2 Jul 2024

A Very British Queue

The British are renowned for their imperturbable, orderly queueing, and this propensity will be genially displayed over the next fortnight, when large numbers of tennis-fans queue patiently outside the All England Lawn Tennis Club, eager to gain access to Wimbledon.

The need for queuing dates to the Industrial Revolution, when cities became overcrowded, resources were stretched, and public transport was at a premium. But it is theorised that it reached its apogee during successive world wars in the 20th century, when queueing was essential to maintain order, and large numbers of citizens were marshalled daily to collect their rations, obtain scarce commodities, enter bomb shelters, board crammed trains and so on. “Waiting your turn” became a patriotic duty and queue-bargers were seen as letting the side down, an attitude that persists to this day.

Queues, while onerous and time-consuming, were also seen as a chance to consolidate a feeling of community in difficult times – often by indulging in moaning with strangers (frequently about the queue), which is another undeniably British pastime. Even today, many people still find queuing surprisingly bonding.

The British are excellent queuers because they are phlegmatic and forbearing. While they might enjoy moaning about the queue, they choose not to fight against it. They observe queuing conventions because they perceive them to be fair and even-handed. A good queue is essentially a democratic affair; situations where VIPs are allowed to break the rules and are ushered to the head of the queue are much resented.

Queuing Etiquette

1. Never Jump the Queue

This is the worst queuing solecism and if you cut into a queue, you are liable to find yourself reproached. Many people try to evade this fundamental rule by ‘planting’ people in the queue to hold their place. This may be just about acceptable if one person is holding a place for another, but if a larger number of people are relying on a single placeholder, they may well find themselves extremely unpopular as other queuers will see their queue-jumping as fundamentally unfair.

2. Respect your Neighbours

A queue will find you in proximity with other people, who will be able to hear what you are saying. So don’t act as if you are in your own little bubble; resist making provocative or offensive remarks that are likely to make your fellow-queuers uncomfortable. Be polite and considerate.

3. Observe Personal Space

We all know that everyone who is forced to wait in a queue is anxious to move forwards, but you cannot make progress by inching forwards until you are breathing, impatiently, down the neck of the person standing in front. Don’t invade other people’s personal space and leave as much room as possible.

4. Participate in Queue Conversations

One of the great pleasures of the queue is the liberating anonymity that you will discover in conversing with someone whose back is turned; you can avoid eye contact and hence actual personal interaction and the intimacy that might entail. But you are effectively in the same boat (or queue) and will be able to find common ground, which may be fruitful.

5. Mind the Gap

While it is important to leave a sensible amount of space between you and the person in front, you must also be mindful of leaving too large a gap, which might attract the unwanted attentions of a queue barger. Remember, anyone who isn’t fully committed to moving forward an inch for every inch that opens up will earn the opprobrium of the crowd queuing behind.

6. Politely Deter Transgressors

We’ve all been in situations where someone has, possibly innocently, queue-barged. They may of course be a dedicated cheat, intent on evading their queuing obligations, but they also might simply have made a mistake about the end of the queue. So, give transgressors the benefit of the doubt, by politely pointing out their mistake. Just say, “I’m so sorry, I’m in the queue – you’ll find the end over there.” They will be embarrassed and will withdraw instantly as we all know that queue-jumping is a serious matter, which moves even the reticent British to outrage. Whatever you do, don’t just accept their anti-social antics and spend the rest of your queuing time simmering with silent resentment.

Boarding Buses

Queues are very much a fact of British life, but in some instances, they are breaking down. Orderly lines waiting at bus stops are a thing of the past. Nowadays, passengers tend to mass around the stop and board the bus in random order. This alarming tendency can be somewhat mitigated by your behaviour:

•Try and respect the amount of time people have waited: if there are people already at the bus stop and you turn up at the same time as the bus, it would be polite to let the people who are already waiting onto the bus first, rather than swanning up to the door and getting on first.

•Always let older people, or parents with pushchairs and small children, or people with mobility issues onto the bus first. They will need more time to board, and in any case should be allowed to secure seats if possible.

Top: Britain Queues For Food- Rationing and Food Shortages in Wartime, London, England, UK, 1945
Men, women and children queue for potatoes outside 'J Wood' the greengrocer at 97-99 High Road, Wood Green, London.


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