October's queue starts here

By Simon Round, September 28, 2011

In this country we are famous for a few things - our royal family, our dismal weather and some of the world's blandest food. But perhaps the thing which most characterises us in the eyes of the rest of the world is our proclivity to stand in line and wait for stuff.

The British ability to queue is legendary, but according to new research we no longer have the stamina for it - most people start to get stressed and lose patience after a mere six-and-a-half minutes.

I have been doing my own (very patient) research into the culture of queuing and can report mixed results. The orderly bus queue which I dimly recall as a very young child disintegrated at some point between 1970 and 1990. These days, when you arrive at the bus stop, you will see a disparate collection of people, in no particular order, some of whom do not appear even to be waiting. Yet when the 102 finally appears from over the horizon, hordes of individuals will emerge from behind doors, and leave their seats at nearby cafés, all with elbows pumping and Oyster cards at the ready.

However, the culture of queuing still exists, and indeed thrives, in other places. When queuing for a cash machine in the bank, people naturally form a single line, which then fans out as individual ATMs become available. I have not seen this phenomenon anywhere else in the world. Indeed, I remember several years ago queuing for a cash machine in Israel. I say queuing - there was one person using the machine and just me waiting. As the woman in front got her money and left, a man casually walked in front of me and inserted his card. When I attempted to remonstrate with him, he replied, offhandedly, "What's your problem? I'm only going to be a few seconds." Then after sizing me up, he added: "You're not in London now you know."

This says a lot about the difference between the British and Israeli psyche. We are still emotionally reliant on the concept of "waiting our turn" for things (except buses, obviously).

We are still emotionally reliant on the concept of 'waiting'

In my experience, we don't mind queuing for substantial amounts of time as long as we can see the line going forward and people being served. At the prospect of a really good queue, like for Wimbledon, the British will be there with a sleeping bag and a thermos, and will enjoy the queuing as much as the tennis (or more, if they are watching Andy Murray).

However, Israelis' response to a line is the assumption that their rightful place is at the front of it. This translates into other areas of life. For example, a lot of Israeli road accidents occur because most drivers assume they have right of way when approaching a junction, whatever the signs might say.

It could be they are onto something - in most aspects of life, patience is probably a disadvantage (for example at the Post Office, where staff take advantage of the fact that people are patient, by chatting, drinking tea and arranging their social life as the queue snakes out the door).

However, here at the JC we like to do things the old-fashioned way. So if you have arrived early and happen to be waiting for October's column, please form an orderly line… here.

    Last updated: 10:15am, September 28 2011