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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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”.
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?