Let us now praise...

Standing in line

The case for our least-favorite activity

By James Parker
February 7, 2010

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How do you handle yourself while you’re waiting in line? And I’m not talking about a nice line, a dainty little three- or four-person affair such as might be found at Trader Joe’s on a Wednesday afternoon: I’m talking about a straggling, misshapen, hostile, sclerotic, old-school DMV-style, inch-by-inch marathon of a line - a real life-sucker. How do you deal with a line like that? Do you fidget, sweat, curse under your breath? Flash homicidal glances at the person in front of you? Or do you smile upon your brother and inwardly wish him well?

If the latter, I congratulate you on being splendidly atypical and/or overmedicated. Because the fact is that humans hate lines. We hate lines, we hate waiting in them, and although we do not necessarily hate the entity at whose behest the line has come into being - the cashier or bureaucrat or receptionist or bouncer or ticket agent - we reserve a most intimate loathing for our fellow liners-up, who are of course blameless in every respect but one: They are ahead of us.

The British were once (long ago, long ago) famed for their patience and politeness in queues. The Russians made a metaphysic out of them: If you saw a line forming in the Soviet Union, it was a good idea to join it, just in case. If you need something in Israel, you must bustle and barge to get it - they have little respect for a line over there. And as for the American... “How much of human life is lost in waiting!” sighed Ralph Waldo Emerson, as he stood by for his doppio venti caramel macchiato with soy milk.

The spectacle of a line is particularly offensive these days. It is a standing (literally) affront to the Age of Information: Why wait, with swelling feet, when you could be flying along the data stream in your Staples office chair? About the only good thing to be said for a line in 2010 is that it gives the average Twitterer, the man in the tweet, the opportunity for a spot of “twaiting.”

But consider this: Queuing is what separates us from the beasts (assuming, that is, that we want to be separated from the beasts). Man is not just “the only animal that blushes,” as Mark Twain had it, he is the only animal that waits in line. And if he waits long enough, he may find that it is actually good for him.

What more definingly human activity could there be? Our ability to wait in line, to not squabble and bite each other as we approach the desk or counter or velvet rope, is a triumph of what anthropologists call “stable cooperative equilibrium” - something that we, alone among the species, have achieved. Other animals will cooperate sporadically, family member to family member, but only man will stand there meekly with a bunch of total strangers and wait his turn. If he steps out of line he’ll get hissed at - or as professors Robert Boyd and Joseph Henrich put it in the title of a 2000 paper, “Weak Conformist Transmission can Stabilize Costly Enforcement of Norms in Cooperative Dilemmas.” It might not look very noble or evolved, but it is.

You need more, though, I can tell. So what, you say, if the line is a masterpiece of social cohesion and a civilizational building-block? It obstructs my life. And as absorbing as the various schools of “queuing theory” and “flow management” might be, the models they produce - within which the human unit behaves with more-or-less total docility and predictability - are depressing as hell. What’s that? You want to know why several short lines might not be faster than a single long one? Haven’t you heard of Braess’s Paradox, named for the German mathematician Dietrich Braess, who discovered that building additional connector roads did not ease the traffic between two cities but in some cases worsened it?

So allow me to propose another function for the line: a moral one, if I may. What if the purpose of waiting miserably in single file were not to make some footling purchase, or obtain some service or other, but to purge from your immortal soul the grosser taints of the age? Entitlement, lack of manners, everyday violence, and now-now-nowness, all that we deplore in contemporary life confronts us in our reactions to the line.

That discomfort, shifting from foot to foot, that fine cellular seethe of indignation, is a consuming fire: Let it burn! You can’t slow down, but you must slow down. You are irritated by people you don’t know, people in the way, who trespass upon the magnificent urgency of your needs - but here you are, stuck with them. If it doesn’t drive you insane, the line - eventually - will straighten you out. I have a problem, you have a problem, we all have a big problem, and within this homely and rather stagnant arrangement of persons is the cure for it. Get in line, baby.

James Parker writes regularly for Ideas and is a contributing editor at The Atlantic.