Saturday 2 July 2011

How the Brits queue and how the Americans stand in line

The word ‘queue’ implies a purpose, an order and a system. The Brits know how to queue. 

But, the American’s don’t queue. The Americans stand in line.

The British queue:
Every morning in Great Britain, at any bus stop in any town, you will see the perfect queuing system in action. The very best thing about the British queue is that there doesn’t have to be a line in order for us to stick to the rules of the game.

We arrive at the bus stop and we loiter. We don’t make eye contact with one another (paralysed by the fear that we might intrude into someone else’s space). We find the same spot that we stand in every single morning, and until the bus arrives the only movement we make is to shift from one foot to the other. To an outsider this is group of people have no system: they’re just standing about, waiting.

What the outsider won’t have realised is that every time a Brit joins the waiting game they will have clocked their position: a mental note of their space and their arrival time is taken, and then the waiting begins. Hands in pockets, fingers tapping phone keys, eyes always down.

When the bus arrives that’s when it flows Archers as a 15 year olds birthday party. The queuing Brits will step from their spots in perfect synchronisation towards the bus doors. We’ll move in a quiet and orderly fashion – eyes down. Every last person at the bus stop will get on in the right order, in the order that they arrived at the bus stop. Because that’s fair.

The American line:
Standing in line is the best way to describe what happened the first time I caught the Arcella express from Washington DC to New York Penn station.

32 minutes before the train was due to leave I arrived at the gate, a twisting line of people curved around the seating area and onto the main station concourse. I felt at home – a queue! I joined the back of the somber conga line and did what us Brits do best: I waited, eyes down. 17 minutes passed and the train was ready to board. My sense of what a fair queue meant lead me to believe those at the front of this line should get through the ticket barrier first, that’s why we had been standing in this line – to create an order.

And that’s when I realized that the American’s don’t queue, they stand in line. The single conga line split into 3 tributaries and we filed past the train guard with no regard for my 17 minutes standing in line: people who had been sat in the waiting area suddenly jumped up and cut to the front, quickly slipping past the gates leaving their fellow Americans who had at least attempted a line all tried to find their own path past the obstructive train guard.  


  1. I had the same displeasure on a trip to California. We were at a Rite-Aid and Pharmacy and there were ten customers and three cashiers. We formed a queue about four feet back expecting the next available cashier to simply call the next customer customer. The manager actually told us to form three separate lines. It seemed the very opposite of organisation and fairness.

    1. We think the 3 lines would go more quickly than the one. You have 3 chances of getting at least one very good cashier. If the other lines are moving slowly, we will switch to a faster line.

  2. That's a hilariously accurate account of British queueing, something I've taken part in unaware many a time. A shame London is the exception.

  3. We have so little experience with queuing. Rarely is there a wait, there is never a shortage, and hardly anyone takes public transport. Where would we learn it?