09 February 2010

Line up!

Scotland and Korea: A Cultural Comparison

Koreans do not believe in lines. Lines exist to keep other people out of the way while you cut around them and do whatever it is they're all waiting in line to do. We have a theory that this dates back to the war - anybody who couldn't throw a few elbows wasn't going to survive - and this is somewhat borne out by the fact that the worst line violators in the country are women over the age of 60. Those women will blow you up. I've seen NFL replays less painful than what one of them did to Justin in a supermarket.

By contrast, the Scots love lining up (or "queuing," as it's called here.) It's reputed to be a national pastime. This may explain why Canadians, many of whom are part Scottish, are famous for polite queuing (side note: the Canadian o, as in "aboot," matches the Scots accent, and I strongly suspect "eh?" is a derivation of the Scottish "aye?", which serves the same grammatical function of asking you to confirm the preceding statement). Ryanair, which we took to Malta, has a no-assigned-seats policy that basically requires you to bullrush the aircraft. In Scotland, it works surprisingly well. In Korea, there would be casualties - except, of course, that boarding already works like this, so maybe they're used to it.

This isn't a perfect system, though. Case in point: I was waiting at a bus stop, and everybody got into a nice straight line. Sounds like a great idea, until you realize that five buses use the same stop. When your bus pulls up, nobody ahead of you is getting on it, so you get out of the line, walk around the line, and get on the bus. The line is entirely superfluous. Or lines get ridiculously long because people will tolerate them. British Telecom told us that if we wanted their internet service, there would be a two week wait before a guy could come out and check our apartment for an activated line, plus a 200 pound fee for line activation if necessary, followed by a six week wait for internet service.

In game theory, economists construct little grids showing what benefits you'll get from an action depending on the other person's move (see a particularly adorable example here). If you think of the Chicken Game, for instance, in which two drivers drive at each other and one of them has to swerve: if the other guy swerves, you benefit most by going straight. If the other guy goes straight, you'd better swerve. If you both go straight, you're both dead, and if you both swerve, you're both... well, chickens.

So with the question of queuing. If everybody's cheating, then we're all worse off, because only the meanest, toughest, elbow-throwingest Korean old ladies are going to get served. By contrast, if everybody queues nicely, it's a perfect setup for cheaters. Justin rejects the British Telecom offer and pulls an end-around by calling Virgin Wireless, which sets us up within ten days. When Justin has no boarding pass for the imminently departing Pittsburgh flight, I bypass the queue to ask at the counter for a thirty-second print job and departing one boarding pass richer. (Hypothetical situation, of course).

Ultimate lesson of the day: in the land of Scottish queuers, the Korea-trained line jumper is king.

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