Who’s Last?

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.

  1. In Israel it often works like in the Polish example. Usually in the doctor’s waiting room, they post a list of appointments next to the door so it’s not an issue.

    But the queue for the nurses’ room (where doctors send patients for blood tests, ECGs, etc.) uses this informal queuing technique.

  2. Over the last ten years or so, Germany has introduced the one-queue-for-many-counters system, for example at post offices.

    (It replaced the old multiple queue system.)

    Older generations still seem rather confused by the system, and all sorts of folks have trouble finding a way “out” after visiting the counter. They want to go out the way they came in…

  3. vvagr

    In the former Soviet Union it was impossible to imagine any other practice then “Who is the last” question.

    It seems two old practices were never told to you.

    One is simple – your number in line was written on your hand by some marker (chemical pencil, most often) – as a proof. It was a practice of after-WW2 days, and probable up to 50-s.

    Another practice is from 70s-80s, till the very end. There were in some cases over-long lines, like a half-day line for theatre ticket desk opening, of some-months line for rare TV-set of furniture or car to arrive to some shop (“deficit”, you probable heard the word). In these cases people started written lists, and core team of line-holders took changes at the entrance with list in hand, putting down new names and giving numbers.

    Once in 2 hour (for a day-long line), every morning (for 2-3 day long) or once a week (for months) all people got together for public list-reading. If you had missed it – you were stricken out. If someone was replying for several “numbers” – he was at risk of loosing all but one place – depending on the people’s attitude in this particular line.

    Of course, there was a market in numbers. List-holders kept some “reserved” numbers at the head, used to pay for taking watches day and night and to sell or give to friends.

    Sometime competing team attacked, get hold of the list, destroyed it and started their own, with their names first.

    And more then often at the opening of the counter the shop manager came out with the policemen and told “It’s a live line” – meaning that people will get in as they are standing, without any regard for the list.

    It was a world by itself, now dead and little remembered.

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