September 19, 2005


The real line dividing cultures (Henry Fountain, 9/18/05, The New York Times)

There are...cultural differences in how people behave while in line, according to social scientists and park designers. Those differences have even led to physical changes in so-called queuing areas at some parks.

Rongrong Zhou, an assistant professor of marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who has studied the psychology of queuing in Hong Kong, although not at theme parks, said the differences went beyond a Hong Kong-mainland split.

Zhou said there was a tendency among Asians and others in more collective cultures to compare their situation with those around them.

This may make it more likely that they will remain in a line even if it is excessively long.

Zhou said this finding was rooted in a somewhat paradoxical observation: that it is the people behind a person in line, rather than in front, that determine the person's behavior.

"The likelihood of people giving up and leaving the queue is lower when they see more people behind them," Zhou said. "You feel like you are in a better position than the others behind you."

By contrast, she said, Americans and others in more individualistic societies make fewer "social comparisons" of this sort. They do not necessarily feel better that more people are behind them, and dislike having too many people in front of them. Lines in these cultures tend to be self-limiting.

In a place like Hong Kong, however, the lines may just grow and grow. "The longer the line, people think the service is more worthwhile to get," Zhou said.

The most insidious attack Ronald Reagan made on the Soviet Union was to make it a regular butt of his jokes--jokes borrowed from the people of the USSR themselves. One that's apropos:

Slava resignedly gets in a bread line that stretches around the block, but, two hours later, just as he gets to the front, they run out of bed.

He walks down the street and gets on an equally long toilet paper line, but once again they run out after he's waited two hours and it's about to be his turn.

So he goes down the street and stands in fron of the next door he comes to. Soon there's a line stretching around the block behind him. When the door remains closed the guy in back of him asks what's being sold there. Slava says, "Nothing. I just wanted to be first in line for once."

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 19, 2005 9:18 AM

DisneyWorld has mastered this concept by having line rides obscured by objects or with items to keep you preoccupied. You think you are near the front of the line and then you turn the corner and realize you have a ways to go.

Posted by: AWW at September 19, 2005 10:01 AM

That Reagan joke was classic. The man also really knew how to tell a joke.

"Rongrong Zhou, an assistant professor of marketing at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who has studied the psychology of queuing in Hong Kong, [...] said the differences went beyond a Hong Kong-mainland split."

Hmm. Queuing in Mainland China simply didn't actually exist when I was there. It's a free-for-all, 90-year-old ladies slugging it out with pregnant mothers, old men climbing over children ... and that's just to get on a local bus. I once boarded a CAAC jet in Guangzhou and despite the fact that people had assigned seats, they were climbing all over each other to get on the plane, even climbing over the seats. I've never seen anything like it. An old lady shoved past me and stuffed a live chicken into the overhead compartment.

I didn't stand a chance queuing for anything in China. I was a sissy boy.

Posted by: George at September 19, 2005 10:36 AM

There is something wonderful about seeing Pakistanis\Indans\Bangladeshis quietly queuing at the Post Office here in the UK when the equivalent scene in the native countries looks like a rugby scrum.

Posted by: Ali Choudhury at September 19, 2005 2:05 PM

A group of Soviet farmers were visited by the head of their commune, who told them that a high-ranking Soviet apparatchik would be visiting soon. The head of the commune tells them "Say anything that comes to mind and sounds really impressive; I don't care if it's true. Make our commune sound really good."

So the apparatchik visits and he asks a random farmer how the potato crop is doing. The farmer tells him that the commune produces one hundred truckloads of potatoes every day. "Good, good," says the apparatchik.

He then speaks to a second farmer, and tells him what the first farmer said. Eager to show off his commune, the second farmer says "Oh, it's better than that -- we have so many potatoes that if you laid them end-to-end they would stretch around the earth four times."

"Wow, that's impressive," says the apparatchik.

So the apparatchik approaches a third farmer, and tells him what the second farmer said. "Around the world four times? Ha, he's being modest! If you laid our potatoes end to end, they would reach up to the heavens and touch the face of God Himself."

"That's great," says the apparatchik, "but remember -- this is the Soviet Union. There is no God here."

"That's okay," replies the farmer, "there are no potatoes either."

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 20, 2005 8:45 PM

By the way, here's the motherlode. I can't resist one more:

Oleg Gordovsky, a Soviet citizen, finally saves up enough money to buy a car. He goes to the car dealership, fills out the necessary paperwork, and is told by the salesman that he can collect his car precisely ten years from the current date.

Gordovsky asks the salesman: "Should I arrive in the morning or the afternoon?"

The salesman exclaims: "Morning or afternoon? What the hell difference does it make? That's ten years from now!"

Gordovsky says: "The plumber is coming in the morning."

Posted by: Matt Murphy at September 20, 2005 8:52 PM