Queuing and Keeping Right: How to Navigate America

(Elmer's)

Walk on the left, stand on the right is a simple rule often broken. (Elmer’s)

Although it’s not quite as rigid as keeping to the right on the London Underground, and you won’t provoke the same rage if you err, there actually is a loose system when walking around in the U.S.

On streets, stairs and hallways you’ll find Americans typically approach you on your left. Even when the sidewalk seems packed to the gills, it’s usually easier to keep right. Since Brits drive on the other side of the road, this is not always intuitive, but doing otherwise will have you side-stepping and banging into people, not to mention immediately identifying you as a clueless tourist.

There is also a system in airports when there is more than one moving walkway going in the same direction. The right hand walkway is usually for stationary travelers, while the one on the left is reserved for people who are racing to catch a flight. Standing still and blocking this walkway is almost guaranteed to get you yelled at. Unfortunately, it’s quite common to have one of the two closed off for repairs, which means you have to keep your wits about you, stand to the right and keep your suitcase tucked well in.

Queuing is slightly different in the U.S. Sometimes—for example, at bus stops—the queue doesn’t seem particularly organized, and Brits can get a little upset at the sheer haphazardness of it all. Americans seem to loiter rather than stand in a straight line, and have no problem walking up, as the bus is approaching, and getting on first even though there are people who have been waiting longer. (I know, it just wouldn’t fly in the U.K.) I’ve never seen anyone tell another would-be passenger off for this, and if it’s mentioned at all it’s usually a polite “The line’s back here.” Fortunately, the bus drivers are also pretty lax about the whole thing and rarely drive off leaving people behind.

In many stores, customers are asked to form numerous lines rather than one long line. Despite theories to the contrary, the psychology here is that each line will (obviously) be shorter than a gigantic long line, and therefore the wait is less. (In my opinion, this shows a callous disregard for those of us who agonize over which line to join and always stand in the slowest moving one.)

Having to stand in line is generally seen as something to be avoided where possible; it means that things aren’t running smoothly and service must be below par.  Never fear, with each problem comes a solution, usually tied to a dollar amount. At airports, it’s long been possible to pay your way around queuing, with priority check-in and boarding depending on what you paid for your seat and which club you belong to. Now, for $100 you can get your background checked, obtain pre-TSA status and sail through those airport security lines too. Don’t want to wait at the theme park? No problem, most have some form of front-of-the-line pass allowing you to skip right on through to the rides. Selling priority for profit is giving rise to some very basic philosophical debates about how American and democratic (with a small “d”) this really is.

Queues are responsible for a burgeoning new business these days too, with a few companies in particular striding ahead. NEMO-Q claims to be “a pioneer in the field of Queuing Management and Customer Flow Technology” and “offers systems for every type of queuing.” There are even “virtual queuing systems” whereby you can sit comfortably in a waiting area (but still waiting) rather than standing in line, simply by sending a voice or text message. Or you can go about your business, not even having to think about a queue, with the Call Ahead Queuing™ feature. Who knew? The possibilities are endless…

What are the other little rules Brits need to know in America? Join @MindtheGap_BBCA on Twitter Wednesday (April 9) at 2 pm ET (11 am PT/7 pm GMT) for a discussion about U.S. etiquette. Tweet your questions and thoughts using the hashtag #MindTheChat.

See More:
Why Americans Don’t Understand the Roundabout
House Rules: Things You Can’t Do in the U.S.
Rule-Bound Brits: Wanna Break Out Just a Little?

  • Ian Holmes

    Queues are a mess in the US because people are scared to encroach on another individuals “personal space” Queues would be a lot shorter if people would dare to stand closer together.

    • dw

      Right. I see people hugging each other spontaneously all the time in British queues, because they’re all so liberated and comfortable with each other physically. Not.

    • Irené Colthurst

      We respect personal space as a means of establishing a kind of social distance. No one minds giving people their space — we measure lines by the number of people, not how spread out they are.

    • Natalie

      i hope you are being facetious. that’s the silliest thing i’ve ever heard. the line would be just long people-wise, just more packed with angry people because now you are standing a half inch from someone who needs a shower or is wearing a gallon of perfume. yuck.
      i’ve ridden buses my whole life and i’ve rarely seen anyone cut into a bus line without nasty words from other people in the line.

