How much do you hate—really, truly, hate—waiting in line? If you are like this writer, perhaps upon seeing a lengthy line at, say, your local drugstore, you put down the 10 items you've spent 45 minutes carefully selecting and you get out of there as quickly as possible, heading instead for the too-expensive bodega where everything will cost twice as much but there is no line. Perhaps you eschew otherwise enjoyable activities like large concerts and festivals primarily because you refuse to wait in line for a Porta-Potty. Maybe you have a paralyzing fear of velvet ropes, and would never, ever try to get into a club that might accept you as a member, mostly because you just aren't going to stand there like an idiot waiting to find out. Maybe you haven't flown anywhere in months because of the harrowing experience of the security you-know-what, standing behind all of those people, shoeless and vulnerable, as they forget to take their keys out of their pockets and set off the metal detector another damn time. Perhaps you "pre-walk" in the subway to the designated car that will allow you to get out faster than anyone else, so you don't have to stand behind an impossibly slow-moving line, trudging up the stairs. Maybe you do all of the above. If so, you and I have something in common.
Of all the things one might hate as related to our fairly good, not terribly challenging lives, line-standing is clearly not the worst—the worst is obviously bad pizza, or maybe scrubbing the bathtub—but it's an offense that galls nonetheless. For me, the idea of standing in line to pay for something is especially irksome. It's like paying twice; don't they know that my time is money!?
Alex Stone unpacks human hatred of the line in a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review section. The good news is, your hatred of lines doesn't mean you're simply an impatient curmudgeon with a bad attitude. This stuff is like, scientific. Well, at least in that you spend way too much waiting in line, and you're bound to get annoyed.
Stone writes: "Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, that nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away. The last thing we want to do with our dwindling leisure time is squander it in stasis." (Stone suggests bringing a book to get you through it; we'd add that a smartphone can do wonders.)
He also explores some tactics businesspeople have used to make lines less annoying because, yes, people who run airports and companies realize that we despise lines, and sometimes they care. At a Houston airport, Stone explains, when people kept kvetching about baggage claim waits, executives ultimately re-charted the route passengers had to traverse to reach baggage claim so that the waiting was shorter and the walking was longer. People were happier! This fulfills the same principle, I think, of pre-walking, where at least you're getting something done and not just sitting around waiting. Other methods to ease the pain of waiting, in lines or otherwise, include mirrors in elevators (to give people something to do), impulse-buy racks near the checkout aisle (this worked for me at Target over the weekend), or, simply, to offer such an awesome product (note the folks waiting in line, always, for the hottest limited-edition sneakers or the latest Apple offering) that people simply do not care and maybe waiting in line even becomes some of the fun. Who wants to camp out in Times Square for Justin Bieber tickets?
Line expert—there is a line expert—Richard Larson of M.I.T. told Stone, “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” which means it's not the numbers, it's the quality of the wait. If you're enjoying yourself, you're not even really waiting... Are you? People are more concerned about length of line (think of the last time you turned a corner and saw what you expected to be a short wait suddenly 100-people deep) than how fast it moves, perhaps because one aspect is purely visual and the other is more based on future perceptions. Though, in fairness, a long line that moves quickly is a thing of some beauty.
There's another tricky aspect of lines to watch out for, though, which is that at some venues your wait may be overestimated so that when it turns out to be not quite so long, you are unexpectedly pleased. Stone gives the example of rides at Disney; think also of how airlines tend to estimate "on time" percentages—FYI, your flight to Denver leaves on average 45 minutes after it's supposed to—they're preparing you to keep you from spiraling into wait-rage at the airport. Get a drink! Settle in with a nice magazine!
Once you arrive at whatever it is you've queued up to do, safe and sound, you're generally not so mad, either: "When a long wait ends on a happy note — the line speeds up, say — we tend to look back on it positively, even if we were miserable much of the time. Conversely, if negative emotions dominate in the final minutes, our retrospective audit of the process will skew toward cynicism, even if the experience as a whole was relatively painless," writes Stone. Another unfortunate quirk of the emotional experience of waiting in line is that if you're in the "winning" or faster line, you hardly feel anything good at all; meanwhile, being in the "losing" line is bound to destroy you mentally and emotionally: "Indeed, in a system of multiple queues, customers almost always fixate on the line they’re losing to and rarely the one they’re beating," writes Stone. Think line-positive, people!
The most universal thing about line-hate, though, is our instant, vehement hatred of the person who cuts in line. The training against the line-cutter begins in elementary school with chiding tactics like, "No cuts, no butts, no coconuts," and goes up into adult life, preparing us for circumstances in which that woman with her hands full of hair products attempts to sidle up to the register without even waiting in line and everyone in the line shouts in unison, "We're in line here!" Or, as Stone writes, "Last month a man was stabbed at a Maryland post office by a fellow customer who mistakenly thought he’d cut in line."
What have we learned? Hate the line, not the line-hater, but, either way, don't stab anyone who offends your line-waiting sensibilities. You're better off moving to a place without lines or, worst case scenario, doing your post-office errands at off-peak hours. One unanswered line question: Is it "on line" or "in line"? Just queuing up the discussion...
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.