top of page
  • Writer's pictureReflective Resources

Q is for Queuing

To queue is to form in a line while waiting for something. Queuing is something that we all do.

There are two main types of queuing: linear queuing and virtual queuing:

Linear queuing is when you wait physically in a line e.g. waiting for transport, in the supermarket, Post Office, bank or waiting in line to order a drink etc.

A virtual queue is invisible in the sense that although you might be assigned a number you don’t always know what position you have in the queue relative to others or can see anything that will give you some indication as to how long it will be before your turn. During a virtual queuing experience, you are usually subject to repetitive messages or music or sometimes a silence when you are not sure whether you are still on hold or have been cut off.

But how do we know when and where to form a queue? What rules do we instinctively obey and why are we so accustomed to waiting in line?

We are perhaps taught to queue from a very early age when we start school. If we have younger siblings we might experience this beforehand whilst waiting to get our parents’ attention at home. In school we are taught to line up before we can enter the classroom in an orderly fashion. We then have to queue again to wash our hands and use the toilet before lunch. More often or not there is a lunchtime queue too as we line up to be served and then we are taught to wait our turn to queue for the bus or wait our turn for a piece of play apparatus etc etc

Why do queues exist?

“In Ukraine's cities - Kharkiv, Kiev, Stalino, Dnipropetrovsk - hundreds of thousands of people waited each day for a simple loaf of bread. In Kharkiv, the republic's capital, Jones saw a new sort of misery. People appeared at two o'clock in the morning to queue in front of shops that did not open until seven. On an average day forty thousand people would wait for bread. Those in line were so desperate to keep their places that they would cling to the belts of those immediately in front of them. Some were so weak from hunger that they could not stand without the ballast of strangers. The waiting lasted all day, and sometimes for two. Pregnant women and maimed war veterans had lost their right to buy out of turn, and had to wait in line with the rest if they wanted to eat. Somewhere in line a woman would wail, and the moaning would echo up and down the line, so that the whole group of thousands sounded like a single animal with an elemental fear.” Timothy Snyder

Queuing exists because there is an imbalance between the supply and demand for a service or product and in a world where there is often more demand than supply, or facilities to cope with unknown amounts of demand at a particular moment in time, queuing is an efficient way to deliver what people want without them forming a scrum or fighting to get to it first.

Queues also form during important occasions

"I watched, along with all of you, as the tens of thousands of our people stood patiently in long queues for many hours. Some sleeping on the open ground overnight waiting to cast this momentous vote." Nelson Mandela

There were extraordinary scenes recently in England with mourners wishing to pay their last respects to Queen Elizabeth 11 as is often the case when a head of state of royalty dies. People from all walks of life queued together side by side. The queue was an act of belonging, and the queue was an end in itself. It even had its own YouTube channel which told people how long it was, and where the current endpoint lay. About a quarter of a million people saw Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin as she lay in state for four days at Westminster Hall in central London. Members of the public wanting to pay their final respects after the queen’s death on Sept. 8 had to queue in a line that grew so long over four days that wait times reached 24 hours at one point. The end of the line even had to be temporarily closed, but all that did was create a queue for the queue!

Queues in different countries

Queuing, like so many behaviours in everyday life, differs from culture to culture. When one grows up in a particular cultural setting, perspectives and practices, norms and beliefs differ to those who grew up in a different cultural context even for something supposedly as ‘universal’ as queuing.

The English are often referred to as a nation of queue-ers

“An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” George Mikes

"Apparently the Dutch now prided themselves on being better at queues than the English, which was absurd, because standing cheerfully in line was the English national sport."

Orson Scott Card

Queuing in Cuba involves turning up and asking, who is “el último”? (the last person). The practice is to then to keep an eye on that person until they have been served, after which it is your turn. This system means that Cubans may find a place to sit nearby and wait, or even leave the area altogether before coming back and reclaiming their spot in the ‘queue’.

