Why do you stand in line? In many Western countries, that is a silly question. You stand in line because that is what you do. Whether waiting to check out at the supermarket or get into a ballgame, standing in line is the norm. You stand in line because everyone else is standing in line. However, as a National Post article points out, standing in line is very much a cultural phenomenon and not just some inherent human trait (Everyone line up: Canada’s tradition of orderly queuing ‘foreign and strange’ to many newcomers, Jul 25).
“Lining up is seen as a universal sort of truth,” said J.J. McCullough, the Vancouver-based author of J.J.’s Complete Guide to Canada, an online primer for newcomers. “And if someone doesn’t adhere to the protocol then it must be because they’re uncouth or uncivilized, rather that this is a sort of idiosyncratic tradition that we’ve internalized.” …
At the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette, located in London, Ont., lineup training comes on the same day students are taught about North American-style introductions. Students are taught where to line up, how to maintain one’s proper place in the lineup and — most importantly — how close to stand.
“In certain cultures, queue etiquette is just not on the radar,” said school director Wendy Mencel.
So where does this tradition come from?
The article points to several possibilities — while acknowledging that most sound rather jingoistic.
In the 1959 book The Silent Language, anthropologist Edward T. Hall claimed that queuing reflected the “basic equalitarianism” of Western culture.
“To us it is regarded as a democratic virtue for people to be served without reference to the rank they hold in their occupational group,” he wrote.
At the Canadian School of Protocol and Etiquette, Ms. Mencel teaches her students that lining up is a holdover from class-conscious Britain. “People try to better themselves in society by learning all the rules of etiquette that the Upper Class knew, and line etiquette is part of that,” she said.
Marina Nemat is the Ontario-based author of Prisoner of Tehran, her memoir about being imprisoned and tortured as a teenager by Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
To explain her adopted country’s penchant for lining up all the time, she had a simply answer: Canadians — just like their line-upping counterparts in Germany, the United States and Britain — are rich.
“I see the lineups that we have in Canada as a luxury; an absolute luxury,” she told the National Post by phone.
Most Canadians, she noted, have never endured an eight-hour lineup for water, food or scarce medical supplies, situations where “if you start being polite, or if you stay at the end of the line, your child can die.”
I find this last notion intriguing. Queues are fundamentally about allocating resources — not everyone can be served at once. Delay then is a way of increasing the price to “clear” the market. I have clear in quotes because there is always some chance that not everyone will be served. For example, not everyone who lines up for a Black Friday deal is guaranteed of being able to buy.
If we think of queues as allocating resources, it raises the question of whether are necessarily a bad way to do that. Think, for example, of a supermarket checkout. It would be prohibitively costly to commit enough floor space to checking people out that the biggest rush of the week can be handled with no delay. That is, building thirty checkout counters so that Saturday afternoon has no delays means that the store has a lot of dead, unused space on Tuesday morning. It is much more efficient to size the system so that waits are tolerable but not zero on Saturday.
The other possibility is to think about raising prices. Getting a latte in the morning means both paying money and killing time. The higher the monetary price, presumably the less time needs to be killed. But it is not clear that raising the price is best for the firm. As long as there is a large segment whose monetary budget constraint is tighter than their time budget, lower prices with higher volume can still be a good idea.
But why should lines be orderly? One argument would be that it reduces the cost of waiting. A line might be long but as long as everyone agrees that the first in, first out is the way to go, those waiting can be pretty much on autopilot — waiting doesn’t require eternal vigilance.
But how does this change if some people can opt out of waiting? More specifically, they can pay someone to wait in their stead. Business Insider reports that there are a growing number of options to hire a professional waiter (How One Man Earns Up To $1,000 A Week By Standing In Line, Jul 23).
Robert Samuel, New York-based founder of Same Ole Line Dudes (SOLD Inc.), will wait for you.
Samuel is a “professional line sitter.” He waits for anything, from sample sales to Saturday Night Live tickets. Samuel charges $25 for the first hour and $10 for each additional half hour. In one week, he can make up to $1,000. …
Surprisingly, not all of Samuel’s clients are rich. “It’s all everyday people,” he says. “Sometimes I get a customer who can’t get out of work on time to wait for a movie premiere, or somebody on the Upper East Side who really wants a new Xbox but doesn’t want to stand in the cold for seven hours before it goes on sale. It’s a whole medley.”
$25 per hour may not be a billionaire money, but it is still not free. It is also not without consequence since there are externalities in queues. Queues as resource allocation work by dissuading some people from joining. An Upper East Side parent deems seven hours too much time for an Xbox. But if that seven hours can be replaced with a few hundred bucks, then sure. However, if everyone on the Upper East Side thinks that it is worth paying a few hundred extra to get an Xbox today, then the line will be longer. It is good for those who are line sitting professionals but bad for actual consumers whose cash is more constrained than their time.
A wealthy society may generally support congenial behavior in lines but allowing the rich to buy their way out of lines could exacerbate the extent of queues and increase costs for everyone.