Waiting for the front of the line

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A cash queue in Bulawayo: Paul Hubbard collection

With the Easter crowds, we take a look at the method and madness behind the venerable institution of queuing

What is a queue?

The word queue comes, via French, from the Latin cauda, meaning “tail.” Most researchers in the field prefer the spelling “queueing” over “queuing”, although the latter is somewhat more common in other contexts.

This quaintly spelt word implies order, discipline, patience and an ability to wait for your turn, which may or may not come.

The term “queue” is used more in British English, while the word “line” is used mostly in American English.

In economics, queueing is seen as one way to ration scarce goods and services.

While on the surface a queue might just seem like a line of bored people, it is only when you delve deeper into the physics behind a queue that the true “magic” makes itself apparent.

Does the concept have a long pedigree?

Somewhat controversially, psychologists have announced that the propensity to stand in a queue has roots stretching back 30,000 years to the behaviour of early humans struggling for survival on the African savannah.

According to the theory, humans who copied the behaviour of others tended to live longer and, therefore, had a better chance of reproducing and passing on the behaviour to later generations.

Those who did not, died out.

Making people stop and stand in line is perhaps a strategy devised by God (or, more alarmingly, the government) to slow us down and freeze us in our tracks, forcing us to relinquish our attempts to control our world; we are made to just s-t-a-n-d and b-r-e-a-t-h-e, even reflect a little.

Often, the myth of civility explodes in our faces as we try to jostle and jump the queue, always wanting to be the first…

Is the phenomenon studied today?

Queueing theory is the mathematical study of queues.

The theory enables mathematical analysis of several related processes, including arriving at the queue, waiting in the queue, and being assisted by the server(s) at the front of the queue.

The theory permits the derivation and calculation of several performance measures including the average waiting time in the queue or the system, the expected number waiting or receiving service and the probability of encountering the system in certain states, such as empty, full, having an available server or having to wait a certain time to be served.

Useful decisions on when to open up a new service counter or order more goods can then be made well in advance to reduce the hassle and irritation factors – in theory anyway…

Why do it though?

The point of queuing varies with different countries, people and climates.

Normally it is done in order to access scarce or desired good and services, ranging from concert tickets, to bread, sitting at traffic lights to waiting for the loo.

Alternatively, it is fair to say that the main point of a queue is to stand still for as long as possible without either:

1.Talking to yourself;

2. Letting anyone in front of you; or

3. Quitting the queue altogether.

How long will we queue?

According to the famous humorist and science fiction writer, Douglas Adams, each person has a different tolerance level to queuing.

He developed the following formula to decide how long, in minutes, someone is likely to wait in a queue without having an emotional breakdown:

T[breakdown] = 3 (T[sigh] + (5 x Q[behind]) – (2 x Q[infront]) ) x I

where T[sigh] is the time in minutes the subject will stand on his/her own at a bus-stop before sighing, Q[behind] is the number of people behind the subject in the queue, and Q[infront] is the number of people in front of the subject in the queue.

I is known as the ‘Interest Factor’ and changes depending on the reason for the queue being there in the first place.

For instance, the Interest Factor for something as interesting as the British Crown Jewels is 5.23; whereas for something like Hand Crafted Sheep Dung, it is 0.0057.

The index value is that of a bus (given that he lived in Britain), which is set at 1.00.

What about more serious research?

David Stewart-David, a lecturer in logistics and transport at the University of Northumbria has been examining the nature of queues.

He believes that the emergence of consumerism has “eroded” this acceptance of the need to wait in line, he says, with evidence from his research that we are no longer as patient.

Threatening the queue is a faster pace of life, higher expectations and a growing intolerance at being kept waiting Queues threaten to break down when people feel a queue is too long or when the wait exceeds their expectations at which point “people visibly begin to look stressed or walk off.”

What types are there?

Queues come in various hues; each has a distinctive character of its own, depending on what it is for, and where it is.

