Queuing by the numbers

There are few things more British than queuing or Standing In Line as it is called in some places.  It’s often said that we will stand behind a queue of one and I’ve seen that quite a few times.

It’s one of those characteristics like a stiff upper lip, a pot of tea, talking about the weather and Fairplay.  Whilst to some it may look like a fairly simple and civilised habit, recent surveys indicate that it is actually a little more complicated than first imagined.


Women applying for just two part-time vacancies at Boydell Toys in Oxford Street (formerly Alpha Toys).  Photo by Bolton Evening News, August 19 1982.

It’s all about the power of six, professors say.  People will generally be more than happy to queue for 6 minutes before becoming dissatisfied. They are also unlikely to join a line of more than six people, researchers at the University College London found.

Interestingly, when it comes to the likelihood of people leaving the queue, it seems this will hardly ever happen if the number of people behind them has grown to six people or more. And in keeping with the theme, the report also revealed that a six-inch radius is the minimum amount of personal space that needs to be afforded to a person in a queue, to avoid increasing stress or anxiety.



A queue for an event at The Royal Albert Hall


The study found that the optimal amount of time a customer is willing to wait in line is 5 minutes 54 seconds. This is the amount of time a customer considers “reasonable” before the wait begins to have a detrimental impact on their satisfaction level, it said.  After five minutes the customer’s satisfaction has gone from 95pc to 85pc. After five minutes 54 seconds, the satisfaction begins to drops at a much quicker rate, decreasing to around 55pc by 8 minutes.

The report also includes a list of queuing “no-nos” which no one should ever do in a queue in Britain. At number one, queue skipping is the ultimate faux pas as it goes against the British social system of linear queuing and the nationally recognised “first come, first served” principle.  According to Prof Furnham, the very public nature of queuing and as such, queue skipping, sparks a huge sense of injustice amongst all members of the queue.   “The British believe that inequalities between people should be minimised, and everyone should have the autonomy to pursue goals with equal opportunity.”



Waiting in a queue for a taxi


Engaging in conversation whilst queuing also made the list of social practices that are viewed as completely unacceptable by British people. However perhaps the most confusing to visitors from abroad is number three on the list: accepting a person’s offer to go ahead of them in the queue. In British queueing culture, not only will acceptance be perceived as impoliteness, it will also lose the individual the respect of the remaining queuers, it said.

The study was based on a review of academic literature on different types of everyday queuing including at banks, ATMs, and buying food at the supermarket.  Obviously for other items, we are happy to queue for as long as it takes.  I remember myself  one time queuing for 7.5 hours.



Waiting in a queue for the bus. Not everyone will get on but look how orderly it all is.




“In a time when Britain is changing rapidly, and the ways in which we queue are shifting, the psychology behind British queuing is more important than ever – it is one of the keys to unlocking British culture.”


I found the following bit of text on a BBC America site about a reporter in London who was tasked on reporting on a Royal Wedding which seems to be a good indicator of the differences between us and everyone else when it comes to queuing!

“My job was to take photographs of the banners and the crowds and all of the accompanying frenzy. I found myself standing with three groups of people, and as is the way of these things, we all got chatting. The first group were two college students from Texas, who’d been vacationing in Europe. Then there was the South African man and his Yorkshire wife, and a gran and her young grandson, both British. The South African man took great pleasure in complaining loudly about people who he felt had pushed in front of him, so that everyone in earshot knew he was fed up, but not fed up enough to complain directly to the people in question. The girls from Texas laughed, and said they were well used to this kind of behavior, as that’s how people back home would react too. The British gran offered round sandwiches and tutted sympathetically. I looked at my shoes. That’s the British reserve”.



Commuters in London. Reading a paper is allowed but just because you’re standing next to people for ages, doesn’t mean we want to talk.

It’s unclear when the art of queuing began but it undoubtedly has its origins in the old-fashioned virtues of chivalry, good manners and a dollop of WW2 rationing.   Queuing is so key to our society, the most famous political poster of the 20th century even features a queue.


It might be a bit odd to others to see people voluntarily queuing but it must surely beat the alternative or pushing and jostling to get the front unfairly.  Now how about a nice cuppa tea?


About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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9 Responses to Queuing by the numbers

  1. Rosemarie says:

    As Spock would say, “Fascinating!”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, especially the part about people being reluctant to quit queuing if there are more than 6 people behind them. Presumably, this makes the individual feel that what they are waiting for is really worth the wait!


  2. Graham says:

    It is interesting to visit other countries and to be involved in a queueing situation. After moving to NZ, they have a slightly strange variant…it is very similar to the British way but with minor exceptions…if someone pushes in, rather than the offended folks muttering under their breath someone will actually say something albeit politely (from my experience anyway). Also, people do queue jump a bit more than the UK.

    But Italy has a great approach…everyone just piles forward in a crowd.

    You have to remind yourself when it isn’t your country that you need to fit in…but it isn’t always easy! 😄

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Joseph Nebus says:

    I seem to remember reading in a history of World War I that the word “queue” was viewed in Britain as this barbaric intruder, in both word and concept, and that really drove home how strange even the not-too-distant past could be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I did a bit more reading and found that the word queue is from a French 15th century word for the tail of an animal but further back from the Latin word for something a little rude! So perhaps this is what was so upsetting to them. According to the BBC, queueing first became widespread and the accepted norm in the 19th century as the best way to live in cities with fights and disorder breaking out.


  4. Mel & Suan says:

    Yeah, on our little island if there is a queue there must be something good going on there!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: How do you like your tea? | Stephen Liddell

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