The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Single-File Line

What do an airport and a Star Wars premiere have in common?

Marcos del Mazo / Corbis

There was a time in the not-too-distant past, before velvet ropes and winding metal barriers and that song little kids sing about putting their finger on the wall, when Americans didn’t wait for things by neatly arranging themselves one behind the other.

The very first English-language dictionary, compiled by Samuel Johnson in 1775, contained multiple definitions of the word line, but none of them were that thing we stand in (or stand on, I guess, depending where you’re from). This is because, as David Andrews explains in his new book Why Does the Other Line Always Move Faster?, that thing we stand in wasn’t a concept that existed for all of time—and in some places, it still doesn’t. It’s not an innate, organic response to many people who all want the same thing. Rather, it’s a cultural practice that has shaped, and been shaped by, how we experience time, our surroundings, and other people.

I spoke with Andrews about how such a simple formation of human bodies could be bound up such complicated psychology. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Cari Romm: How did standing in line make its way to the U.S. in the first place?

David Andrews: It’s a surprisingly recent phenomenon. In [19th-century] France, the queue was a French word meaning tail, and a tail is what people looked like when they were waiting in bread lines. And so as late as the 1850s and 1860s, American and British people would go to France and be like, “Whoa, what a novel thing everybody’s doing. Look at this form, they’re standing in a queue.” They’d put queue in quotation marks, because it was a relatively foreign concept.

By the end of the 1800s, you already had people start complaining about the ubiquity of line standing—that children were made to stand in lines at school, worrying about how this is draining the life out of people. [The adoption of the line] has to do with the same process of standardization. Look at how cities became built. If you think about older cities, there’s not a lot of central planning that went into them, but in the 1800s, they were like, “Hey, let’s have this novel idea called grids, and have some kind of order.”

There’s also the move into factories around this time, the modern assembly-line process. Workers would have to go in at the same time, clock in, get in line at the factory gates, and punch their time cards. Inside the assembly line, everything is still very linear. These all are things that led to the development of line-standing as a cultural norm in America.

Romm: You write about how the vocabulary used to describe the act affects how it’s perceived—line vs. queue, and even in line vs. on line.

Andrews: Queue is how the British use it, borrowed from the French. Borrowing other people’s insights into this, the British have a verb that one does directly—one queues, the person is a queue-er, queuing—and this kind of lends a more positive connotation. One has agency when one is queuing, because one is actually doing that action. As opposed to being subjected to that action, when one is made to stand in line.

And in line, I think, is how most Americans say it. But I heard you say on line. From what I understand it’s mainly New York and New Jersey, which is something I learned in conversation with my editor. He was like, “You know, we stand on line here.” And I was like, “I’ve never heard that before.”

I’d also note, just my personal preference for being in line versus on line, there’s this idea of visual metaphors in the propositions that we use. No one has done any actual studies on this, this is just my speculation, but standing in line kind of connotes that we are in a closed-off space. One joins the line, gets into the line, as opposed to stands on a line. I think that kind of unites people, there’s a commonality of purpose when people are in line as opposed to on line.

Romm: So being in the same line can help people to form a group identity, in some cases.

Andrews: People have done studies of very long lines. The example I’m thinking of is where they researched the phenomenon of people who would wait in front of movie theaters for weeks in the lead-up to the first Star Wars prequel. People would stand in line for weeks, but you run into certain problems. A person has to eat, they have to get clean clothes, they have to feed their children. So the people who wait in these lines start making arrangements with other people in line, like, “Hey, do you mind holding my place while I run to the McDonald’s across the street?” As people started talking to each other, they would start to form these mini-communities at the front of the line that often excluded the people who would come in much later. If you spend so much time together, you start having in-jokes, you make friends with the people, you learn something about them, while the person who has not spent as much time has to work that much harder to insert himself into the group.

There’s also something about the excitement of this act that you’re doing. Lines that you’re forced to be in at the DMV, for instance, or TSA lines, it’s very different than going to get Star Wars tickets. You have something to talk about. There’s immediate connection. It’s like the lines for getting a cronut, or whatever the latest trend is— because of that hype, it’s going to be much different than the line that we’re subjected to and have to just take begrudgingly.

Romm: So people in a line at the DMV, for example, wouldn’t necessarily form the same kinds of relationships.

Andrews: Well, hopefully you’re not camped out at the DMV for that long. Plus, the mechanisms are such that I couldn’t be like, “Can someone hold my place while I run to the restroom?” It’s a very regimented line. It’s not something that requires people to talk to each other and make arrangements and agreements.

