Wimbledon’s Queuing Culture: More than Tennis
By the time this is published, my readers will most likely already know who emerged victorious at Wimbledon this year in all three categories: men’s singles, women’s singles, and doubles. An intriguing aspect of Wimbledon this year was not merely the matches but the length of the queues that formed outside the tournament grounds.
To be clear, a queue at Wimbledon is not just a typical queue. It’s The Queue, as it possesses its own unique characteristics that set it apart from all other queues you might encounter.
Obtaining tickets for this prestigious tournament can happen through different channels, so you don’t actually have to stand in line, but the safest way to secure tickets, and make sure you don’t miss out on one of the most significant and anticipated events in the world of tennis, is by purchasing them well in advance. Another safe way is by being part of a club affiliated with the tournament (these clubs usually offer their members the opportunity to attend the games).
However, each year, Wimbledon offers the opportunity to individuals who are willing to endure some inconvenience, to get their hands on tickets at significantly reduced prices. To clarify, when I say “endure some inconvenience,” I’m referring to the patience and resilience needed to stand in the queue for these heavily discounted tickets. This is The Q.
In fact, there’s a Twitter account called The Q or ViewFromTheQ:
When you join this distinct queue, you are assigned a number. Each day, the numbering starts anew from zero. If you receive a number in the 0-500 range, you’re guaranteed a spot in the central court if that is your preference. Those assigned numbers from 501 to 1000 are typically allocated seats in Court One and Court Two.
However, given that the first group of people may choose their preferred courts, having a number between one and 500 doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a seat in the central court. It’s possible that the court you want is not available at the time of your selection. But there’s a way around this. If you are determined to secure a spot on the court you desire, you can opt to stay in the queue overnight.
Choosing an all-nighter ensures a place among the first in line the following day. There is a whole strategy on how early you must arrive (how many nights in advance for example), if you want to attend a specific day (e.g., “manic Monday”).
The overnight stay has its own happenings:
“The tent area, where spectators spend the night to ensure they’ll have a good spot in line the following day, is the more festive area of the queue: People play soccer, cards, cricket or read and sip cocktails. The sun broke out Wednesday afternoon, prompting young men in the line to remove their shirts for some spontaneous sunbathing. ‘It’s like a carnival atmosphere,’ said one steward, who asked not to be named because they are not permitted to speak to reporters.”
But it’s not a carnival, it’s a serious queue with a specific “code of conduct.”
When you join the queue, you also receive a queueing “guide”:
The guide has many rules, but there were three that really stood out:
“- Queue Cards are strictly non-transferable. You may not reserve a place in The Queue for somebody else
- Keep your Queue Card with you at all times. Queue Cards may be checked at the entrance to Wimbledon Park from 10pm.
- Temporary absence from The Queue for purchase of refreshments or toilet breaks etc should not exceed 30 minutes.”
“Every so often, stewards perform random checks by going along the queue in numeric order and asking every queuer for his/her queue card. … If you miss a check, it isn’t the end of the world, but they will make note of it and usually circle back later to make sure you are present. Sometimes, they’ll ask your queue neighbors where you went. … In the event you miss two or more checks, be prepared to be sent to the back of the queue. They aren’t afraid to enforce their code of conduct rules, so it’s absolutely crucial to not leave the queue for more than 30 minutes.”
What’s interesting here, is that Wimbledon (or AELTC, the club running the tournament) is actually not allowing the queue norms to be self-enforcing.
Social Norms in Queues
The concept of queue numbers is fascinating to me, especially since a few years ago, I devoted an entire paper discussing the numerous social dynamics that occur within queues. Many of these dynamics are shaped by societal norms and behaviors.
Certain queues have taken on a cultural significance or fandom, where the act of waiting has transformed into a unique social event. The norms and behaviors in these queues often surpass the conventional ‘first come, first served’ protocol. Here are some of these intriguing examples:
Apple Product Launches: The launch of new Apple products, particularly early iPhone releases, has seen people queue for days, creating a ritualistic and communal experience. These queues often have an atmosphere of anticipation and fellowship, with people bringing sleeping bags, food, and games to make the wait more enjoyable. As the doors open, those at the front often break into celebration.
Black Friday Sales: A post-Thanksgiving tradition in the U.S. where people line up for hours or even days before, waiting for stores open their doors on Black Friday. Despite the occasional chaos, there’s usually an unwritten rule of holding places for those who briefly leave the queue, and cutting the line is usually discouraged and may lead to confrontation.
Sneaker Releases: The launch of limited-edition sneakers like Air Jordans or Yeezys attracts lines of collectors and resellers. It’s commonly understood that buying more than one pair, given their high resale value, is generally unacceptable. Sometimes, lists are maintained to ensure fairness.