Rather than boring you with queueing theory or just listing reasons, we have decided to give you a description of the more common types you will encounter in your daily life.

The Common or Simple Queue is the most basic of all queues and consists of two or more people standing behind or beside each other in a line.

The Maze Queue consists of queuers standing in single file around zigzags of rope fencing and the person at the front of the queue goes to the next available cashier.

There are many benefits to this type of queue: a large mass of people can be crowded into one place while remaining in an orderly queue, when previously the same queue would have stretched out of the door and half way down the high street.

The rope fencing provides bored children with something to swing on and it is also much easier to eyeball all the other queuers in the room.

The Electronic Queue involves queuers taking a numbered ticket and then waiting for the number to be displayed on an electronic screen.

This does, however, suffer from annoying people taking a load of tickets so the system ends up slowly going through ten or 20 non-existent customers before getting to the next real one.

Review the rarest form of queueing.

The Queuer-initiated System, a rare type in Africa occurs when no formal queuing system is in place.

One long, single line is instinctively formed by the queuers, and the person at the front proceeds to the next available cashier.

The Concealed Queue, common at all of our banks, is a queue for the more experienced and confident queuer and should be avoided by the beginner unless accompanied by a skilled practitioner.

This type of queue occurs in any situation when there are two or more people waiting for something, but no visible formal queuing system in place and no room to form a line.

The Telephone Queue, favoured by the foreign embassies in Harare, has an almost metaphysical quality as queuers are unaware of each other’s presence or their place in the queue.

While being held in this type of queue, a form of aural torture known as Muzak is usually played, which is regularly interrupted by polite messages reminding the person on hold that their call is in a queue, and will be dealt with as soon as someone is available.

Anything special about Zimbabwean queues?

That it should be abnormal to queue for food items, cash or fuel has not been appreciated in Zimbabwe for many years.

People have over time have nevertheless come to accept that it is in fact normal to queue for such basic commodities and services.

Here people have developed creative coping mechanisms rather than seeking to deal with the source of the abnormality.

The main feature is that a sense of humour is essential to survive the endless time spent queueing.

In around 2005, a common “joke” was that they were thinking of changing the name of “Zimbabwe” to “Kuwait” because people spent ages waiting in queues.

In 2004, a funny, if cruel, joke which circulated at fuel queues was an invitation to rush to a named garage:

“Do you need petrol or diesel? No queue and take some containers if you wish. COST is pump price,” the message began, leaving the desperate motorist almost stunned with relief.

But of course there was a catch, as the SMS continued: “RUSH now and see a guy called Al Sayid at Number 13 Shaduuf Road, Tripoli, Libya.”

Jokes and rumour emerged as important social movement media, challenging state-controlled media interpretations of the various crises in the country from the early 21st century.

In the numerous queues for fuel, cooking oil and sugar which grew in length over the 2000s, Zimbabweans actively debated the state of the country regardless of their fears of openly discussing it.

In Francophone Africa, this is referred to as radio trottoir [sidewalk radio].

What is queuing etiquette?

Standing in a queue becomes the acid test of everyday endurance.

Since queuing can be a boring and time-consuming activity, but one that may also have high stakes (e.g. trying to get your money from the bank), people can become angry when the unwritten rules of queuing are broken.

It is unacceptable to queue-jump, although it is sometimes acceptable for one member of a party, waiting in the queue, to allow a second member of the party to join the first halfway through the queuing process, without the second member having to join the back of the queue.

It is acceptable for waiting persons to leave the queue briefly (to use the bathroom, etc.) and return to their original place, without having to ask neighbours to hold their place or to be allowed to return (however, many would still tell their neighbours in the queue).

Of course, there are also the professional queuers, who can be “convinced” to give up their place for a few dollars cash, saving precious time for the lucky person.

The disciplined queuer is more an aberration than the norm nowadays but rules still count!

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