This Side of the Pond – Mar. 2

By Sarah Pridgeon

Of all the things in this world that merit scientific study, it never occurred to me that the British love of queuing would be one of them. Apparently, I was missing out on an interesting insight into my own psyche.

I think it’s safe to say that there is a list of attributes by which you can identify a Brit on the street. If they are clutching a flask of tea in one hand and an umbrella in the other (weather patterns notwithstanding) while reflexively apologizing to everyone who bumps into them, they will likely also be standing in an orderly line.

Ask any Brit and they’ll tell you that we love a good queue, we really do. I would estimate that the average Brit spends approximately 120 days of each year loitering in line for one reason or another. We will queue for the bank, for the checkout at the grocery store, for the ATM, for the emergency department at the hospital – even to be handed a free flier on the street.

We will stand in line even if we’re not sure why we’re doing it. I recall watching a somewhat unscientific study on a television show in which it was discovered to everyone’s amusement that a British person simply cannot resist joining a queue when they see one, even when it’s leading to a blank brick wall. You just never know what you might get when you reach the front of the line.

A social study back in 2011 meanwhile proved that the Brits are a kind lot when it comes to helping others. Researchers who were having trouble carrying a suitcase up a flight of stairs or pretending to be lost and in need of directions found assistance within minutes – sometimes just seconds.

Not so with the third researcher, however, who was tasked with asking if he could jump the queue at a taxi rank. The poor soul was accused of being rude and asked why he hadn’t arrived any earlier – everyone else had to wait, so why shouldn’t he?

The queue, you see, is seen as a symbol of our orderliness and civilized behavior. The implication that its etiquette be breached, even for the sake of saving someone’s day, represents a clear conflict between our love of being helpful and our similarly strong love of a good queue.

According to this new research by University College London, you see, it isn’t just any old line we’re besotted with. There are rules and regulations that must be followed if you want to queue like a subject of Her Majesty.

Specifically, you must develop a deep and subconscious appreciation for the number six. A Brit will wait for precisely six minutes in a queue before they give up on it and will think twice before joining a queue with more than six people in it. There must also be a gap of at least six inches between you and the next line-lover.

The research also outlines the etiquette breaches that must be avoided in any and every queue. Top of the list is, of course, jumping to the front of the line, which is seen as the ultimate rudeness because it bypasses our national tradition of, “first come, first served”.

It’s also not a good idea to attempt conversation within the queue. This, I suspect, comes from the longstanding British fear of being trapped in a cycle of social niceties with no means of escape (other than, in this case, reaching the front of the line). We only have so much small talk to rely on before we run out.

You may, however, exchange an eye roll or a tut with your comrades in the line if one of your number commits another queue crime: leaving their post to fetch an item they’ve forgotten to place in their shopping basket.

Finally, there is the most confusing rule of all: if you are offered a place ahead of a person in the queue, you should under no circumstances accept it. While it’s polite to make the offer, it’s absolutely not polite to accept the offer – doing so will lose you the respect of everyone else in the queue. I confess that I have no way to explain this particular foible.

I suppose that, on an instinctive level, I did know these rules exist – I’m fairly sure I used to follow them to the letter. On the other hand, I’m not convinced that loving a queue comes as naturally to the Brits as this study suggests.

Other work implies that the myth of the British queue was invented via propaganda during times of rationing. Much as the idea that carrots help you see in the dark came about because the Ministry of Information didn’t want the Nazis to know we’d invented radar, the idea of Brits being brilliant at standing in a line was a great way to make us proud of not making a fuss over food shortages.

It’s absolutely true that we’re happy as sandbuoys in the giant queues for concerts, sporting events and other popular pastimes, but less so when waiting at the bar for a drink or boarding a bus. I begin to suspect that we just like to think we’re good at standing in line and are actually no more patient than anyone else.

Funny how being told something enough times makes us think it must be true. I don’t imagine the Ministry of Information had any idea when they came up with this plan that we’d still be steadfastly following the rules almost a century later – a clear case of “be careful what you wish for,” I would say.