Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
And how to stand in a queue without losing your mind.
Last Friday, we found ourselves standing in a two-hour line for the grand opening of Milk Bar in Washington, D.C. Neither of us knew much about it, but we were more than willing to endure what seemed like the longest wait of our lives for a taste of their buzzed-about breakfast-dessert combos.
But had you asked us to endure the same wait at, say, a grocery store or the DMV, chances are we would have given up long before the two-hour mark.
Americans spend a staggering 37 billion hours waiting in line every year, and for at least a portion of these hours, we do so voluntarily. It’s not uncommon to see lines for concerts, pop-up restaurants, and the latest tech gadgets snake around entrances, buildings, and even entire blocks. Yet as humans, we value our time. Long lines not only bore us, but they’re also stressful.
So why are we willing to queue up?
It may have something to do with our desire to distinguish ourselves as part of a niche community, says David Gibson, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. In the case of long lines, “these are people whose identities and stories about themselves are very much tied to being foodies, on being on the cutting edge of fashion and style, or being Apple device lovers,” he tells CityLab. “They get recognition, status, and buzz among their friends by showing up at these places and being the first person with a new iPhone.”
Sometimes, the end benefits seem to outweigh the cost of lining up. Richard Larson, a professor at MIT who’s been studying the science of queues for over 20 years, points us to celebratory queues, in which people actually enjoy waiting in line. “That, to them, is kind of like a party,” he says. The value—along with bragging rights, good deals, or some sort of special service—includes the opportunity to mingle with temporary neighbors.
We may have been equally satisfied with a store-bought pie as opposed to Milk Bar’s famous “Crack Pie,” but the two-hour wait—alongside an enthusiastic crowd and a slew of free samples—made this treat all the more rewarding.
That might explain why Americans are eager to wait in a record-breaking line at Shake Shack, but groan at the very thought of lining up at the DMV. “At a DMV, you don’t see it as a value,” Larson says. “You see it as a government-mandated annoyance.”
But either way, at some point, you and those around you will probably start to get restless. Here are some tips to make those hours—in the case of frenzied Black Friday sales, sometimes even days—of waiting a bit more tolerable.
Bring something to pass the time
Researchers once thought that long, fast-moving lines were preferable to short, stagnant ones. But, according to Gibson, people are actually more concerned with the length of a line than how quickly it’s moving. That’s because speed is often difficult to gauge. In the end, we’re more trusting of a concrete visual snapshot of a line than our own assumptions of how fast it moves.
That said, having something to do in line does make the time go by faster. This was the driving logic behind putting mirrors in elevators in the late ‘40s: So long as people are looking at themselves, adjusting their outfits, or fixing their hair, they’re less likely to notice a delay. The same goes for lines at amusement parks. Queues like the ones at Disneyland are full of interactive diversions that distract people from the actual wait time.
Make friends while waiting
“If you’re actually queuing up for something which is coveted and exciting, then you’re kind of a member of a community to start with,” says Gibson. Those in line for a new restaurant or pop-up clothing store, for instance, presumably have a mutual interest in food or fashion. Instead of viewing your fellow line-goers as barriers to entry, take advantage of the connections this temporary community has to offer.
Think before you butt in line
When it comes to line jumping, people like to avoid confrontation, says Gibson. Indeed, a Stanley Milgram experiment from the ‘80s found that people reacted negatively only half the time to a person cutting in front of them. But that’s not always the case. (Queue rage is quite real, according to Larson, and can even turn violent.)
So there’s a fine line when it comes to cutting. “The important thing is that [others] see that you are tied to someone, and they’re willing to think that person was standing there on behalf of you,” says Gibson. But don’t push it. “If there’s a limited number of devices or seats, and the people behind you think that an addition of a person is going to make a difference [in the wait time], that’s the only time that it will matter.”
Although Larson isn’t a fan of line jumping, in the end, he says it all comes down to communication. “If you’re trying to squeeze in a friend who is part of your group, that requires the courtesy to people who are affected.” If one of your group members joins the line five minutes late, simply turn to the person behind you and say, “‘Please excuse us. I hope you don’t mind, but this person was with our party.’” Sometimes, a bit of common courtesy is all it takes.