Waiting in line across cultures

Waiting in line works in different ways across the world:

Different societies, of course, exhibit different queuing cultures, according to sociologist David R. Gibson of Princeton University. Here are some of Gibson’s observations, anecdotal and otherwise:

* “The Brits are famous for their lines Southern Europeans much less so.”

* “A friend from Israel tells me that Israelis fall into the queuing-challenged category.”

* “Sometimes there are other procedures for determining who gets served first. I once had a student from Pakistan who told me that in mixed-sex lines, women get served first … and old men second, out of respect for their seniority.”

* “In high school lunch lines social status, especially tied to athleticism, sometimes trumps order of arrival.”

This may seem like a more inconsequential social norm but people spend a lot of time waiting in line. I remember being struck by the waiting in line procedure for the BART in San Francisco. Unlike Chicago where the trains stopped at different points and people massed around the doors to board with little regard for who was first, the trains there stopped at marked spots on the platform and people lined up respectfully on these spots and waited their turn. Or think about merging in traffic when lanes are reduced; this is a form of waiting in line where drivers can act very aggressively. Or think of some of the current debates about health care; do Americans want to have “wait lists” for medical procedures as some claim will happen with nationalized medical care? Or some of the somewhat controlled chaos that ensues when Americans line up at midnight for Black Friday sales. During my experience last year lining up several hours before midnight at Best Buy, we spent more than three hours in line (over one outside the several, around two inside the store waiting to check out and/or order on-sale items) just for some consumer savings.

If I were asked to describe American patterns for standing in line, I’m not sure I could really describe it. Generally first come, first served. Most of the time people really do not like the idea of others cutting or budging in line. We generally don’t like waiting in line because we think our time is really valuable and that organizations should work more efficiently to meet our individual needs.

One thought on “Waiting in line across cultures

  1. “first come first serve” and “open seating” at venues are great for social experiments in urban areas where cultural differences are challenged about standing in line vs. shoving through which probably leads to matriarchal cultures stay in groups and patriarchal cultures stand in line.


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