Comic-Con and Similar Events: Events like Comic-Con, where fans queue for popular panels or autograph sessions, can lead to camaraderie over shared fandoms. Respect for each other’s space and items is an unspoken rule, emphasizing a shared sense of community.
Popular Food Places: At certain famous restaurants or food stalls like Franklin Barbecue in Austin or Dominique Ansel Bakery (image below) in NYC, people respect the unwritten rule against saving spots for others who aren’t present yet, ensuring fairness. Establishments often have policies requiring all queue members to be present when ordering.
Book Signings/Releases: During popular authors’ book releases or signing events, like the releases of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, there’s an unspoken rule of being respectful when meeting the author. Sharing books, snacks, or stories to pass the time is common.
In each of these cases, the act of queuing is a testament to the dedication and passion for a product, event, or brand. It also emphasizes respect for others in line, acknowledging shared enthusiasm, and promoting fairness as much as possible. Violations of these norms may result in social penalties, such as public shaming or reporting to authorities.
And while most norms follow and respect the “first-come first-served” rule, my research (co-authored with Eran Hanany) which focuses on letting people cut in line shows that other norms can arise. In Israel, cutting in line is commonly referred to as “I just have a question,” which indicates that you don’t need full service. But what if not?
For illustrative purposes, consider the scenario where someone claims that they’re on the verge of missing their flight and needs to get through security faster. In such a situation, people often will allow you to move ahead, despite the fact that there’s no rational reason or clear incentive for them to do so. They’re worse off since they have to wait longer and receive no reward.
I’ve spent considerable time attempting to decipher why, and in our paper, we show that there must be some form of repeated behavior that encourages people to perpetuate such acts of kindness. One possibility is that they foresee a future scenario where they might find themselves in need of similar assistance, and perpetuating this norm keeps the window open when needed.
The point is that many queues have social behaviors, and not all of them are about standing in an orderly line.
The Simple Orderly Line
This brings me to the fact that the British love themselves a good queue. While I don’t think they claim to have invented the queue, they definitely believe they invented the “orderly queue”:
“The temporary nature of queues makes it hard to trace their history, but key historical events are said to have shaped how the British queue and their reputation for being so good at it. One is the industrial revolution. ‘The orderly queue seems to have been an established social form in the early 19th Century, a product of more urbanized, industrial societies which brought masses of people together,’ says Moran.”
And was created because:
“People were moving in huge numbers from the countryside into towns changing the patterns of daily life, including shopping. ‘More of a barter system existed in local markets, the whole way people shopped was more informal,’ says historian Juliet Gardiner. ‘Traders started moving from market stalls into shops as they moved into towns. In the more formal setting of a shop people had to start to queue up in a more structured way.’”
And just as in Wimbledon:
“‘Queuing started to become associated with extreme hardship as the poor had to queue to access handouts and charity,’ says Dr Kate Bradley, a lecturer in social history and social policy at the University of Kent.”
But maybe the notion of “orderly” is a little overplayed, especially considering World War II where queues were “known” for their (hypothetical) civility and norms:
“In reality, there were arguments and disturbances, often the police had to be brought in to sort things out and restore order. Queuing was exhausting, frustrating and tense.”
So just like Wimbledon, these norms were not self-enforcing. And just like anything related to the British, things are over-glorified, with a deep sense of moral superiority. And I say this with the highest respect for… moral superiority.
Why Do We Need Queue-Enforcers?
The primary reason for the aforementioned queue enforcement and “code of conduct” is evident, and I believe it stems mainly from the fact that, for most people, queuing for these events is a one-time activity or deal. So unless there’s an established system ensuring that those who adhere to the queue and its norms get rewarded, and those who deviate get penalized, the social norm associated with the queue will not be upheld.
This year, the fear was that the queue would become excessively long due to people’s apprehension of potential disruptions, such as others throwing confetti or staging protests. The concern materialized and the queue was indeed longer than expected and became a social media nightmare in itself, indicating that the queue’s management was not as effective as it could’ve been.
Why were there complaints this year? Because after the Q, you had to stand… in another queue. This time for security since there were just not enough security guards:
“Wimbledon supporters have criticised the organisation of the queue after increased security checks slowed entry, causing frustrated fans to leave. More than 12,000 people were queuing in Wimbledon Park, next to the grounds, with some having camped overnight. ‘We have missed a whole day's play, I would never ever do it again,’ Chrys Meade told the BBC. ‘We were told it was unexpected numbers, but why are you letting people in [to queue]? Then they are telling us security was not enough to cope with the numbers.’”
So while the Q upheld its social norms, it wasn’t very fair since the managers created a new bottleneck on top of the existing one. You’d think that for a one-time event with limited capacity, they could bring enough security guards.
But I guess after inventing “The Queue,” maybe it’s time to invent “Capacity.”
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