There are three things that mark one out as British: a belief in the healing properties of a proper cup of tea, an unerring ability to turn almost any conversation onto the subject of weather, and a sense of fair play that is best exhibited in politely standing in line and waiting your turn.
The art of queuing is something that all Brits learn from an early age, thanks in part to an education system which encourages children to stand in line for everything from assemblies to lunch. It is something which continues long into adulthood – one’s ability to queue is a sign of playing by the rules.
Most of us are also quite prepared to queue for healthcare – accepting the need to wait in turn for treatment on the NHS rather than pushing to the front because we have a fatter wallet.
Those who try to push in at bus stops or supermarket queues are generally met with a gentle tutting under the breath – an aversion to public confrontation being another important British trait.
The long queues for passport control which greet passengers disembarking at Heathrow are not in fact the result of poor planning and a dismissive attitude to the travelling public. They are actually a carefully thought out test for all visitors to see if they have what it takes to be British.
Attitudes towards queuing can tell you a lot about a country or a city. In Kenya, where I lived for several years, people had a relaxed attitude towards personal space, pushing up against you in queues that more resembled melees. It’s perhaps not too big a leap to suggest that this reflected a country where rules were often ignored and there was an entrepreneurial sense of taking what you can.
For the last few days I’ve been in San Francisco, a city which seems to be developing a rather British attitude towards queuing. Lines of patient Californians stretch around the block at some of the city’s most popular restaurants and cafes. As one restaurateur told us, in some areas the queues for rival eateries are starting to bump into each other. It is, it seems, becoming an accepted part of living in San Francisco, a place that is arguably the most liberal city in the United States.
In an age where we are told we can have almost anything we want now, there is, I believe, something to be said for waiting patiently in line.