Don Norman’s “The Psychology of Waiting Lines” includes a tidbit from the Encyclopedia Britannica:
The social atmosphere in colonial Hong Kong of the 1960s was anything but genteel. Cashing a check, boarding a bus, or buying a train ticket required brute force. When McDonald’s opened in 1975, customers crowded around the cash registers, shouting orders and waving money over the heads of people in front of them. McDonald’s responded by introducing queue monitors — young women who channeled customers into orderly lines. Queuing subsequently became a hallmark of Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan, middle-class culture.
This sounded interesting so I decided to do a little crowdsourcing to collect some perspective on cultural approaches to standing in line. I posted a question to the discussion board over at Metafilter and rounded up over 70 anecdotes from around the world.
Here’s a method I had never heard of for a self-organizing, conceptual queue:
In Poland, until recently, when you walked into a government office or doctor’s waiting room, you would ask, “Who’s last?” The person who was last in line would look up and tell you or at least make a positive sign. You would then know that you had become the last person in line and you would know who you were behind. When another person arrived and asked who was last, you would let that person that you were last.
It reminded me of a barber I used to go to when I was a teenager. You’d walk in and a half-dozen people would be sitting in chairs around the room and when those people were done, you’d know your turn would be next. You had to keep track of two groups: those who were already there when you arrived, and those who arrived after you. Much more cognitive overhead, but it didn’t require anyone to interact with anyone else, and it allowed people to leave without screwing up the queue.
The readership for Design for Service comes from around the world, so I’d be interested in hearing about how lines work where you live if you’ve got a story to share.