The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

It is fairly well-known that the English have raised queueing to a high art. I cannot speak of the other three countries in this United Kingdom in this matter, as I have had no occasion to queue there. The English are, and I do not animadvert, the experts.

The self-organisation of an English queue is a wonder to behold, and best observed at a bus stop. People arrive at various times and await the bus patiently. As soon as it pulls up and the doors open, the passengers form a line. Effortlessly, with no external agent guiding them, without even conscious thought, they appear to know exactly where in the line they should stand - in the order of their arrival at the stop.

When there are far more people than can be accommodated in one queue without it snaking halfway around the block, a sort of funnel-like queue arranges itself. Again, people in the peripheries do not usually take advantage of their proximity to the door of the bus, and allow the earlier arrivees to enter before them.

Even more wondrously, were the bus to stop right in front of a late arrival, he will courteously wait for the others to board ahead of him.

One way this organisation breaks down is if the bus were to stop behind another and the passengers have to scramble towards it. In this case, whoever arrives at the bus first boards it first.

Another way this organisation breaks down is if there's a foreigner around. This worthy invariably ignores the moral right of the others, and barges towards the door as though the dogs of hell were after him. When chided for his lack of manners, he ignores the English; the English, being English, more often than not prefer to mutter their outrage, and will look at each other and roll their eyes.

Unless it is a hot day, of course, and people have been waiting for a considerable period of time. In this case, the foreigner is toying with his life to jump the queue.

A different oddity of the English queue is witnessed during lunch hour at, say, a Pret a Manger, sandwicherie of choice for City financial types in a hurry. Here you find one long queue moving steadily towards a multitude of checkout counters. Surely forming multiple lines, one queue behind each server, is more efficient? That, at least, is the argument of a chap I know, who likes to march right up to one of the checkouts at random, much to the chagrin of the queuers and the confusion of the server.

To add insult to injury, as far as the locals are concerned, this guy is French.

(Meanwhile, the Frenchman is wrong (sort of). But to see why one queue serving a multitude of servers results in a smaller average time to be served than multiple queues handling the same population of customers to be served by the same number of servers, we need recourse to a fascinating branch of mathematics called, as you might have guessed, Queueing Theory. But the discussion of this problem will be postponed to another post.

Oh, and 'Queueing'. Isn't that a wondrous word in itself? 5 consecutive vowels. Can't think of another word that comes even close.)


Space Bar said...

You've read George Mikes? Most esp. this chapter.

Fëanor said...

Long time ago, but yup, thanks for this. Clearly a chronic ailment for the English.

bint battuta said...

...without even conscious thought, they appear to know exactly where in the line they should stand - in the order of their arrival at the stop.

I laughed out loud; so true, yet it had never occurred to me before, the process being so natural.

C K said...

Hilarious and all so true.

@bint battuta,
You just have to know who is the person who arrive before you and lined up behind him/her, and viola! Everything will fall into place.

km said...

and I do not animadvert

That's my new word for the day!

Fëanor said...

@bint batutta: thanks for stopping by! it would be interesting to see if any other people self-organise themselves so politely anywhere else on the planet. what do you think?

@ck: but that's the beauty of the english queue - you needn't know who is ahead of you, but still, somehow, you find yourself behind that person! ;-)

@km: i can't criticise at all, heh.

Maddy said...

I have tried that word in yankland, most dont know it is the same as lining up..

was watching a brit movie yesterday v for vendetta...turned out OK..

Amar said...

Amusing ... this quality might be in the genes, not a legacy the British left India.

One scenario where I have found a common queue for multiple servers useful is to avoid the following problem with multiple queues - when there is a problem customer, the queue looks short and you join it thinking you are doing a good thing, by the time you realize you are stuck, there are others behind you and it is too late to leave ... and it is usually the queues that you are not in that seem to move faster.

Fëanor said...

Maddy: Really? The Americans don't use 'queue' as the Brits do for traffic back-ups, I know, but at least in math, it's quite well used.

Amar: good point!

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