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That Mind-Boggling Post-Modern Waiting-In-Line Paradox

In our always plugged-in era of uber immediacy, some of us are willing and eager to wait ages to buy the latest smartphone or eat a certain hamburger from a truck.

A new line of thinking
A new line of thinking
Catherine Rollot and Pascale Krémer

PARIS — The subway doors are closing perilously fast and hard, but the teenager struggles to make her way in. Just a little while earlier, this same Parisian youth was finishing a long wait in line in front of one of this city's trendy new food trucks. But now, she virtually risked her life to avoid waiting for the next subway.

The ultramodern paradox: In our society of immediacy, where we find it intolerable that a website takes a few seconds to open, we are ready to spend hours waiting for some particular product or service.

We curse the post office when we see the long queue. We complain of having, as always, chosen the wrong cashier at the supermarket. In 2007, the polling institute Ipsos found that 80% of French people waste an hour each week waiting in lines. Since then, the numbers might have gone down a little. Public firms and services have taken action to reduce waiting times: selling "no wait" tickets, charging extra for premium cashiers, pre-orders on the Internet. Making your customers wait, all agree, is deadly for P.R.

And yet even the loudest moaners are eager in some cases to line up, even overnight, to be among the first to buy Apple's new iPhone model or the latest Playstation from Sony.

Likewise, to get their fingers around the most popular hamburger in town, they forget how hungry they are and how much time passes as they wait in front of the "Camion Qui Fume" (The Smoking Truck), a mobile restaurant in Paris' Bercy neighborhood.

And what about the 45-minute line for a two-minute ride at Disneyland? And the caterpillar crawl to get on the chairlifts at the most popular ski resorts? Or exhibits of superstar artists?

We broached the issue with Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who's proud to be called “Doctor Queue.” Larson has studied the psychology of lines since 1977. “This is a new phenomenon called the chic queue, which is limited to a certain type of purchase that is neither ordinary nor boring," he says. "It is a collective experience, an event that we will remember and that we will tell our friends and family about.”

Chuckle to yourself, but this subject is no joke. Since the 1950s, researchers advised the architects of skyscrapers so that residents and workers of the building would limit the amount of time they waited for elevators. One widely adopted design: They placed mirrors in the lobby because, naturally, we never get tired of looking at ourselves.

Others have studied why and how we humans gather, and wait. The New York Times reported that Americans spend 37 million hours in line every year. When a Frenchman invented the cronut, a croissant-donut hybrid, hundreds of New Yorkers appeared in the streets at dawn to be the first of their friends to sample it. The Japanese, though used to being served quickly in shops, are able to wait for insane lengths of time for the first iPhone of the lot.

An attribute of modernity

Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists or marketing specialists have all tried to decipher the secrets of the human agglomerates that look so irrational. “The non-mandatory queue is an attribute of modernity,” says Anne Dujin, a French sociologist. “During the period of the Trente Glorieuses (the post-War economic boom), it accompanied mass consumption of the urban middle classes.”

In 1967, the “Toutankhamon” exhibition in Paris attracted 1.2 million visitors. Today, those lining up at the Eiffel Tower or in front of Notre Dame are often tourists from China. It’s their turn to wait all day for a look at a bit of civilization.

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Queuing at Paris' Eiffel Tower — Photo: Tomek Augustyn

The consumer society apparently creates a paradox of the “hyper choice.” There have never been as many exhibitions, museums, products and services at our disposal. Yet, everybody looks for the same ones. “Instead of opening the choices, the Internet reduces them," notes Dujin. "Because, with it, systems like marketing, advertising, and now social networks are more and more powerful.” An abundance of requests, but a desire that is concentrated around a few “must-see” icons.

“It is our way to be a part of the history, as we live in a society deprived of history,” says Rémy Oudghiri, director of the department of Trends and Prospectives at Ipsos. “When we wake up at dawn to go and pick up the first edition of Charlie Hebdo after the attacks, we are trying to buy a piece of history.”

Sometimes, the single file, a classic sight of urban life that gathers strangers around the same object, makes you feel like you belong to a community. It also gives legitimacy to the purchase, as the consumer thinks he is doing the right thing.

This goes to such an extent that some brands might be tempted to use rarity, and thus long lines, to create demand. The direction of Apple declined all our requests for interviews about those impressive waiting lines that the company allows to be formed at certain times, around the world.

The slow procession creates identities around a set of values carried by a brand. While waiting, we exchange with our neighbors. We strike up conversations with strangers, building a group dynamic. After all, we are here as “innovators,” quips Emmanuelle Le Nagard, marketing professor at the ESSEC Business School (École Supérieur des Sciences Économiques et Sociales.)

“If people are ready to stay in line for hours to get the new iPhone 6 Plus, it is not because of its new functionalities, but for the social image that it gives them,” says Le Nagard.

With purchase in hand, they can boast of being pioneers at the next dinner party. They can even explain how, with this new smartphone, they don’t even see the time passing by when they're stuck waiting in line.

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Photo of an open cast mine in Kalgoorlie, Australia.

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The European Commission published a plan this week to escape this fate by setting realistic objectives within a relatively short time frame, by the end of this decade.

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