The first few people headed straight for the food they wanted from the table, got it and then left the serving area. When more people started showing up, everyone started slowly and obediently forming themselves into a line. Then it took longer for everyone to get their food, since people had to waste time in a line standing in front of food they didn’t want. Obviously, if there is only one item that everyone wants, a line makes sense. We shouldn’t all be crowded around the source, pushing and shoving to get the item we want. But I have on several occasions jumped into a line to snag some mashed potatoes that lay un-ladled because someone was taking too much time on the green beans I didn’t want, and no one downstream was affected by it. Though this obviously might not work when there are huge masses of people because there’s no good exit strategy, let’s forget that for a second and consider only the cases with relatively few people, so that I can walk right to the thing I want then walk right away.
So why do we just assume that a line is the best way to go? What makes us slowly and silently resign ourselves to an inefficient fate? I am neither a psychologist nor a sociologist, so I can’t provide an empirically sound account for this phenomenon. But I can offer the musings accumulated by a person who has spent many aggregated hours standing in lines and being unhappy about it.
The answer seems to be a strange combination of selfishness and the idea that equality is fairness. When I get in line, I am ensuring that everyone who arrives after me will get through the line only once I am done. Like many things in life, for really no sensible reason, we treat people who came into a group after we did as somehow lesser members of the group. (“You’re just jumping on the bandwagon; I’ve liked this song/band/artist/team/etc. for years!”) However, we also stand in a line in part so that everyone in the line waits the same amount and is thus treated fairly. It seems to me, though, that it’s better to have five people wait two minutes and five people wait one minute than to have 10 people wait two minutes.
And if I may pseudo-psychologize a little further, these forces seem to be at play in other, more important aspects of our lives. We, especially on this campus, often feel like when things get difficult they need more order. When we have only a few things to do, we can leave the completion of them up to fate, like a few hungry people wandering over to a buffet and grabbing what they want. However, when our lives become more complicated, our instinct is to put all our ducks in a row and schedule and plan everything. We do this knowing that simply throwing structured time at such a thing as creativity or our mental health is not going to get the job done.
I say this not to promote a lifestyle without calendars or to-do lists or anything else that helps us focus ourselves to complete our respective mountains of work. I say this so that we realize that when presented with a problem, we sometimes don’t need a whole paradigm shift or great organization of all the moving parts; we can just solve it on the fly. Also, let’s be honest. I say this so that people stop giving me dirty looks for cutting in line and recognize it for what it is: a public service for the efficiency of buffets everywhere.
Luke Massa is a philosophy major from Ridley Park, Pa. He can be reached at email@example.com.