Romm: In this situation, though, could shared misery make for a bonding experience?

Andrews: Shared misery does make it go better, just me trading looks with the person in front of me after we’ve been waiting for a long time. Complaining makes it go better. There’s a phrase when I was in the military: “A whining soldier is a happy soldier.” David Maister, who wrote about the psychology of queuing, he also brings that up. For companies with chronically long lines—a place like Disney, for instance—if you can foster a way to get people talking to each other, even if they’re just complaining about the wait, it makes the experience of waiting much easier. People experience it as shorter.

Romm: So what would make a line feel like it’s moving more slowly?

Andrews: Just having nothing to distract you from the fact that you’re waiting. Talking to other people is a way of distracting yourself, as I’ve already mentioned. Just kind of having this empty time, it’s the case of watching the kettle boil. But if you bring your smartphone with you and you check your email while you’re waiting at the grocery store, it goes much more smoothly. You see this in doctor’s offices, where they have magazines in the waiting room.

It’s also different if you’re confined in space. There’s a reason we send toddlers to time out—we experience this empty time like being in a cage. If you’re stuck in a TSA line and it’s not moving, you feel kind of trapped. So companies can either distract the customers, or you can take out that confined aspect of it. For instance, you see in a lot in restaurants these days that when you’re waiting for a table, they hand you a little buzzer. And that means you can just go someplace else, so you don’t have that feeling of being confined.

Romm: What keeps people from cutting lines?

Andrews: The famous psychologist Stanley Milgram, he and his graduate students did this experiment where they would go cut in line in front of other people, and you’re expecting that there’s going to be huge amounts of queue rage every time they cut in line. But there were two things that were surprising. The first thing was, most of the time, if people responded, it was kind of a passive-aggressive sort of thing. Very rarely did people actually confront them.

But what was really surprising to Milgram was how anxious the act of line-cutting would make [the experimenters] feel. They’d get sweaty palms and just feel really ashamed of trying to cut in line. In general, I think people don’t want to cut in line. We’re all miserable, but we’re miserable together, and we become very uncomfortable about violating those social norms. If you do cut in line, you feel obligated to give them a bunch of reasons, like the person who’s late for his flight at the TSA.

Romm: In your book, you talk a lot about queue theory—what is that? How would someone study the science of lines?

Andrews: Queue theory as a science began out of necessity. What happens when so many people use the same resources is that you get all these logjams. You’re stuck in traffic, your phone calls get dropped. I was in a natural disaster a few years ago, a series of tornadoes tore down everything, and nobody could call anybody because the tornados had destroyed a lot of the capacity to call. There’s limited capacity, and them more people were trying to call, so it became more difficult to send and receive calls.

Queue theory actually started with telephone companies back in Denmark in the early days of the telephone. You’d get these cases where you were completely backed up, and so they developed a mathematical way of studying these things. Like, how does one know what time a lot of callers are likely to call? There’s no way of calculating for a tornado hitting a town, but on a daily basis, based on the historical likeliness of when people are likely to do something like make a phone call, you can know how many resources at a given time to devote to that thing.

Back in the days when telephones operated by switchboard, you could know how many switchboard operators should be operating at a given time of day. Which didn’t mean that lines would not form, but it meant they could figure out when lines would likely form and adjust accordingly. In the same way, a restaurant is going to have more wait staff at 6 o’clock in the evening than it is at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

Depending on the complexity of the organization—a restaurant probably isn’t going to hire mathematicians to study [lines], but Disney certainly would. Airports certainly should, though I don’t know if they do. Places where there’s lots of people using the same resources. And computing—you want to know, what’s the capacity of the system to handle people at a certain time? So queue theory became very crucial to the idea of the modern Internet and computing.

“Slips and skips” [a part of queue theory] is an idea developed by Richard Larson, an operations researcher. So these are people studying how an organization can operate efficiently. But his observation was that operations research failed to account for how people actually experience standing in line. He wrote an article in the ‘80s about slips and skips to describe two people experiencing the same phenomenon completely differently.

The best example is when grocery stores open a new lane in response to a lot of customers. So what you often have is someone who got to the line later who got to be served first, because that new line opened. So when that person got to go to the front of that new checkout register, he experienced it as a slip—he got to slip by, the universe is going his way. The other person, however, experiences this as a skip, as in, “I just got skipped over, this violates my principles of first-come first-served.” When a store opens up that new lane, one person is very happy, but many other people are made unhappier. So we experience the wait as more onerous than it is.

