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Why Don't People in the Developing World Wait in Line?

Filed under: Economics

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame writes on his blog about his recent trip to Poland, in which he cannot understand why people there continuously cut in line. He surmises that it must be some sort of economic incentive that drives such a force.
What surprised me most about the line cutting was that having lived under communism for so long, I would have thought that the Poles would have perfected standing in line. I would have predicted even greater courtesy than you find elsewhere. Perhaps, I just got the theory backwards. With so many years of shortages, the rewards for becoming an expert line cutter were much greater in Poland than in the U.S. So they did perfect standing in lines — perfection means being able to cut in front of people and feel no guilt.
I think there is a definite link between scarcity and line-cutting. When I was in Chile during the economic crisis of 1999, people would cut lines and hide stuff in their coats all the time. Blatantly being in line and having someone just jump in front of you can be incredibly annoying, and it's only exacerbated by the fact that they likely chose your line because you're a foreigner (you're less likely to do something about it). There is a notion that if you wait in line, you will never get what you need. It's every man for himself. Relying on yourself to get to the front is the best and most satisfying option.

This markedly changed by 2003. I never really saw anyone cutting in line once the depression was over.

Another factor that plays into this equation is socio-cultural. In the United States, since kindergarten, we are taught to line up in every situation. This may not be our natural instinct, though, as kids only form lines when the teacher tells them to; otherwise they just scatter around. It's an practiced instinct. As adults we do it unconsciously, and often feel the piercing eyes of others if we try to cut in line. Making lines is just a cultural norm in the United States, one that preserves order and fairness, especially in a country that so developed comparatively.

This kind of relates to Levitt's trip to Poland. When I was in Ukraine and Belarus last August, I could not for the life of me figure out why people kept cutting me in line. I don't speak any Russian so it isn't like I could ask. My friend Andy was able to explain it to me though. In Ukraine, people will form a line just about anywhere, but you can also be easily cut at just about any time. What you have to do, when entering a line, is ask the person in front of you if he is in the line. That will confirm that you, now, are in the line. Similarly, whoever gets behind you will ask you this same question. If you don't tell the person in front of you, though, there will be the dire consequence of people cutting you in line because you didn't confirm your own placement.

Perhaps it's the same way in Poland! Thoughts?

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