Thursday, June 26, 2008

Queuing and Personal Space

Did you know that queuing is a science?

Oh, wait, let me take a break for friends in the States. So, you know how we stand in line? Or sometimes even on line? Well, the rest of the world queues. So now you know.

Anyway, queuing, as it turns out, is a science. Just ask Wikipedia:

Queuing theory is the mathematical study of waiting lines (or queues). The theory enables mathematical analysis of several related processes, including arriving at the (back of the) queue, waiting in the queue (essentially a storage process), and being served by the server(s) at the front of the queue. The theory permits the derivation and calculation of several performance measures including the average waiting time in the queue or the system, the expected number waiting or receiving service and the probability of encountering the system in certain states, such as empty, full, having an available server or having to wait a certain time to be served.

(Want more on the science of queuing? Look here.)

I think that science works different in Samoa. I have yet to figure out how to queue properly in this country. Queuing is occurring, it just doesn't work the way I am used to. In the States lines are pretty orderly and regimented. One person is at the front and the next person stands behind them, the next person behind them and so forth. If someone chooses to ignore this proper queuing etiquette and cut the lines in some way they are going to arouse the anger of their fellow line standers (not that we will say anything to them about it; we will just bitch quietly to each other and give that person the evil eye).

In Samoa, lines are more like clumps. The front of the line is a disorderly gathering of people around the point. It starts to get more line-like the further away you get from the head of the line. Also, you don't necessarily have to be in line, to be in line. We went to Western Union to change some money when we first arrived here. There were two windows open. A man was at one window and a woman at another. There was a yellow line stuck to the floor that indicated the line should start there. Seeing as no one was standing there, Cale and I went and stood behind the line. When the man finished at his window, we walked up to take his place. That was when we were informed that the two women sitting on a bench along the back wall were actually in line ahead of us.

All of this unorthodox queuing makes me nervous. I find my anxiety levels rising when I have to stand in a line here. I just know that someone is going to cut me, or that the line won't be neat and orderly and I won't be able to figure out my proper place in it.

The best example of queuing in Samoa is trying to use the ATM. This is where the personal space issue comes in as well.

The ATM at our bank is in a small alcove outside the building. The line forms in this manner:

Person using the ATM stands at the ATM. Person who actually owns the ATM card that is being used, but doesn't know how to use it themselves stands immediately next to that person trying to figure out what is going on. Person who is next in line is also standing in the alcove practically touching the person using the ATM. If there is any available space left in the alcove, the next person in line will also cram in there as well. I cannot make myself get into the alcove when someone is using the ATM. In my mind appropriate distance is to wait just out side if you are next. However, if you are next in line and you don't cram in to the alcove, someone can come walking by, see that available space and cram themselves in ahead of you.
Also, there is a large grouping of people outside the alcove who do not appear to be in line, but know one of the people currently crammed into the alcove and hand their card off to this person when they are through, effectively bypassing the line.

Can you see why my anxiety level is rising?

Once I finally do make it to the ATM, I just have to accept the fact that there will be two to three other people crammed in around me, so close they are touching me, perfectly capable of seeing me type in my PIN and what amount of money I am taking out. Oh, I am getting anxious just typing about it.

I thought I would do a little research on the 'ole internets to see what is out there about queuing and cultures (that was when I discovered that it is a science) and I found something fascinating. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Office of English Language Programs offers a class on the rules of queuing. I am not kidding. There are warm-up activities and lesson plans. The whole she-bang. At the end of the lesson it offers a rational for the class:

Queuing behavior differs from culture to culture. In some countries, people crowd around a serving station en masse. In other cultures, people line up to the right of a serving station, rather than forming a line which faces the window. This activity is presented to teach the culture and pragmatics of the queues most common in the US: the multi-server queue, where each serving station has a separate waiting line; and the "snake" line, commonly found in airports and banks, where all stations are served by one-single file line (Hall, 1993).

This activity is intended to teach not only the pragmatics of language required while queuing, but to incorporate additional information about cultural expectations and proxemics. Americans in particular expect a high degree of orderliness when waiting in line and become angry when others violate their personal space or attempt to "cut" in line.

By getting learners physically involved in a queuing role play, this activity can prepare students for actual situations they may face in the target culture, and it is more meaningful than merely reading about queues in a book or hearing a verbal description. It also provides an opportunity for kinesthetic learning (Reid, 1995).

So there you go.

— Sara

P.S. Have you noticed that I am not very good at ending my blog entries? I get my thought out and then I am all awkward and confused and just want it to be over.


Wayne G. Sayles said...


There is nothing awkward about silence at the end of a thought. It should be employed more often as an alternative to blathering. I enjoyed your post very much.

Best Wishes,


Hannah! said...

*grin* I study queuing all the time. Although, I do it with cars. The whole "we're pissed off when you cut in line" bit gets worse when the line is made up of big heavy metal boxes.

I found your post fascinating, and will have to make an effort to never go to an ATM in Samoa. Thanks!


Joel G. said...

I had some major queuing anxiety in Greece. Upon arrival in Athens, I discovered my luggage decided not to arrive with me, so the first conversation I would have in Greece was about where my luggage was (that was NOT in the phrasebook btw.)

Anyway, the queue scared the crap out of me. It was the cluster queue and I had no idea what to do with it. People were just jamming around an agent all speaking a language I couldn't understand at 400kmph (km, how european of me.)

Eventually I got it sorted and got my luggage (my bags got to go to Vienna and Rome unlike me.) Language barrier/problems make queue anxiety multiply. I know, because I checked.

whatever said...

Maybe, taking a number would be better!