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Pumps And Polls: Why Americans Wait In Lines

People wait to purchase groceries in self-checkout lanes at Safeway in Washington, D.C.
Keith Jenkins
People wait to purchase groceries in self-checkout lanes at Safeway in Washington, D.C.

Please line up for this multiple choice quiz:

Days before the deluge descended and the chaos commenced, Americans along the Eastern Seaboard waited patiently in single-file lines to try to influence their destiny. Were they ...

A) Waiting to buy gasoline at a station before Hurricane Sandy hit?

B) Showing up to participate in early voting for the 2012 election?

C) All of the above

For all of the talk about the disappearance of manners and the coarsening of society, Americans don't seem to mind lining up in orderly fashion – for a good reason. We line up to: congratulate newlyweds, pick up event tickets, audition for reality TV shows, buy the newest iPhone, get autographs.

In lines we dance the Electric Slide and the Boot-Scootin' Boogie. In lines we dine in cafeterias, pay our respects at a funeral and play football in offensive and defensive formations. Even our national flag mixes stars with straight lines — we call them stripes.

In many cases, Americans don't mind standing in lines. There is a sense of collective purpose and we're-all-in-this-togetherness.

And because there is in the idea of "the line" an understood premise – and promise. It's an inherently American notion that some day, at some point, if you are polite and patient and play by the rules, you will move to the front of the line. And at last it will be your turn. And you will finally get your chance to do what you want to do.

Of Volts And Votes

As the threat of the hurricane hung over the weekend, John Lottes, 52, of Washington Grove, Md., eased his blue Dodge Dakota pickup into a line at the W Express gas station in Gaithersburg. Every pump at the station had a line of four or five vehicles waiting to get gas while the getting — and the weather — was still good.

The last megamonster storm in the Mid-Atlantic region was the devastating derecho back in June. Lottes remembers it well. His power was out for nearly a week. "It cost me a dog and a 22-year-old cat," he said angrily.

This time around he's more prepared: He's got a backup generator, a 14-gallon portable gas tank and an order in for two more tanks. While he waited for an open pump, he shifted things around in the bed of his truck. Then he adjusted his cap, climbed into the driver's seat and pulled forward. It was his turn.

As the pre-hurricanic breezes coaxed leaves from the trees, folks in Maryland also stood in line on Saturday to cast their votes in the 2012 election as part of an early-balloting initiative.

At some polling sites, according to reports, lines wrapped around buildings as people assembled to begin voting more than a week before Election Day. Because of Hurricane Sandy, early voting in Maryland was canceled on Monday. But if the polls reopen, lengthy lines could form again.

Integrity Of The Line

David R. Gibson, a lecturer in sociology at Princeton University, points out that waiting in line to buy something you want or need is an act of self-preservation, but lining up to vote is quite different.

The fact that people vote at all, Gibson says, "continues to confound political scientists, since one's likelihood of affecting the outcome is so small. Voting can only be explained as an opportunity to give expression to one's convictions, however inconsequential that expression, or, if you will, as a moral act."

There is, says Gibson — a scholar of social interaction who studies waiting lines, among other things — "an immediate difference in mindset: queuing as a self-serving act or queuing as a moral, civic-minded act." Americans do both in abundance.

That people assemble in single-file fashion, regardless of the motivation, "suggests that there's a script, or template, which people are capable of applying in radically different contexts," Gibson says.

But lines do sometimes fail, and a me-first free-for-all ensues. Gibson says that "in general, we would expect that lines are most likely to collapse when there's good reason to break with the first-come, first-serve norm."

He suggests that a shortage of desired goods — gasoline or fresh water or concert tickets, for example — might compromise the integrity of the line and the personality of the crowd. The mien could turn mean; the demeanor, meaner.

Queuing Theories

Lining up peacefully to vote probably works well because "there's little at stake — it's not like they're going to run out of ballots — and, possibly, because voting puts people in a moral mindset and that may lead them to act more morally in other ways as well," says Gibson.

But, he adds, the quality of a line can be affected by other factors. The neatness is more tenuous when people line up too quickly or when people show up in large groups instead of one at a time. Lines might break down "when it's not clear who arrived before whom."

In such cases, queuing theory guru Dick Larson, an engineering systems professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Neal Conan of NPR in 2009, "queue rage can happen, particularly when it's a violation of first-come, first-serve or what people think is fairness."

At their best, Gibson says, "waiting lines are surely the embodiment of procedural egalitarianism, inasmuch as people follow the first-come, first-serve rule, such that order of service recapitulates order of arrival. That's because everyone is treated the same; no distinctions are made based on ascribed characteristics such as race or sex."

Perhaps that is why Americans usually don't mind standing in lines — there is in a line a certain sense of equality. You felt that fleeting feeling of fairness seeing the long lines over the weekend at the pumps and at the polls, before the clouds opened up and the bluster busted through — scattering everyone.

For a brief storm's-eye moment, there was concordance and confluence. A coming natural challenge flowing into a ritual civic responsibility provided us all with common connections and experiences — in profound ways that we don't always stop to recognize. Or acknowledge.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.