Brits love a queue... or do they? | Blue Sky

Brits love a queue… or do they?

I need to dispel the myth that Brits like queueing… because I’m British and I hate it.

There are definitely queueing rules and protocols most of us seem to ‘know’ without having been told – and those who break them risk getting mobbed!

I’ve always found the behaviour of people fascinating – which is why I work in the world of performance improvement – so wrote this blog after spending an hour queuing for my shopping.

I experienced queue jumpers, people paying with their loose change, agitated shuffling and mumbling behind me, shop assistants closing checkout desks (just as you run towards the one that has no queue), slow packers, people who forgot something (and then disappear into the ether to find whatever it is they desperately need), people with endless ‘5p-off vouchers’ that don’t scan (and need keying in manually)… I could go on but, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old man, I thought I’d look into queues a little more…

I found this paper by David Maister, The Psychology of Waiting Lines. It is aimed at people who operate shops, restaurants, doctors’ offices and other places where people fuss about ‘being kept waiting’. Of course, most of us are the ones standing in line, not the ones controlling the line – but it is fascinating insight.

Maister’s main point is that the actual time we’re waiting may have little relationship to how long that wait feels. Two minutes can pass in a flash, or two minutes can feel interminable. 


Here are eight factors which make a wait seem a lot longer:

  1. Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time – when you have something to distract yourself, time passes more quickly – think about the places that put mirrors by the elevators because people like to look at themselves.
  2. People want to get started – this is why restaurants give you a menu while you wait and why doctors put you in the examination room twenty-five minutes before your examination begins.
  3. Anxiety makes wait times seem longer – if you think you’ve chosen the slowest queue, or you’re worried about getting a seat on the plane, the wait will seem longer.
  4. Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite ones – people wait more calmly when they’re told, “The doctor will see you in thirty minutes” than when they’re told, “The doctor will see you soon”. Maister gives an amusing illustration: “if I arrive someplace thirty minutes early, I wait with perfect patience, but three minutes after my appointment time passes, I start to feel annoyed”… “Just how long am I going to have to wait?” I fume.
  5. Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits – we wait more patiently if we know heavy snow is delaying our train and we’re continually updated as to when it will arrive.
  6. Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits – people want their waits to be fair. I get anxious when I’m waiting on a crowded platform for the next train. A select few seem to know where the doors are going to open – the rest of us don’t (and queueing rules are forgotten when the train arrives). The same applies when at the bar – why is it some people get served before others? Inexplicable, unfair and maddening.
  7. The more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait – we’ll happily wait longer to buy an iPad than a toothbrush.
  8. Solo waits feel longer than group waits – the more people engage with each other, the less they notice the wait time. In fact, in some situations, waiting in line is part of the experience. Disney, Universal and other theme-park operators build their queue systems to be part of the experience now – exactly for this reason.


So, knowing this information, will I be more patient next time I queue..? Time will tell!

What are your quirky ‘queueing rules’ and stories?  Let us know.

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