Richmond Proper: On Waiting in Line

“The person who claims urgency had better have a good reason, preferably to be borne out by the subsequent arrival on the scene of a team of paramedics. Otherwise, any behavior circumventing the natural system of crowds….sometimes known as ‘first come, first served’ — is rude.” — Judith Martin

“[People] have a tendency to sympathize more with their own difficulties than they do with other people’s.”
— Judith Martin

We spend a lot of our time waiting in lines: at the airport, at the grocery store, at the post office, and scores of other places. I admit that for me, seeing a comedy of errors enacted in the checkout line can threaten to ruin an otherwise perfect day. For such a common occurrence, why does it seem that many people don’t adhere to the simple courtesies of waiting in line? Here’s a list for us to consider as we go about our daily errands:

1. Give others some space.

This is particularly appropriate in ATM lines, but it’s a universally helpful guideline. You shouldn’t be bumping into the person next to you just by shifting your weight.

2. Have money, coupons, and membership cards ready.

Don’t be the guy who waits in line for 10 minutes only to scramble for these items when it’s finally his turn.

3. End your cell phone conversation before you get in line.

You may think you can divide your attention up and still get your errand done, but chance are you don’t have a clue what the cashier is asking you. In addition, not everybody needs to hear you fighting on the phone with your kid about exactly which kinds of toxins are in those sports drinks he consumes.

“Never ‘multi-task’ by making calls while waiting in line.”
— Joanna L. Krotz at the Microsoft Small Business Center blog

4. Hold your gripes until you can make it to the customer service counter.

This way you don’t hold up the line for other customers, and you may even get rewarded with free items or other perks.

“I typically get a price adjustment, but I some times get more. Twice recently, store managers have given me a free item because for pointing out the scanning error.”
— Presh Talwalker in a blog post on

5. Entertain yourself.

Come on, you’re a grown-up. Keep a book, an iPod, or even your knitting on you at all times, and while away the otherwise wasted minutes in line by learning or producing something.

“The well-bred person never goes about his business without either a book or some thoughts to keep him company, so that he may have a semblance of acceptance while enduring the inevitable waiting periods of life.”
— Judith Martin

6. If another line opens up, let the customer who was next in line go first.

Don’t contribute to the disorder that a mad dash for the new checkout line causes. YOU ARE ABOVE IT.

7. Accept that your business is no more urgent than your neighbor’s.

“The fact is that everyone considers himself to be in a special hurry when performing the ordinary time-consuming chores of life. The person who claims urgency had better have a good reason, preferably to be borne out by the subsequent arrival on the scene of a team of paramedics. Otherwise, any behavior circumventing the natural system of crowds….sometimes known as ‘first come, first served’ — is rude.” — Judith Martin

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Tess Shebaylo

Tess Shebaylo is a freelance writer, crafter, history geek, and compulsive organizer. She works at Tumblr and lives in Church Hill with her daughter, Morella.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Number 6 is so true. I’ve been almost run over (while holding a baby, mind you) by someone who HAD TO CHECKOUT OMG.

    I kept telling myself “Maybe she just really had to go to the bathroom” in order to excuse her behavior.

  2. Oh man, Catrow family for #6. I WANT TO PUNCH #6 VIOLATORS.

  3. Yeah, tell me about it. And it all goes back to #7. Everybody is in a hurry…not just you. When we revert to the strongest or fastest animal running over the smaller or slower-moving animals, we revert to a life of chaos. If you prefer it that way, then take off your clothes and walk back into the woods. And good luck!

    I feel like there are other waiting in line etiquette items that could be mentioned, but I didn’t want to get too deep into other categories such as cell phone etiquette or the etiquette of bringing kids around in public.

  4. I am a warrior for #6. When I see the lines backing up at work, I usually run over an open a register. My GREATEST PLEASURE is telling someone who jumps out of line and runs over to me, “Ooooooh. Sooooorry. I have to take the NEXT person in line.” By that time, they’ve lost their place back in the line they came from. Who the fuck are you to think that even though other people have been waiting in line longer, you are so important that you don’t have to wait?

    Oh, man. Touched a nerve.

    BTW, great job, Tess. I am loving the new gig.

  5. Thanks. I’m loving it too! And I’m glad you uphold #6. There’s nothing like seeing an authority figure (that’s you at the checkout counter) squash the ambitions of frenzied line-rushers!

  6. 8. If you are meeting your friends and arrive late to find a long line, don’t think it is OK to butt in next to your friends in the front of the line. This rule seems context dependent in that it seems more OK to break for a movie and concert where one may need to do so to avoid losing their friends, and much much less OK in the line at Cafe Ole (you know who you are) or a lunch cart where it more purely involves “getting over”.
    8a. Don’t stand near a line and slowly insinuate yourself into it so that you have some plausible deniability during the process. This seems much more unbearably creepy than just blatantly butting in line.

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