Understanding the Nature of Queues

Queue, a group of persons awaiting their turn, is a unique type of crowd Opens in new window. By definition, queue is a line, file, or set of people who are waiting for some service, commodity, or opportunity.

Queue comes from the French word for a braid of hair and so pays etymological homage to the queue’s most common shape—a relatively straight line. But some settings, such as theme parks, lobbies, and registration offices, shape the queue into a zigzag pattern through the use of stanchions and ropes.

Other establishments create dispersed queues by assigning queuers a number and then summoning them through a beeper or announcement when it is their turn. Queues can also be segmented into subgroups that are permitted to enter together, as when passengers board a plane in groups based on seat assignment. Some queues, too, are not at all linear, as when those awaiting to board a bus (or to enter a crowded concert venue) move in a relatively unregulated way toward the entryway.

Like the common crowd, the queue includes strangers who will probably never meet again. But like the members of an audience Opens in new window, those in queue have joined deliberately to achieve a particular goal, and thus, as members of the collective Opens in new window, they are bound by certain norms of behavior (Mann, 1969, 1970).

Queues are an interference, for they prevent people from immediately achieving their goal of acquiring tickets, services, or other commodities, but they also protect people from late-arriving competitors for these commodities. As Milgram and his colleagues noted,

  • As in the case of most social arrangements, people defer to the restraints of the form, but they are also its beneficiary. The queue thus constitutes a classic illustration of how individuals create social order, on the basis of a rudimentary principle of equity, in a situation that could otherwise degenerate into chaos. (Milgram et al., 1986, p. 683)

Social Order in Queues

What prevents the queue from breaking down into a disorderly crowd? First, self-interest motivates the queue members to protect their advantaged place in the line against intruders. Every queue-jumper inflicts a cost—the loss of time—on all those who are pushed further back in line by their incursion.

Second, queues are procedural preferences in many situations, and so are sustained by social norms of fairness and orderliness (Dold & Khadjavi, 2017).

Milgram noted that in addition to environmental supports, such as ushers and ropes, queues are also protected by norms of civility and justice. People in many cultures implicitly recognize the basic fairness of the principle “first come, first served” (or “first in, first out,”) which the queue protects (Zhou & Soman, 2008).

When members join the queue, they accept its rules, and even though the group will disband as soon as the event begins, members conform to its norms and enforce them as needed (Miller, 2001).

Milgram studied queues by having both male and female accomplices break into 129 lines waiting outside ticket offices and the like in New York City. Working either alone or in pairs, the accomplices would simply say, “Excuse me, I’d like to get in here,” and then insert themselves in the line.

In an attempt to determine who would be most likely to enforce the norm, Milgram also included either one or two passive confederates in some of the queues he studied. These individuals, who were planted in the line in advance, stood directly behind the point of intrusion (Milgram et al., 1986).

Objections occurred in nearly half of the lines studied. In a few cases (10.1%), queuers used physical action, such as a tap on the shoulder or a push. In 21.7% of the lines, the reaction was verbal, such as “No way! The line’s back there. We’ve all been waiting and have trains to catch,” or “Excuse me, it’s a line.” In another 14.7% of the lines, queuers used dirty looks, staring Opens in new window, and hostile gestures Opens in new window to object to the intrusion nonverbally.

Objections were also more prevalent when two persons broke into the line rather than one, and they were least prevalent when two confederates separated the intruders from the other queuers. Overall, 73.3% of the complaints came from people standing behind the point of intrusion rather than from people standing in front of the intrusion.

Other investigators found that queue-breakers encountered less hostility when they appeared to be joining someone they knew and when they only broke in near the very end of the line (Schmitt, Dube, & Leclerc, 1992). These findings suggest that self-interest, as well s the normative force of the queue’s rules, mediated reactions to the queue-breakers’ actions.