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Seán Moncrieff: As dull as it is, queuing isn’t just a cultural habit – it says something about society

Even among kids, queue-jumping is frowned upon. They understand that the queue is essentially egalitarian

Our trip to New York involved a lot of queuing. We had to queue to get through security in Dublin Airport (which wasn’t so bad), queue to get through security at JFK on the way back (which was awful), and even though I had bought tickets in advance, we had to queue to get into many of the places we planned to see. In some instances, the queue outside lasted longer than the time we spent inside.

Travelling around Manhattan, we saw queues everywhere: for shops and restaurants and tourist attractions; to buy a newly-released shoe or hat or to get a selfie with a local celebrity. According to one study, Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting in line.

Not that they like doing it. No one does. Queues are frustrating and boring and seem to slow down time; particularly if you have a child who keeps asking when it will be over. Some of the queues we took part in were reasonably well-ordered; others pulled that sneaky trick of having us queue up to a corner, only to find an even bigger queue once we’d gone around it. In every queue, we overheard grumbles about how badly organised this was, yet no one became so discontented as to leave.

On one occasion, there were raised voices: when a group from (I assume) a non-queuing country tried to slip their way to the top. The workers marshalling the queue loudly intervened and directed them back to where they should be. Satisfied that order had been restored, the other queuers (mostly American) didn’t voice their disapproval, other than to note that, in some countries, waiting in line isn’t part of the culture. Which I don’t entirely get. Even if you do live in a place where people fight each other to get on the bus, it’s highly unlikely that you might travel to the US, or Ireland or Britain and not be aware that queuing is the norm. It’s like travelling to Berlin and being surprised that everyone is speaking German.


Anyway, queuing isn’t just a cultural habit. As dull as it is, it says something about the society in which it takes place; about how it would like to view itself.

The queue where the attempted skipping took place was to get on to the ferry to Ellis Island; where for decades, millions of migrants arrived and then formed a queue to be processed and checked for illness. The ferry there only takes a few minutes, but it’s enough time for the PA system to treat us to a description of what used to happen there: nothing but “liberty” and “opportunity”.

But on the island, where the processing centre is now a museum, a far more complicated picture is presented. While the museum is called The Peopling of America Centre, it does accept that America was already peopled before the first Europeans arrived; and that those original people didn’t do so well out of it. It also describes, in some detail, how each wave of immigration sparked nativist movements aimed at keeping the new immigrants out; or at least, to deny them the opportunity to become American citizens. The logic for what they defined as “non-American” was partially based on skin colour, but mostly on timing: if, in historical terms, you were too late joining the queue, you shouldn’t be let in.

Back in Ireland, and the new school term, Daughter Number Four asked, as she does every morning: what time are we going at? She likes to get there early, so she can be at the top of the queue. That way, she can go back to join her friends. You can’t do the opposite. Even among kids, queue-jumping is frowned upon. They understand that the queue is essentially egalitarian. It’s based on an idea of fairness: eventually, everyone gets the chance to reach the top and gain admittance.