Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Taking the queue.

Indians have this reputation of ‘jumping’ queues, and – quite often- not forming one at all. Why can't we accept the simple fact that someone reached a particular spot before we did, and so is entitled to that space? Yesterday, while at the airport, I had the experience of being ‘jumped’ over quite a few times and ended up feeling like I was a piece in a game of Chinese checkers. While some did it brazenly, a lady sought my permission to move ahead of me, as she was late for the Delhi flight- incidentally the same flight I was going to board. Yet another guy shoved me aside at Security and pushed his bag through the scanner. Why? Why?

A paper ( or rather a draft of one) that I found on the net has this to say on the subject:

The queue is, effectively, a mechanism of social regulation in which a randomly assembled group of strangers is caused to act, quite counter-intuitively, in a particular way. Previously unrelated strangers are somehow persuaded to subscribe collectively to a normative code which they then police themselves.

Waiting in line is one of the great levellers of humankind. The queue is no respecter of persons. In the citizenship of the queue no rank is relevant other than the rank order of one’s position as determined by the coldly neutral datum of sequential arrival in the line. Within the queue, roles and relationships become ‘demystified and objectified’. Differences of background, class, reputation, education or socio-economic status count for nothing.The queue is one of the ultimate manifestations of the democratic impulse – in some jurisdictions almost the only evidence of democracy at work.

There is some evidence of a cultural or socio-legal affinity between the ultimately Anglo-Saxon conceptualism of estate ownership and the social discipline of the queue. The practice of queuing tends to be most strongly prevalent in jurisdictions which have always been familiar with the legal apparatus of ‘estates’ in land, that is, with the sequential arrangement of various grades of time-bounded ownership. It has been wickedly observed that ‘[a]n Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.

One intriguing study of queuing in Hong Kong’s Disneyland has also pointed to the strong resistance to queuing culture exhibited by mainland Chinese visitors to the park as compared with the greater degree of queue conformity evident amongst Hong Kong Chinese themselves. Nor is it without significance that the 15 million inhabitants of Beijing are currently being indoctrinated, through the medium of mobile phone text messages, in the practice of queuing. In preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games the Chinese Communist Party has designated the eleventh day of each month as ‘Queuing Day’

So, what explains our extreme reluctance to fall in line? Our relatively recent exposure to laws governing property rights? Our desire to increase the entropy of the Universe, which after all is the natural order? Because a queue gives us an opportunity to challenge hierarchies? Or we see it as a plain nuisance and a silly Western habit? Or all of you just ganging up on me and pushing me out of my rightful place in the queue?

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