Brazilians are thought as notoriously bad queue-ers. At Disneyland the Brazilians caused all sorts of problems, not only did they not wait in line, they pushed over those already in line to get to the front. Initially Disney's solution was to make a videotape about proper etiquette in lines at Disney parks. All Brazilians (and only Brazilians) had to sign a document that they had watched the entire video and intended to abide by its instructions, before being given access to Disney! Later, after further thought, Disney came up with a different solution whereby those who did not want to wait could pay extra to not wait in line.

In other countries, systems exist whereby you pay someone to keep your place in the queue and notify you when it is your turn. They gain a ‘reward’ for waiting patiently and you regain your time to use it more profitably doing other things locally.

What about queuing makes us unhappy?

“People overestimate how long they’ve waited in a queue by roughly 36 percent”

Jacob Hornik, (researcher on subjective vs objective time measures.)

Apart from a sense of wasting our time, there are other things that can have a negative impact on us connected to queuing:

Queuing can increase a person’s vigilance and therefore it becomes difficult to relax

If someone unfairly jumps ahead of us in the queue this can cause us a lot of stress which can in certain situations lead to friction between people and even full blown fights.

If there are multiple queues we can become unhappy if we perceive the line next to us moving quicker – as often witnessed in traffic jams or queues for tickets etc

The advantages of queueing

“In the queue of changes, the first person to change is your very self” Terry Mark

When you think of queues, you may not immediately associate them with a positive opportunity but

Queues reduce everyone to the same level.

Queues promote fairness preventing people who are the loudest, the most assertive or devious from gaining an unfair advantage (unless they have some form of VIP pass)

Queues teach us self-organisation. Queuing is not always imposed on us but often groups of people will naturally choose to form lines because they see it as fair.

Queuing provides us with a certain amount of knowledge rather than being left in limbo land.

Queues are reassuring. More so when we can physically see the queue ahead shortening and our turn approaching. With queues there is a clear relationship between when we start to queue and when we receive what we want or need which gives us a sort of reassurance.

Queues teach patience and reminds us of our place in the great scheme of things

"If, as an actor, you allow yourself to be cocooned from the boring pin-pricks of day-to-day existence - like standing in a queue at the butcher's or any of the other dreary little events that we all have in our daily lives - you begin to lose your lifeline to what people are. And if you lose that, you eventually lose the ability to act." Glenda Jackson

Queues can actually cause a sense of happiness. People who wait a shorter time than expected are happier than those who wait longer than expected. At Disneyland their estimated waiting times are always displayed deliberately longer than the likely reality and as a result their customers are relatively happier for it.

Queuing can teach us consideration and empathy. Queuing isn’t always black and white. There are times when we are prepared to concede our place in a queue e.g. allowing a person with one item to pass in front of us when we have a whole trolley full of shopping or when we can see that someone else has a greater need than us e.g. when a child is having a melt down and a parent is struggling to cope, or in a hospital waiting room and someone with a more severe condition than us needs to be treated first

How can we increase the positive and use our time effectively whilst queuing?

“You can't always control circumstances. However, you can always control your attitude, approach, and response. Your options are to complain or to look ahead and figure out how to make the situation better.” Tony Dungy

Use the time for meditation

“If you're impatient while waiting for the bus, tell yourself you're doing 'Bus waiting meditation.' If you're standing in a slow line at the drugstore, you're doing 'Waiting in line meditation.' Just saying these words makes me feel very spiritual and high-minded and wise” Gretchen Rubin

Manage your email box – acknowledge emails, delete spam etc

Catch up with friends/family or messages that you have been meaning to send

Put your phone away and make connections with those around you

“Waiting in line is a great opportunity to meet people, daydream, or play.”

Patch Adams

Use your earphones to listen to podcasts or music

Read a book or an e-book.

Make a “To Do” list or plan for the day/week etc

Learn a language using apps like Duolingo or carry a small phrase book with you

Do simple stretching exercises or practise simple breathing exercises

What other things can you think of?

“The older we get, the fewer things seem worth waiting in line for” Will Rogers

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page