There is a famous photograph of Londoners in February 1947. Amid buildings gutted by German bombs are women lining up for coal. Many goods were rationed in Britain at the time: coal, meat, sugar, clothes and petrol. The women were waiting patiently for coal; some had smiles on their faces while others projected stoic calm.

Queues tell us a lot about a society. And how people behave in these queues tells us even more.

A queue is a sign of shortages. Some are inevitable. There seem to be few alternatives to lining up at a boarding gate at an airport or to gain entry for a cricket match.

Sometimes queues are not inevitable. They are signs of economic failure. One of the most transparent signs that the Soviet economic system was not working was the presence of daily queues for even the essentials of life. The endemic shortages of consumer goods in Communist countries alerted many to the essential hollowness of the Soviet system.

Sometimes, we have virtual queues, aka waiting lists. India once had a long waiting list for a telephone connection. The wait was long enough for the issue to be discussed in Parliament in the 1980s. The surest sign that India has been through a telecom revolution is the transition from waiting lists to connections on demand.

Queues have their own dynamic. Consider this little thought experiment: You are walking through a European city with two museums next to each other. There is a serpentine queue outside one museum while there are very few people at the gate of the second museum. Which would you choose?

The chances are that you will choose the museum with the longer line because you guess that there must be a good reason why so many people are waiting patiently for entry. I suppose the same logic applies to temples. Crowds attract more crowds.

Some companies seem to use this behaviour to their advantage. The controlled release of the latest Apple gizmo or the new Harry Potter book is accompanied by queues that make instant ownership even more attractive to the fans.

How people behave in a queue can tell us a lot about a society. Most queues I have stood in are orderly, despite the usual complaints about Indian indiscipline. Yet there are always those who try to cut in to save time. Popular pressure is the best antidote, but there are more formal solutions as well.

One common solution is tokens. You are given a number when you go to a bank branch, a hospital or the passport office. The token numbers are sometimes given online.

Another solution I have heard about is store design. Most traditional Indian stores have wide counters with only one man behind them. That is an invitation to chaos. Either narrower store fronts or more people behind the counter would help make things easier for customers.

Uncertainty also plays a role in queue behaviour. The reason why queues at the boarding gate are usually orderly while there is utter chaos when a water tanker comes to a slum is because there is little clarity in the latter case. How much water does each family get? Is there another water tanker just around the corner? The uncertainty encourages sharp elbows.

The most intriguing suggestion I have read about comes from the economist Steve Landsburg. He suggests a change in the rules, so that those who come last join the queue at the front rather than the back. The explanation he provides is a long one, and will require a separate column to analyse. But the gist of his solution is available in a February 2001 essay in Slate, titled The First One Now Will Later Be Last: A Foolproof Method to Shorten Queues.

Queues impose hidden costs on society, especially the poor who live on daily wages. Even lining up for Aadhar registration these days means a day of lost wages. Poorly designed queue rules make matters worse.

Another event with long queues is Indian weddings. It is perhaps a sign of the times that a new class of VIP queues is sometimes in evidence. So it was heartening to read a diary item in Mumbai Mirror during a break while writing this column, about institutionalized line cutting. It was about a famous Mumbai industrialist who was waiting in a long line to meet the newly-weds. The host walked up to him to offer privileged access, but the industrialist turned down the offer.

This little incident tells us a lot—about the man as well as a growing social practice.

Niranjan Rajadhyaksha is executive editor, Mint.

Also Read | Niranjan’s previous Lounge columns

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