Line Up to Read About Lines

 
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Here at Blink Identity, we hate lines. No matter what kind of line or why you are waiting, everyone has better things to do. Americans spend an astonishing 37 billion hours a year waiting in lines. We developed the Blink Identity system in large part because we believe that your time should be spent enjoying your event, not waiting in line. Our technology has a high throughput rate and we’re able to efficiently identify people in less than a second without compromising security. So why are we still waiting in lines?

Thomas Carlyle provided the first written description of people waiting in lines during the French Revolution, when a series of food shortages meant that citizens had to wait in long lines at bakeries. The lines we remember from history class are all similarly tied to scarcity, war, or times of hardship. During the Great Depression breadlines stretched the length of Time Square, and post-war Britain perfected the art of the queue. Now people only wait in similarly long lines so that they can receive the “recognition, buzz, and status” that comes from being at a grand opening of a new restaurant, or snagging a limited-edition consumer product.

In many Asian countries, line culture is a hit and miss. Factors such as the country’s socio-economic status and culture plays a big role towards a country’s attitude towards lines. Japan strongly enforces line culture at a young age, teaching children that the act of lining up is a symbol of “self-discipline, cooperation, and respect”. Other Asian countries like Indonesia and India are less likely to form orderly lines. One theory on this phenomenon suggests that societies that are more inter-connected are less likely to form a single file line. People who know each other are likely to form clusters while they socialize. As someone who grew up in South-East Asia, there’s some truth to this theory. I lived in Indonesia for nine years and visited other Asian countries like India and Malaysia. Based on my experience, South-East Asians are more likely to talk to each other and have a stronger sense of community. We tend to form groups when lining up and we don’t like to lose. While this is a personal observation, this rebellious attitude could possibly derive from the fact that many Eastern nations were once colonized. We’re constantly under the mentality that everything is scarce and that if we don’t hurry, we’re going to lose out (another personal observation). 

Diagram 1: Comparison of Line Structure between Western and Eastern Countries.

The line shown on the right side of the diagram is called a single-channel line (also called a serpentine line) and there’s only one server. The serpentine line is the most common line because it’s designed as a first come, first serve model to enforce fairness. A serpentine line becomes a multi-channel line when there are multiple servers available. If there are multiple lines, then it becomes a parallel line. Big-box retail stores and theme parks usually have a serpentine line that eventually branches to a multi-channel line. Parallel lines can be commonly found in grocery stores and airports. In Asia, it’s very common to see people cluster in line and eventually funnels into a serpentine line towards the server.

If we break down the concept of lines even further, there are two different types: finite lines and infinite lines. A finite line is when new customers are affected by the existing customers in the line. In other words, new customers can only join once others have moved out of the line. The lines that you normally encounter in establishments are finite because they have a limit on how many people they can serve. An infinite line is when new customers aren’t affected by the existing customers in the line. You’ll normally encounter infinite lines at toll booths or when shopping online because these places are able to serve as many new customers as possible without affecting the existing customers. Whichever line people are stuck in, they may display different line behaviors such as balking, reneging, and jockeying. Balking is when a customer refuses to join a line (most likely because it’s too long). Reneging is when a customer enters a line but leaves shortly and cancels the transaction. Jockeying is when a customer switches line, in hopes of entering a faster line. According to Ettore’s Observation, switching lines will speed up the line that you just left while lengthening the new one that you just entered.

When you are waiting in line, it important to know some basic line etiquette to avoid conflicts caused by negative line behaviors. First of all, I think we can all agree that the most heinous line crime is cutting. No matter how busy or impatient you are, there’s absolutely no reason why you need to cut. But if you are going to cut, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer suggests that stating a reason why you need to cut works 94% of the time. Simply saying the word “because” makes a big difference but it just depends on the type of line and occasion. With that said, it’s still very important to stay patient and considerate of others. This means don’t shove/push, litter, or be too loud. It’s generally okay to talk to others but just read the room before you do. If you do talk while waiting in line, be mindful of the topic of the conversation and refrain from using vulgar language. You should also give priority to pregnant women, the elderly, and people with special needs whenever it’s possible. After all, we spend so much time in lines that a little bit of line etiquette has an outsized impact on all of our time.