides predict wait times in real-time at Disneyland and Disney World algorithmically, using operations research and queuing theory. Touring Plans claims that its itineraries based on the patented scheduling system can save users up to four hours in line per day.
11. THERE ARE MANY WAYS TO MAKE A LINE FEEL LONGER …
Not all waiting experiences are equally terrible, as anyone who’s waited in line alone before being joined by a friend can attest. Waiting alone feels longer than waiting in a group, because you don’t have conversation to distract you. Other factors that can affect how long a wait feels include uncertainty about when the line will end, having no explanation for the wait (like when you hit traffic and can’t tell if it’s because of an accident or construction or just rush hour), and perceiving the line as unfair, such as when you see people who were in line behind you receive their food first.
12. … AND WAYS TO MAKE THEM FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE.
Lines feel a lot worse when there’s some anxiety involved. The more uncertainties about the situation, the less secure you’ll feel about eventually getting to the front. Restaurants are masters at putting people at ease while waiting for a table. There’s a check-in point where you can give the hostess your name, so you know the restaurant knows you’re there and will take care of you eventually. You’ll get an estimated wait time. You can grab a menu to peruse, making the time feel productive. And often, there’s a bar where you can hang around before your table is ready, letting you distract yourself from the waiting experience.