Along with tea, talking about the weather and passive-aggressive politeness, the British fondness for forming an orderly line forms a fundamental part of our national identity. At a time when the world often seems to be collapsing around our ears (thanks, 2016 – you’ve been a real joy), a nice, organised queuing system provides some much-needed stability.
Because you know where you are with a queue. The person at the front gets served first, and then the person after them, and everyone else waits politely for their turn with no pushing (or, heaven forfend, cutting in line).
At least, that’s how we’ve always done things. But now a group of academics from the University of Southern Denmark has made the bold claim that the traditional way we queue is inefficient and – gasp! – wrong.
In a paper titled The curse of the first-in-first-out queue discipline, economists Trine Tornoe Platz and Lars Peter Osterdal make the argument for a radical new method of queuing – where the last person in line gets served first.
They say that serving the first person in a queue first gives people an incentive to start queueing early – which ends up causing a backlog of people, thus forcing everyone to wait longer. (Think of the ridiculous queues to get into Wimbledon, for example.)
But if the last person in a backlogged queue was served first, there would be no reason for people to start queuing early – dramatically reducing the likelihood of a severe backlog at all.
If the last person in a line was served first, Platz and Osterdal argue, people would be encouraged to arrive at a slower rate, reducing everyone’s time spent in line.
The mythology surrounding British people and queuing is thought to have begun around the time of the industrial revolution in the early 19th century. As more and more people moved into urban areas in search of work, the way they shopped and interacted with one another began to require greater organisation.
“Traders started moving from market stalls into shops as they moved into towns,” says historian Juliet Gardiner. “In the more formal setting of a shop people had to start to queue up in a more structured way.”
But it was WWII that cemented our reputation as a nation of queuers.
“Propaganda at the time was all about doing your duty and taking your turn,” Dr Kate Bradley, a lecturer in social history and social policy at the University of Kent, tells the BBC. As a result, the queue became weighted with symbolic meaning, representing core British values like decency, fair play and democracy.
But if the Danes have their way, it looks like that terribly British sense of order might be tipped on its head.
Images: Rex Features, iStock