Canberrans are instinctive queuers. Recently, I have witnessed this at the Westside Shipping Container Village; on the mornings of ALDI’s special deals days; at a bicycle and fleecy clothes sale; and in front of a football registration sausage sizzle. Where there is much demand, somewhat uncertain supply and in the absence of guide ropes and invigilators, Canberrans tend to find a clear space and line up.
This is not to say that we are always good at waiting. Reports suggest that the bitter memory of lengthy queues at the 2015 Noodle Market drove some people to avoid the event altogether in 2016. And at a supermarket in the inner north that’s notorious for not putting on enough checkout staff, I have seen exasperated shoppers abandon their baskets full of groceries on the ground.
Fundamentally, people will form a line and comfortably stand in it when they believe that the queuing system is fair and feel duty bound to those around them. Land sales in the ACT are an instructive example. It seems that Canberrans are more comfortable sleeping out to purchase a block of land than relying upon the vagaries of a first-email-in-best-dressed process in which it is impossible to know who pressed “send” when. And the shuffling and jockeying at bus stops and train stations is explained by the uncertainty over where the doors will open.
Culture and history counts too. The Australian queuing instinct is in large part inherited from mother England. English people regard their propensity to queue as a reflection of their civility and stiff upper lips. They started to stand in line en masse during the Industrial Revolution when people stopped bargaining and bartering in countryside markets and started shopping and working in shops and factories. Most importantly, a mythos around queuing was established during World War II when to stand in line for rations and take one’s turn was to fulfil one’s duty in the fight against fascism.
Travellers to parts of Asia are sometimes struck by the absence of queuing. It’s also a concern for many Asians. In Vietnam I commonly came across people – not always elderly – who were frustrated with rapid development and who yearned for a bygone communist era when comrades were entitled to far less but were content to wait for it. In 2007 the Chinese government launched a campaign to eradicate queue-jumping with the slogan: “It is civilised to queue. It is glorious to be polite. The 11th of every month was designated, “National Queuing Day” (note the parallel “1s”).
Despite this, there is nothing inherently good about queuing or barbaric about its absence. From the outside what might be viewed as a chaotic throng can, upon close observation, be most humane. In Hanoi where I often found myself in congested traffic and hordes of shoppers, I observed great deference and compassion towards old people and children, the sort of deference and compassion that might be less likely to occur in rigid queues.
Moreover, standing in line is not always celebrated. It depends on who we regard as deserving and reasonable. For instance, since the 1980s people who stand in dole queues have been stigmatised as bludgers. Those who wait for days to get the latest sneaker or gadget are sometimes derided as callow and impressionable.
And with respect to “queue-jumping” asylum seekers our unyielding insistence that they wait in line inhibits both our understanding of the global forced migration crisis and our empathy for victims of conflict, persecution and severe deprivation.
We should thus be mindful rather than mindless when it comes to queuing. Reflecting upon his time in Auschwitz, Primo Levi said that he was always happy to wait and could do so for hours on end with “the complete obtuse inertia of spiders in old webs.”
By this account, queuing can be a chance to think, dream, rest and stretch. Waiting is a welcome punctuation … in an otherwise arduous day.
What do you think about standing in line in Canberra? Where have you seen good and not so good queuing practices around the city, country and world?
Kim Huynh lectures international relations at the ANU. He has recently published a collection of novellas entitled Vietnam as if… Tales of youth, love and destiny. https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/huynh-kt
Pictured top is the queue earlier this year for ice-cream at the Noodle Markets during Enlighten, and above, Canberrans queue outside the Apple Store to buy iPads in 2012. Photos: CHARLOTTE HARPER