    • scootergirl

      lmao Ian… so funny… I am one of those people… i get ‘P*ZZED when someone sits right next to me when i am on a bus or at a table or in a movie or something, when there is obviously open seats all around me… It really feels like they are getting into my personal space… finally a few years back, I had too tell myself that I am looking at the whole thing the wrong way… and that they don’t find me repulsive and they think i’m safe so they sit next to me for that reason, i tell myself not to be mad… L M A O… otherwise I think they are being disrespectful or thoughtless by encroaching on my personal space… dude… It’s a big thing with alot of us
      people…

  • Strongbow

    I’ve never seen that where people would just walk up to a bus and get on ignoring the people in line. I have been victim of this in Germany where queuing seems to be a non-existent trait of the other wise orderly Germans. I once had an old lady step right in front of me in a Backeri as I was just about to be next and place my order.

    • Gianavel

      It’s not so much that people ignore folks in line, it’s more that two or three lines tend to form depending on where people are standing and where the bus stops. Folks generally tend to be consistent about alternating who gets on next from these lines. After all, you’re still (more than likely) going to get on the bus. Cutting in front of someone at a store, or restaurant, or what have you doesn’t generally happen. If it does, there’s almost always protest on some level.

  • dw

    You’re supposed to stand on the right in Britain too!

    • frozen01

      Thank you for clearing that up. I was starting to wonder if I’d been doing it wrong this whole time.

      • http://tonisummershargis.com/ Toni Hargis

        You stand on the right on the tubes, but an unscientific study I did last year of British crowds saw many of them passing each other as if they were driving cars, on the left.

  • brazildj

    There is no tradition whatsoever in the U.S. of waiting in line for a bus, anymore than there is for boarding a subway car. When the bus approaches, the group gathers and stands in a loose grouping more or less where the bus’s door is likely to end up. Then, after the disembarking passengers have exited, everyone just sort of gets on in whatever order works. Since the bus doesn’t leave until everyone has boarded, and everyone therefore departs at the same time, what point is there to trying to figure out who arrived when and be forced to stand in one position in line, when the way we do it one can pass the waiting time sitting on a bench or leaning on a pole and doing whatever we want wherever we want while waiting? I suppose a case could be made that the first to board is more likely to get a seat, but for whatever reason, forming a line for a bus has simply never developed as a common practice here.

  • frozen01

    The part about waiting for buses is something I find generally true where I live… but only if the bus is virtually empty, because it really doesn’t matter if you’re at the front of the line, or the back – you will be on the bus shortly either way. If the bus is crowded, however, you’d better d*** well line up correctly! And if it’s raining? Line up correctly and MOVE QUICKLY! ;)

  • Kat

    This seems to be about right unless you’re in line at Disneyworld or for a sold-out movie. In those circumstances,you had better be in line and defend your place in that line.

  • Bex

    Having lived in the UK, London and Essex for 2 1/2 years, I as the American, was always the polite one letting older people on the bus or tube before me, and keeping my mouth shut when others barged in front of me and others. Lol I just came to assume it happens everywhere. :-)

  • CarolEme

    Just got back from London – where the signs on the wall in Victoria station say to ‘keep to the left’. Being a good tourist, I did…this was not a very popular thing to do as everyone else (going in the opposite direction), did not!

    • Adolf

      For the simple reason that a minority of those passing through/working in/living in Victoria/London are UK born. In the UK it is now, literally 50/50 whether someone walks on the left or the right. I just swear – sometimes inaudibly, sometimes not – at those who walk on the wrong (right) side. You get me.

  • Macho Taco

    Just walk looking into the air, people seem to just move out of your way.

  • A. Nony Mous

    Remember, here in the US people in lines (queues) tend to stand 1 ARM’S LENGTH AWAY from the person in front of them. We have some folks from overseas that work at my company. When they stand behind me at the cafeteria they stand so close it creeps me out. Plus you can smell their bad breath and/or body odor, and if you accidentally back up more than six inches you bump into them. Americans really don’t like that. Please, please, if you’re visiting the USA then stand 1 arm’s length away in lines. Thanks!

    • Mimi

      This!