The Art of Queuing

I’ve just learned something new: mathematicians study the discipline of waiting in line (Queuing Theory) as an actual thing worthy of time and resource. Which is good because, well, queues are important. As I have said before, I love a good queue – unless it’s slow and/or I’m at the back of it. The supposed love of queuing is a recognised trait of being British, so today I’m going to teach you how to queue UK-style.

Mystery Queues

If you see a queue whose purpose is not immediately obvious, you MUST ask someone why it’s there. It might be something really good, like a free sample of instant coffee or a coupon for 5% off products you don’t like in a shop you never go into.

The point is, if other people are queuing for it then you probably want to too. Always ask someone about 1/3 of the way down the line – those at the back probably joined for the same reason as you and may not even know what they are queuing for. Making them admit it will lead to some very British embarrassment and shoe-shuffling.

Queuing in the Supermarket

Next we tackle the daily quandary of deciding which queue to join when posed with a choice. If you are in a supermarket, DO NOT just choose the shortest queue. You must closely study the shopping baskets, appearance and general characteristics of those in line, and make your queuing decision based on how much time you think they will take to make a simple transaction. This is also a good time to scowl at people who haven’t brought carrier bags to re-use.

Similarly, know your cashiers. How quickly do they scan the items? Do they seem to care about your precious queuing time?

Once you have made your decision and joined a queue, don’t stop the analysis – you’ll need to work out if you made the right decision, and draw conclusions ready for next time. Did you misjudge that young, sprightly cashier as being speedy, only to find they literally make no effort to be efficient? Did that business-like lady in front of you turn out to be disorganised and take ages to find her purse? I mean, come on, queuing time should be time spent getting your purse, bags and mind readied for your turn.

Oh my, the pain suffered when another queue moved more quickly than yours is unrivaled. Be prepared for a touch of self-loathing for making the wrong choice. You may feel an urge to move lines. Never move lines. First of all, it makes you look silly and like you care too much. Secondly, if you move lines then the original queue will suddenly start to move quickly. Fact.

Queuing at the Post Office

This advice covers any situation where you wait in one long queue for multiple cashiers, and are called to the checkouts by a “Cashier number three, please” automated voice and flashing light. For example, the post office, banks, the M&S at Brighton station.

Now, in these situations, you have a certain responsibility to help the efficiency of the queue. You MUST be ready to move to the checkout when it’s your turn, and you need to make your move in a manner which minimises the chance of collision with other shoppers. Keep your wits about you, practice your sidestep and you’ll be fine.

When you’ve made your transaction, look before you move away. Another over-keen shopper may be on their way to the checkout next to you, and bumping into them will cause delays for everyone.

When People Queue Jump

When someone cuts in line, you have two options. Most of the time, it’s better not to say anything. Instead, just remind yourself that you are a better person than them – more moral, more intelligent, wittier and more attractive. For sure.

If you are feeling particularly brave, or if their queue-jumping has displaced any old ladies, you might want to mutter, “Excuse me, this is the queue”. If you feel like you need to make a point but are too scared to speak or be heard, simply tut. The rest of the queue will have your back, and the queue-jumper won’t know who did the tutting.

Saving Someone a Place in a Queue

The main thing to remember when considering the controversial issue of saving someone a place in a queue is to pick your stance and stick to it. If you think it’s ok to save a place for your friends, you must not ever get annoyed when other people do the same. If you find yourself annoyed when one person in front of you suddenly becomes six, don’t do it yourself. Easy.

The controversy around this issue is why you should never, ever, express disgust or dismay when people let their friends into the queue in front of you. It may feel annoying, but it’s the one part of queue etiquette that isn’t universally agreed on. I say it’s fine. Do you agree?

  • Bethanie Marshall

    It’s funny you mention queuing, because it is a huge deal if you work at a grocery store. They’ve even gone so far as to create a system that monitors the queuing for you by measuring the temperature levels in certain places. The system is flawed, of course, because it is not capable of taking into account things like children who are accompanying the shoppers. I could go on for hours over cocktails about how ridiculous this is, but I won’t. That being stated, I enjoyed this little piece and you are so accurate.

  • Peter McDonald

    I always, ALWAYS tell people off for queue jumping; it does make me feel a bit like someone’s nan, but often it does actually work!

    Also, with holding places in queues for people – depends on the number of people IMO. I think one or two is fine, but I’ve seen about 6 people squeeze in front because their friend was holding a space for them. I wouldn’t have been pissed off if the majority of the group had been in the queue and a couple of them had just popped off for a wee or something, but all of them really glot my back up!

  • Shandra Goldfinger

    I think the best organization of queuing are the lines at Whole Foods in the NYC locations. There are usually three lines, each with their own screen. All registers serve all lines. When the next register is free, the register number pops up on the screen of one of the lines and a voice announces it. When the next becomes free, the next line’s screen displays it, and so on. I wish more places put this system in place- it makes things move so quickly!

  • Kerry McCarthy

    Your supermarket queue strategy is absolutely correct. As a fellow Brit I walk up and down the tills sussing out the cashiers and the fellow shoppers before making the final decision.

  • Gemma Leigh Conway

    I ALWAYS manage to pick the wrong queue when i’m out shopping. Always the one that goes down the slowest.

    I must say we Brits are very good at queuing! I thought it was like that everywhere until I went to Amsterdam, stood by the counter (you know when all the tills are in use and people are standing at them but there isn’t a queue so you make one that people can join on to and when the next till becomes available the person at the front goes to it?) and the lady shouted ‘next please’ in Dutch… so I went forward and this woman came out of nowhere and went to the till… Before I could give her a piece of my mind my Dutch friend said ‘Gem, people in Holland don’t queue…’ I was devastated!

  • Rebecca Simister

    The best thing I love about British queuing (and if only it was an Olympic sport) is the lack of dialogue and how everyone knows the rules, e.g for buses, cafes etc. It’s amazing how we do it without realising, well trained!

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