If you want to see someone become a monster, make them wait in line to buy a Hatchimal for their niece. Hey, it’s a just the simple, real fact of life during line season! See, in November, a month that opens with an election and closes with TSA pandemonium and Black Friday, we spend a lot of time queuing up—and also a lot of time getting angry in queue. The intensity only continues in December to increase as many dumbly forgo online shopping for last-minute gifts in favor of perusing at brick-and-mortar stress incubators—I mean malls. And though the seasonal Starbucks cup next to me suggests this season is supposed to be jolly or whatever, customers tend to get, ahem, a tad hostile.
But why does waiting in line make us feel so crazy and transform us into the worst versions of ourselves? Well, I could default on “waiting totally sucks,” but TBH, that doesn’t satisfy word count the way I need it to. So, I called on Richard Larson, PhD—the go-to authority on line theory who has ever-so-charmingly garnered the nickname Dr. Queue—to shed some light on why the grumpiness and lines are like avocado and toast.
First, let’s identify all the people who’ll no-doubt piss you off in line: the cutters, the fighters, and the lecturers. What helps determine each personality type? Dr. Larson says there are multitudes of reasons people decide to make or break the rules of the line. “The responses of someone in line are very culture-dependent, person-specific, and situation-specific,” Dr. Larson says. “Danes and the Brits are usually fine in lines—first-come, first-served—the idea of fairness. Many other nationalities, not so much.”
Unfair, unexplained waits—like, say, traffic—are far less palatable than trying to be patient on your way to Splash Mountain.
Here in America, our rage widely stems from a collective belief that we should have instant access to nearly everything. And when we don’t get that? It feels as though we’re wasting time. Studies have shown that waiting in line without a set timeframe builds up anxiety. Basically, unfair, unexplained waits—like, say, traffic—are far less palatable than trying to be patient on your way to Splash Mountain. That’s why we feel like we’re slowly dying while stuck waiting at the department store or at the polls.
“One minute spent in a line is perceived by many—though they do not verbalize it this way—as a minute of one’s life stolen or lost forever,” Dr. Larson says. And people who cause conflict suddenly become time-sucks, breeding ill will among the crowd. “If someone cuts in front of you, you feel that that person feels their minutes of life are more important than yours. That thought or similar ones can lead to aggressiveness, shouting and violence.”
“If someone cuts in front of you, you feel that that person feels their minutes of life are more important than yours. That thought or similar ones can lead to aggressiveness, shouting and violence.” —Richard Larson, PhD, line theory expert
What if, though, you have to bend the rules of the line a little bit? If you absolutely have to cut because of a medical emergency or a flight that’s currently boarding or some other looming deadline, appeal to the human side of the person in front of you and tell them what’s going on. “In such cases, you might try to explain your high priority situation to fellow queue dwellers, and say next time—if they would be in a similar situation—you would be happy to let them go ahead in line,” Dr. Larson says.
Sound advice, Dr. Queue, but what if you’re simply trying to control your own negative feelings toward the situation at hand? David H. Maister’s published research about the psychology of waiting in line points to how we get more anxious when we’re in queue. We start to question if we chose the wrong line, or if we should bail for a different one. This is called Erma Bombeck’s Law, which has the grass-is-always-greener mentality of “the other line always moves faster.”
But still, lines will exist and persist for the rest of time. So, before you reach your boiling point when some psychopath in front of you at the checkout counter is ringing up 46 cans of cranberry sauce, breathe. “Count to 10, and realize that these moments are but specs of your life and will be soon forgotten unless something terrible happens,” Dr. Larson recommends.
Weary about whether this simple mindfulness trick can actually work? Throw in some old-school human interaction; Dr. Larson says just being friendly can help ease tension. “Put away the cell phone that has your eyes buried in your hands, and introduce yourself to an adjacent line dweller. Who knows? Maybe you’ll make a new friend. Maybe even find a future romantic partner.” Oh, if only.
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