WorldSavvy: Hurry up and wait!

When I first visited Dubuque, Iowa, a picturesque town of 60,000 on the Mississippi River, I realized that I was in a different culture. People don’t wait in straight lines pressed up against each other like they do in New York City. Instead, they stand around in a group, a mass if you will, with at least five feet separating each individual.

I once went to a drugstore to pick up a prescription and went straight through these standarounds, who just appeared to be hanging out, if not loitering, and asked the clerk for a prescription. Immediately, I felt a tap on my shoulder, and a little old lady said “Go to the end of the line!” Huh, where is it? So now when in doubt in Dubuque, I always ask “Is this the line?” when I approach these suspicious-looking groups.

The other extreme might be Bogotá, Colombia, where I served in the Peace Corps. There would be a swirling mass of people shouting at the store clerk with no space between them, all demanding attention at the same time. Once in a bank someone even slipped his papers through my arms to get to the clerk first. I got so used to this struggle that I would stand at the counter with my legs spread and elbows out to forbid anyone from getting ahead of me. And waiting to get out of an elevator was worse; people would rush in before you had a chance to get out. It was mano a mano every day!

And so it goes around the world, as the concept of how to wait in line or just wait changes. It’s something we will have to get used to as the world now houses nearly seven billion people. This is not to say that any particular way is better than the next; it just says you have to know the rules in order to get what you waited for.

I really got interested in the psychology of lines after reading the scary 1974 novel by John Hersey, My Petition for More Space. In this frightening look at the future, people are trapped in lines for days on end in a crowded world waiting to present petitions and where our hero experiences “line fear.”

In the United States, waiting in line is seen as part of our democracy. Theme parks such as Disney World have changed people’s perceptions of lines by introducing new patterns and providing entertainment to make it appear that you are not really waiting, but already experiencing something. Disney employs industrial engineers who do nothing else but help the company with queue management strategy at parks around the world. They discovered that you need to have lines turn corners so that at any point the line only looks as long as the distance to the next corner — deceitful to be sure, but still helpful to the park.

Waiting is part of life and thus can be just as therapeutic as getting to the goal. Gridlock as therapy? But then I hear a harsh voice behind me: “Hey, buddy, will you stop daydreaming? The line’s moving again!” Once in Mexico City waiting for the plane to unload, I saw a guy climb over seats and rudely push aside passengers so he could get to the front. It was midnight, so there was no connecting flight to catch. He just didn’t like lines.

It is getting worse in some places. David Maister in his paper “The Psychology of Waiting Lines” notes that US government agencies have succumbed to the pressure of lowering cost, which has resulted in the horrible experiences we have today, where cost and efficiency are the critical metrics, and fairness, equity and experience of the people are ignored. Been to a US post office or motor vehicle registration or the waiting room of a public hospital in the United States lately? A long time axiom in the American vernacular has been the phrase “hurry up and wait!”

And while McDonald’s is widely vilified in some countries for its fast food, Donald A. Norman writes in Living with Complexity that McDonald’s changed queuing behavior in Hong Kong, if not in every country where it operates: “The social atmosphere in colonial Hong Kong of the 1960s was anything but genteel. Cashing a check, boarding a bus, or buying a train ticket required brute force. When McDonald’s opened in 1975, customers crowded around the cash registers, shouting orders and waving money over the heads of people in front of them. McDonald’s responded by introducing queue monitors — young women who channeled customers into orderly lines. Queuing subsequently became a hallmark of Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan, middle-class culture. Older residents credit McDonald’s for introducing the queue, a critical element in this social transition” (p. 195).

In most other situations, people just try to cope with the inefficient if not corrupt systems that make you wait. Ingenious people always find a way to avoid a line. During the 2010 World Expo held in Shanghai, seniors older than 75 or those with a disability could avoid lines and bring in another person. A business developed to rent seniors to impatient visitors wanting to avoid the lines.

In Moscow, Russia, customs lines at the airport can be atrocious. If you remember, it was at the Moscow airport last December where passengers rioted when trapped after a snowstorm. To counter waiting, a company called Peace Travel Services offers VIP services to get you out of Moscow airports quickly. Its website reads: “Want to feel a little special? Or maybe you just don’t have 3 hours to waste in the lines of Moscow International Airports. We can have you escorted off the airplane and through customs and out of the airport in 15-30 minutes.” It’s expensive — up to US$450 — but welcome to Moscow.

Remember that Moscow listens to the beat of different drummers. In the Soviet days citizens of Moscow would walk around carrying a shopping bag so that whenever they saw a line they could get in it. It didn’t matter what was being sold; the presence of the line meant something of value was being offered. Places in line were bought and sold.

Go ahead and ask: Has Freivalds ever used his limitless economic power to buy himself a better place in line? The answer is yes, and I did it here in the American Midwest. A little old lady was in front of me at a major retailer. She wanted to redeem a coupon for 79 cents, and the young clerk at check-out wouldn’t do it because it had expired. The lady demanded to see the manager. There were 20 people in back of me and I only had one item. This was going to take a long time. So I got out $2 and handed it to the coupon lady. She took the money and asked “What’s this for?” “To get rid of you,” I responded politely. That’s what you call a big-time buyout.

The best way to avoid airport lines in trips my wife and I took throughout the United States, France and Panama in the last couple of years was to be in a wheelchair. In a wheelchair you are whizzed through the airport, through doors ordinary travelers can’t go through and taken to the head of the line or, in the case of Panama, through the line. However, it would be intellectually dishonest for all of us to order wheelchairs if we didn’t need them. There is never a charge like there is for everything else these days, so if you are ever concerned about traveling in a wheelchair or crutches, don’t be. You will not have to deal with lines.

In our complex world, we have to say more than “the line starts here” to move people around.