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?