They’ve done studies where grocery stores would just have one line, as opposed to the way they do it now, and people actually experience that line as shorter. They think it’s a fairer, less emotionally fraught experience. However, from the business standpoint, it’s much less efficient than just opening up new cash registers as you need them.

Romm: Do people experience a line differently if they’re physically standing somewhere, as opposed to calling a customer-service line and being put on hold?

Andrews: If you can’t see the physical line, if you’re put on hold on the phone and you’re stuck with a phone to your ear, you have no way of calculating how many people are ahead of you on the phone queue. This is why I find being put on hold on the phone to be the most excruciatingly awful experience of waiting. But nowadays, companies have started adopting one of two tactics. One is, “Hey, our lines are really long right now, can we call you back at a later time?” The other is they tell you how many people are ahead of you in line. Just having that information does so much for your anxiety. Maister actually talks about this in an article, about how known finite waits are so much less stressful than unknown, possibly infinite waits. There’s signs outside of every Disney line: “Your wait is going to be 45 minutes long.” You can now calculate and make a decision accordingly. They also exaggerate those waits, so when those 45 minutes are actually half an hour, you feel lucky.

Romm: You mentioned how when lines first caught on in the U.S., people thought about them as a symptom of modern life, even if it was a negative one. Now, it seems like lines are becoming a less useful system, or maybe even a little outdated.

Andrews: I think line-standing is going to be increasingly rarer, as smartphones better calculate when I should go someplace. I can check an app on my phone to see what traffic is going to be like. So I think it will become a rarer phenomenon, though not entirely absent. Kids will still have to go to school and wait on the lunch line. But my flexibility, because I have so much more knowledge, I’m much less likely to be stuck in a line.

Cari Romm: You also mentioned that standing in line isn’t a universal phenomenon. Why do some cultures form lines to wait for things, while others don’t?

David Andrews: Monochronic and polychromic are two terms first coined by the anthropologist Edward Hall to describe how different cultures experience time. You can get that from the name—mono means single, chronic is time. Polychronic is experiencing time as more varied. It’s built into how people talk to one another and communicate values to one another. Monochronic cultures are also low-context cultures, which means we don’t need a lot of information of our surroundings in order to make a decision, as opposed to polychronic and high-context cultures.

The fact that Americans really value first-come, first-serve as the key designator of what’s fair, reveals us to be low-context and monochronic. We think that time moves forward regardless of how we experience it. We think of it as being very objective. A polychromic society, you might have to give deference to elders or mothers with babies. They might be pushed to the front of the crowd to get served first, but this requires a lot of cultural context to make those decisions.

Romm: When you say we think of time as moving forward regardless of how we experience it—what would be the alternative to that?

Andrews: It goes back to the standardization of time. We think of time as being standard, the same all over the world. But before time was standardized, it was very much built around the daily cycles of life—waking up, milking the cows, when the sun would be the highest in your particular village as opposed to in the Central Time Zone.

Romm: So the idea of clocking in for eight hours versus just going home once all your work is done.

Andrews: Right. The agrarian farmer was not worried about punching a time card. But now, Americans, when we work for an employer, we sell them our time.

Romm: Why would that make us more inclined to spend it standing in lines, though?

Andrews: We don’t want to [take the time to] suss out a situation. And we don’t need to, because it’s such an established cultural form. There are lots of environmental signals that we should stand in line—the velvet rope at the movie theater, or the cords in the TSA waiting area. We’re taught to line up in grade school. It becomes instinctual: “Oh, there’s a crowd here, we’re all going to get into a single-file line.” You don’t need a deep understanding of another person in order to understand how we do this thing. We just fall into line, and there’s very little interaction with the people around us.

We’re also a highly urbanized society. There’s so many people that there’s no way you can form a high-context understanding of a group. If you’re living in New York City or Washington D.C. or Minneapolis, everybody moves from different places where there’s different norms. So we have this one thing to fall back on when there’s any sort of confusion about who’s first, this thing we can all agree upon, that does not require us to communicate a lot with the people around us because it’s so established.

Romm: As people become less reliant on lines, will that change how we experience time?

Andrews: I think we’re as devoted to time as ever. It’s part of being in the modern labor force—we still try to get as much work done in a given hour as we can. So I feel like it has to change, but I don’t know how, exactly. We’re still slaves to time.