Does “waiting in line” need translation, or do all cultures view a wait as undesirable? It turns out there’s cultural nuance to queueing, according to Darden Professor Elliott N. Weiss and colleagues Graham Gillam, Kyle Simmons and Donald Stevenson. The team published observations from years of travel and research in “Line, Line, Everywhere a Line: Cultural Considerations for Waiting-Line Managers” in Business Horizons.

Across the globe, people wait — for food and transportation, to make purchases, to get services or to have experiences. But how they view the wait, what the “rules” are, and what they expect in terms of accommodation from a business vary widely. Some cultures see needing to wait as almost always negative, while in other societies, seeing there’s a line can actually boost the product’s reputation, as it can signal there’s something worth waiting for. In some countries, people expect to mill around, jockeying for position and clamoring for attention, while in others, finding chaos instead of an orderly queue would be so off-putting that a brand could suffer permanent harm. According to Weiss and his co-authors, retailers looking to serve a global audience need to understand the local expectations for queueing and tailor their plans accordingly.

‘Strict Etiquette’ Countries

Many developed countries have strict etiquette around queueing, with clear signposts and an entrenched commitment to “first come, first serve” fairness. In the U.S., the unspoken rules about lines are so strong that in an experiment conducted in New York City by psychologist Stanley Milgram found it took researchers often half an hour to work up the courage to cut in line. (They were right to worry — nearly half the time, according to Milgram’s data, New Yorkers reacted angrily to line-cutters.) In Britain, queueing rules are so socially important that they even became part of the citizenship test. And in Japan, queueing is so formal that a single spot on a ski chair lift may go empty rather than assuming two unrelated parties would be OK sharing a lift.

People in developed countries have high expectations of physical comfort. Waiting areas are expected to be heated/cooled to comfortable temperatures and to be diverting, with TV screens, magazines and Wi-Fi. In the U.S., there are even TV screens in taxis and at gas pumps, endlessly looping entertainment snippets so that even a brief wait passes painlessly.

In some hierarchical societies, etiquette is unspoken but still rigorous. In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, the ruling class Emirati often walk to the front of the line and are waited on immediately, a reality that’s widely accepted. In Thailand, local politicians go to the head of the line, according to Weiss.

‘Loose Etiquette’ Situations

A neat, orderly line is not the norm everywhere, though. In some developing countries, people wait as a milling crowd or a ragged queue for fundamentals (state services, gas, sometimes food and water). In some countries, Weiss says there is more cultural patience both with wait times and uncertainty because delay is assumed to be a “fact of life.”

In other countries, both developed and developing, people self-advocate by pushing toward the front, packing in or clamoring for attention. In Israel, Weiss notes, there’s even a saying that “the shy always lose,” to underscore the vehemence with which people may pursue getting goods and services when there’s a crowd.

Interestingly, in countries with a growing middle class, some populations may be becoming less eager to cut, with the queue taking on the role of a “marker of modernity.” When this may be a sign of developing new cultural norms, it could well be an opportunity for businesses.

Queue Like a Local

Businesses that operate in multiple countries should study local expectations for queueing, Weiss and his co-authors write in Business Horizons. For example, in some parts of India where electricity is unreliable, people don’t expect air conditioning in waiting rooms, so some businesses provide complementary cold juice. Similarly, Disney makes sure waiting areas at its parks in Asia are well-shaded. Guests don’t necessarily mind waiting outdoors, but they want protection.

In Japan, Russia and (sometimes) the U.S., long queues can be attention-grabbing and buzz-worthy, powerful for a product’s cachet. Witness the legendary queues that form outside New York-based streetwear company Supreme’s stores when new product arrives. Or the queues that form in Tokyo for fashion or even the final installment in the “Demon Slayer” manga series.

Weiss suggests that in countries in which pushing or cutting in line is part of the “game” of queueing, then companies should enforce orderly fairness in order to decrease people’s anxiety. In China, for instance, Disney created narrow, single-person queue lanes so that people could not cut ahead of each other. Once queuing is well-regulated, then Weiss advises retailers to provide diversions, such as using the wait time to educate customers about additional products or services. “A waiting customer is an opportunity,” he writes.

Regardless of where you are in the world or what you’re waiting for, Weiss says there’s a fundamental human desire for control. “If you think you have some control over the situation, you feel happier,” he says. Businesses should show their patrons that, within fairness, they can “do something to make the wait pass more quickly versus being just stuck.” Or do as Disney did one sweltering day when Hong Kong Disney was temporarily at capacity — they asked visitors to “wait” in the nearby waterpark. Customers were happy and amused, and (one would imagine) barely noticed time passing.

Elliott N. Weiss co-authored “Line, Line, Everywhere a Line: Cultural Considerations for Waiting-Line Managers,” which appeared in Business Horizons, with Graham Gillam, Kyle Simmons and Donald Stevenson. 

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About the Expert

Elliott N. Weiss

Oliver Wight Professor Emeritus of Business Administration

Weiss is a top authority in many aspects of manufacturing, including inventory control, manufacturing planning and scheduling, manufacturing project management, materials management, service industry operations, total productive maintenance and lean systems.

Weiss is the author of numerous articles in the areas of production management and operations research and has extensive consulting experience for both manufacturing and service companies in the areas of production scheduling, workflow management, logistics, lean conversions and total productive maintenance.

B.S., B.A., MBA, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania