Sunday, April 3, 2016

Why Do We Respect Queues?

We come across queues in all kinds of places in society. When we recognize that there are several people who all are waiting for something, we will generally agree that it's fair to get it in the order of arrival. Whether it's waiting for the bus, going into a theater, lining up for the next iPhone or getting ice cream on a hot day, most people tend to respect the queue.

Some people certainly will queue jump or just barge straight in to the front of a line, but generally as long as it isn't a case of scarcity and people being afraid to miss out, most people will play along. If there is scarcity, like American Black Friday sales for example, then you tend to see the normal good behavior break down and it's everyone for themselves. There are limits to politeness for most people!

But why do we do this at all? Pushing in on a queue isn't breaking any law. For the most part, people won't stop you either. There's a typical range of responses you'll get:
  • Nothing at all
  • Glares and angry faces
  • Muttered objections
  • Direct objections
  • Direct objections with an order to get to the end of the queue
  • Physically being pushed from the queue
  • A physical fight
Now obviously, depending on where the queue is and who is on it, the probabilities of those different responses can vary wildly. Pushing in on a queue of drunk football fans lining up for beers is typically going to get a different response than a queue of old ladies lining up for bingo. But even in the much safer cases where any kind of real retaliation is unlikely, people will still usually do the right thing.

Social Pressure

What it all tends to come down to is social pressures and shaming. Society has long relied on people taking cues from those around them as to what is normal and acceptable, and various kinds of pressures to keep people in check. Most of us have a desire to be seen as a decent person, not an asshole, so usually mild pressures are enough. Getting told off once for jumping a queue is often enough for most people to not do it again.

Imagine if we had to turn every act of queue jumping into a matter that involved the police. Imagine if we needed the police to step in every time someone littered. A huge amount of what allows society to work with some degree of smoothness is the part that we all play in observing cultural norms and applying mild pressure to each other to keep to them.

This is one reason why a lot of the feel-good motivational slogans that say things like "You shouldn't care what other people think", "Do what you want to do, not what other people want you to", and "Give zero fucks" are actually really terrible advice that makes society much worse. If everyone did that for real, we'd quite literally have a society of sociopaths, people who don't care how their actions impact on others.

Crossing The Street In Vietnam

If you've ever seen a video like the one above, showing how you cross the street in Vietnamese cities like Ho Chi Minh City, you know that the key is to move slowly and predictably. If all the vehicles can predict where you're going to be when they get to you, they will avoid you and you'll be fine. But this only works if everyone plays along. If people had a tendency to be unpredictable, the whole thing would fall apart. It's like the system is a chaotic but well oiled machine, and unpredictable movements by pedestrians are friction that slows the whole machine down.

The same tends to be true of society in general. While we don't like to push people to conform completely, and everyone loves to be an individual, we rely on people fitting in to social norms an expectations for the most part, because it makes social interactions more predictable, and in the end that tends to reduce friction. People don't have to worry all the time about how they should behave in different situations, or whether they came across as an asshole to someone else because they each had different social expectations.

Shaming and Retaliation

The problem with all of this, though, is that the same mechanisms that help society can also be misused to make people conform unfairly. The pressures of social norms can be used to ostracize people who dress differently, have different religious or political views to the majority, or have different interests. As a simple example, the UK is heavily a pub culture, based around the idea that everyone likes to drink alcohol and is interested in watching/discussing sports.

Further is the problem that these localized social pressures can now, thanks to social media, become global scale shamings. Our society hasn't caught up with this yet, and so the mechanisms that work fairly well on a small scale when only a few people are involved can cause massive problems and destroy lives when those social communications are shared online with the entire world.

Finally, society also hasn't found good ways to deal with the fact that technology makes the usual retaliation methods not work. When a person pushes in on a queue in real life, there are more subtle options available like a glare or a simple verbal challenge. In social media, it's mostly text, and so people tend to overcompensate and become incredibly rude incredibly fast, because they don't have any subtle ways to provide pressure.

And if you've ever wondered why road rage exists, it's for the same reason. When someone pushes in front of you in their car or does something else socially rude, they are protected inside a big metal box from normal social retaliation. You can't glare or tell them off like you could if they bumped into you walking along the street. People feel that their usual mechanisms for providing social pressure aren't there, and they also feel that it's unfair that the person gets away with it, not even knowing that they pissed people off, and so people tend to perform more extreme retaliations. It's not that people are assholes, it's that in cars the subtle retaliations are taken away from them.


If we want society to keep running smoothly as technology changes it, and as social norms themselves change and evolve, we need to remember that pressures to conform to social norms are the lubrication that keeps social interactions running smoothly. They can be used for good or bad, but society can't function without them, at least not in any way that we've figured out yet. We need to stay vigilant to their abuse, but we also need to accept that unless we want to live in some kind of Orwellian surveillance state with no freedom, abuses will happen sometimes, and as long as they're not too serious or damaging that might be the necessary price of a working society.

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