Why do Brits love to queue?

Is queuing just a phenomenon of English-speaking countries? The British are famous for their habit of queuing, as are the Canadians. Americans will wait in line and become extremely agitated if somebody cuts in. Yet in China, standing patiently in a queue is a sign of weakness. The strongest, and most successful get to the front. And anybody who has tried to board a train in India will be familiar with the stampede that happens as soon as the doors open.

Different cultures have different attitudes to waiting in line. Here’s a quick trip around global queuing habits.

  • In Japan, respect, self-discipline and harmony are considered essential. As such, queuing is an art form. You will see people standing patiently in lines in marked-out spaces to board trains, or waiting hours in situations like big stadium events. Japanese children are taught to show respect from an early age and this sense of orderly queuing is one way of showing respect to the group.
  • China is the opposite. In a country where, in the past, shortages were common, and there are so many people, getting to the front of the line really was a case of survival of the fittest. Services are still stretched and experiences like fighting to get on a train in the Shanghai rush hour are deeply unpleasant to the uninitiated. Now that there are far fewer shortages, there’s less need to push to the front, but the Chinese, especially the new middle class, have become impatient, and the queue-jumping continues.
  • Israelis don’t particularly care for queuing but they are deeply considerate of those in need. People in wheelchairs, the elderly or parents with small children will always be helped to the front of the queue, with everybody else in a free-for-all at the back. Perhaps this is a reflection on Israel’s deeply family-orientated culture, which also holds elders in great respect.
  • In the United Arab Emirates, queuing will get you nowhere. The meek stay at the back of the line while the assertive jostle to the front – and get served. The concept of personal space is much less pronounced in the UAE, as it is in India. While Brits and Canadians have an imaginary protective bubble around them, keeping others out, it’s not considered rude in Arab cultures or in India to invade someone’s personal space.
  • Decency, fair play and democracy are three of the pillars of British society and Brits have queuing drummed into them from an early age. Queue-jumping is considered unfair. Yet the British are not squeaky-clean when it comes to queuing etiquette. The good natured banter that ensues in a queue for, say, a major sporting event is a far cry from the self-regulating queue at the bus stop in rush hour, when it’s survival of the fittest. And with the rise of internet shopping, Brits (and Americans) will simply abandon a purchase in a shop if the queue is too long; their tolerance for waiting has been eroded.
  • In the USA, there’s also a sense of fairness in queuing, to the extent that queue rage-inspired fights have broken out when someone cuts the line. Psychologists over the last couple of decades have come up with ways to make queuing seem more pleasant, without actually reducing the waiting time. Restaurants will give you a buzzer that bleeps when your table is ready, so you can sit at the bar rather than stand in line. Theme parks turn the queue into an attraction in itself, with videos, entertainment, different settings as excitement builds and clocks that count down the waiting time. Airports have fast passes, so you can pay to join a shorter queue. These techniques have spread worldwide.
  • Italians are famously poor at queuing. Even if there is a queue, personal space will not be observed and people will push and nudge. Individuals will simply cut in at the front with no shame. Perhaps this is connected to the spontaneous, impatient nature of Italians – or the fact that queuing simply isn’t a value instilled in young children of school age. Spain is similar; there is little respect for a queue and it’s often the older people who push the hardest.
  • Germany is perhaps a surprise in the world queuing league. Despite their love of order and process, Germans do not queue politely. Their sense of personal space is much less pronounced than that of Brits or Americans. Unless a queue is formally organised, for example, with a numbered ticket system, people will push to the front. Perhaps the impatience with queuing is related to the fact that Germans place great store on punctuality and do not like to be kept waiting, or to keep others waiting. If you come from a queuing culture like Britain and are faced with a German scrum, it can be daunting, especially as Germans are usually so polite. But adopting the local habit is often the only way to get served.

Country Navigator is a training tool that will help you work more effectively across cultures. The tool combines assessments, 100s of country guides and a range of e-learning modules.  As a comparison tool it allows users to compare their personal working behaviors with their colleagues and team to understand and manage differences, leading to greater collaboration and increased productivity. Country Navigator is accessible online, as a Smartphone app or integrated in your workplace learning management system.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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