Last weekend, after church, my wife Diane and I went to a local restaurant for a late breakfast. At some point in most people’s life, breakfasting becomes a major recreational activity, replacing such things as whitewater rafting, zip-lining, and bungee jumping.

The restaurant we went to is seat-yourself and was packed with people. There is no official waiting area and a few folks were milling around, waiting to get a table for their large group.

We spotted an empty table for two, only it still had dirty dishes on it. The restaurant staff was very busy and did not have time to take care of it. While waiting for them to clean the table, another couple entered the restaurant and immediately ran over and sat down at the dirty table, cutting ahead of us. Diane said she felt like we had something stolen from us. It was surprisingly upsetting.

Although we had just come from church, I will admit to having some unchristian thoughts at that point. In a less crowded and confusing environment this would have been the perfect time to apply some of those 1970’s assertiveness training skills. Back then Robert Alberti wrote “Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior” expressly to train people what do in circumstances such as this. I think I knew what to do, I just didn’t have a Taser with me.

This situation reminded me of a trip to Disney World. While we were in line entering the Disney parking lot, one driver broke ranks, disregarded the teenage parking attendant, and sped to a parking spot up front. He jumped out of his vehicle, locked it, and faded into the crowd. As we walked to the tram, a guy in front of us said, “They should give guns to those parking attendant kids.”

When people violate the basic etiquette of standing in line, “queue rage” (akin to road rage) is a possibility. Science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein wrote about an utopian planet called Tertius, in his novel “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls.” On Tertius, killing someone who cuts in line was justified and considered “ a homicide in the public interest.”

Writing for NPR Linton Weeks said “…there is in the idea of ‘the line’ an understood premise — and promise. It’s an inherently American notion that some day, at some point, if you are polite and patient and play by the rules, you will move to the front of the line. And at last it will be your turn.”

Despite our seeming national impatience, in most cases, Americans don’t mind standing in lines — such as waiting to vote or to buy gasoline in a shortage. Weeks says “There is a sense of collective purpose and we’re-all-in-this-togetherness.”

Sociologist David Gibson, from Princeton, notes that occasionally lines fail, and “a me-first, free-for-all ensues.” Gibson believes that such failures occur when people come to believe that they might never get some highly desired item, like gasoline, toilet paper, or a certain restaurant table. Lines are also more vulnerable to breakdown when they’re not neatly organized and especially when “it’s not clear who arrived before whom.”

Queuing theory authority Dick Larson from MIT believes “queue rage can happen, particularly when it’s a violation of first-come, first-serve or what people think is fairness.” In addition to rage, people also may suffer from “queue anxiety,” which has several possible sources. This may stem from the fear of being in the wrong line. You may believe that you have been forgotten. Still others may feel claustrophobic because they feel like they are trapped in the line and are unable to leave.

The origin of standing in line is fairly recent. Lines are a democratic phenomenon. Before they were introduced, a pecking order system dominated, in which large aggressive people always had the first crack at resources.

The first documented written description of a queue appeared in 1837. Thomas Carlyle wrote about people standing in line to get bread after a scarcity caused by the French Revolution. By the time of World War II, Britain became the poster child for queues, again probably because of the numerous scarcities caused by wartime rationing. Winston Churchill coined the slur “queuetopia” to describe a British society of scarcity that he predicted his political rivals would usher in should they be elected.

In America people waited in lines for essentials during the Great Depression and the wartime years when rationing was common. In more recent years popular consumer goods, especially toys and game systems, have resulted in lines.

I’m old enough to remember standing in line to purchase not only gasoline in the 1970s but also Cabbage Patch Dolls and Game Boys. One Christmas Zhu Zhu Pet Hamsters were all the rage, but I managed to find an inside source and avoided the toy store lines. Fortunately we missed out on the lines for Tickle Me Elmos and Beanie Babies.

I‘ve noticed recently that grocery lines have gotten longer. I suspect that supply chain issues may have something to do with this. That is in addition to the fact that we all have turned into lemmings and do exactly the same things at precisely the same time.

Traditionally groceries have had well-organized lines and people are usually quite genial as they share their frustrations. I’ve never seen anyone crash one of those queues, but I’ve often seen people let others, with only a few items, cut in front of them.

Today, due to COVID, people are more likely to find themselves waiting in line on the phone or in virtual queues than in person. Many businesses have hired experts in queuing theory to help them improve their customers’ waiting experiences.

David Maister from Harvard Business School has identified six basic principles to remember about queues. 1. Unoccupied time always feels longer than occupied time. 2. People want to feel like they have started the process, even while they are still in line. 3. Uncertain waits feel longer than known waits. 4. Unexplained waits seem longer than explained waits. 5. Unfair waits are longer than fair waits. 6. Anxiety also makes waits feel longer.

Many businesses, like restaurants and retailers use this information to address these issues. For example, Amazon will tell you how many people are ahead of you when receiving deliveries and many phone queues will tell you what your place in line is. Some restaurants may provide menus, while you wait, so it seems like the dining process has already began.

The next time Diane and I go out for breakfast, I just wish it could be on the planet Tertius.

Terry Stawar, EdD, lives in Jeffersonville and can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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