CULTURE WATCH : Reading Between the (Long) Lines

You might be psychologically resigned to toughing out those shopping or gift-return lines, but are you socially savvy enough?

A line--at the post office, department store or bank--constitutes a social system, and as such, certain behavior is expected, a research team reported recently in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Suppose someone tries to cut in? People expect their fellow waiters to protest, says France Leclerc, professor of marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who with her colleagues conducted four studies of queue behavior, one at Grand Central Station in New York.

"If you are right behind the intruder, you have a lot of pressure," she says. "You are the person expected to say something." Protest firmly but politely, Leclerc suggests, and point out the injustice of the intrusion.

Leclerc's team also tested reactions when the interruption originated with a service provider, such as a bank teller closing for a break. In general, people didn't mind much, she says, chalking it up to a business rule. This proves, Leclerc says, that the adage about "time is money" isn't the only reason people hate interruptions while waiting in line: "Social justice is important, too."

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