The Line Forms Here
There are few connections more fleeting, informal, and inescapably pervasive in our modern society than the one that forms around participation in waiting in a line. Comedians joke about it, theme parks add in-line entertainment, Londoners call it a queue, but it is something we all must face if we intend to exist in this world and work with or within organizations. (what do organizations have to do with this?)
This afternoon, I had an opportunity to experience a high-performing (i.e. emotionally charged) line at the Amtrak ticketing counter of New York’s Pennsylvania Station. If you are familiar with Penn. Station, then you are aware that it is not the most inspiring train station in the world. However, it is a major hub and a point of entry into New York for thousands of people every day and constantly seems to be humming with humanity. The physical line in question was nothing special, made up of portable posts and a tacky velvet rope under a painfully dingy drop ceiling, tucked away in the corner of the station’s main hall. It is however, important to note that this was the Acela express line (as opposed to the Regional line), so the individuals involved tended to be power suit clad, middle-aged to elderly, and altogether more important looking than your typical run-of-the-mill train audience (this will come into play later).
I joined the line when I realized that I had missed my train and would have to be ticketed for another one departing thirty minutes later. As I entered the queue of about fifteen, I felt a bit nervous that I would miss this later train as well. But, rather than panic and begin the typical “impatience dance,” I reflected on the triviality of my situation (a 40 minute delay isn’t going to kill me) and started to hone and focus my awareness to my new community within the line. Lines as an organization are very unique orders of hierarchy, power, incentive and reward. Individuals are awarded an unreasonable amount of power as they “move up” in line and become increasingly oblivious of and lose any feeling of responsibility for their counterparts at the end. At the moment of reward, being invited to the counter itself, all feelings of stress, time lost, responsibility, and ownership of goals in-line with the line disappear and a sense of undeserved accomplishment and superiority washes over the new “chosen one”. Conversely, on the opposite side of the glass, the attendants seem to move at a snail’s pace, blissfully ignorant to the needs and anguish of the “line community” staring blankly in their direction.
Today, I was determined to explore and experience the “line community” with the hope that we could learn from one another and form a proactive solution to our common plight. My first interaction began when a scarf clad middle-aged woman ahead of me spoke with contempt, thinly veiled in a jovial tone. “You think they would have more staff on during rush hour,” she casually remarked as the corner of her lips turned up. I concurred, and added something about the fact that systems never work as intended and we continued to wait impatiently. As I persisted in my study of the “winners,” those being waited on at the counter, I attempted to provide a proactive design solution. Maybe all customer wait times should be plotted and revealed as they are waited on to remind them that they inhabited and recently escaped the lowly status of line-dweller and that they should be mindful of their former community. Additionally, I thought to myself as one attendant was rapidly outpacing her counterparts, that Amtrak should incentivise employee efficiency and quality – but maybe they already do.
As we endured our positions, a frazzled looking man in a New York Jets sweatsuit cut through the line and appeared to ask an attendant a question. Immediately, the level of stress in the line was palpable. The entire line collectively tensed up and clenched its teeth: no one cuts the line and gets away with it. The man seemed well intentioned enough – though thoroughly confused and unaware – and he continued to talk with the attendant (who for the record did not ask him to get in line). My fellow line inhabitants begin to exchange uncomfortable and disapproving looks and head-shakes but no one spoke up. Remember that this is a line of “leaders” and “elders” and while everyone felt that they had the right and the need to complain about their plight, no one could muster the courage to break through the rigid social structure they all had bought into. No one took responsibility. So, as an aware and confident individual and because I was not afraid that the guy was going to come after me (as I think everyone else worried), I spoke up loudly but politely. Immediately, the man retracted and scurried to the powerless back of the line – now placed into the proper order of the situation. After a few murmurs of thanks and appreciation we again settled into our “normal” roles. I hoped that my actions had somehow “taught” the group to think a bit more individually and take ownership of the entire group and not just of their own selfish interests and fears.
Just seconds later, as my position moved up to number three in the line, another cutter emerged. This one was decidedly more innocent in appearance. A blonde, college-aged girl with a Louis Vuitton handbag demanded that the attendant “print her ticket because she has to catch a train in fifteen minutes.” In reality, I think half the line was attempting to get onto the same train. In this situation, while the line once again quickly grew impatient, we saw a different result. She was immediately rebuffed by the Amtrak attendant (a different one than last time) and was told to head to the back of the line. Frustrated, she cursed under her breath as she stormed away and then, to my surprise, came to a stop directly in front of me. Being the only twenty-something male in the line’s lead, it was obvious to her that I would be an easy target. She pleaded with me to let her cut in line. I quickly said that it wasn’t my decision but instead, the decision of everyone behind me and I was in no position to let her in (nor would I have wanted to). Immediately the blame fell on me. She proceeded to berate me (and not the line-collective) before disappearing from sight. Again, my comrades in line congratulated me. I still had an odd sense that this community that we had shared was not at all healthy. Two situations had presented themselves for leaders to emerge and two times no one but the youngest member and the one focusing specifically on reading the situation had spoken up.
As the time came for me to take my victory walk up to the attendant’s counter, I made sure my directive of haste and consciousness did not leave my head as it had with every single one of my counterparts. After completing my transaction as quickly as possible I almost had the nerve to ask what platform the train was departing from but decided against it and moved swiftly to the center of the station.
As expected, the entire encounter did not take nearly as long as anticipated and I had a good five minutes of standing around afterward. During this free time I again encountered my former “line community” cohorts. The empathy and the relationship that we had built were all but gone – it was as if I was no longer relevant in their universe. Once the binding contract of queuing up had disappeared, we were no longer the line-community but just part of a much larger one comprised of the whole of Penn Station.
What I took away most from this experience was the realization of just how conditioned humans react situationally and subconsciously in everyday situations. Today, I likely shared the line with senior executives and officials that routinely put people in their place and act against the grain of consensus but when they were introduced to a vehicle as painfully simple as a line, all of their power, knowledge, and understanding of situations disappeared. The individuals in the situation became fixed actors in a poorly scripted scenario. They felt the need to make remarks about their blood pressure rising, the pertinence of their own situation, and the irrational sense of power they felt as they received their call to visit the attendant but nothing spurred them into action to benefit the group as a whole. I hope that my displays of individuality and proactive reflection helped create an environment of peripheral learning and participation but it’s more likely that I won’t be remembered at all (except by the blonde girl I snubbed). While my affect on this group may have been minimal, as a designer, I’ll take the more optimistic position and hope that someday I will be able to re-imagine and recreate a new and improved “line,” so that they don’t have to try themselves.