No one likes standing in line. We all do it, though, with varying degrees of dignity. Some people always carry a book with them to pass the time. My problem is that I always have my hands full, so juggling a book would be out of the question. I’ve taken to carrying with me a crossword puzzle, but it isn’t of much use standing in a line with no hard surface to write on and no free hands.

As much as we all grouse about standing in lines, on the whole, Americans are said to be quite obedient and orderly about it. The whole “respect the line” ethos is drilled into us as children. The sanctity of the line must always be preserved. “No cuts” is heard constantly in elementary school, a reflection of the essential fairness of first-come, first-served.

That’s why I’m always a little disconcerted when the same guy at Gray Brothers Cafeteria in Mooresville, cuts in line occur regularly. What seems to happen is that the husband drops the wife at the door of the busy cafeteria, known for its long sinuous lines curling out the door. He then parks the car after negotiating the enormous parking lot. He joins her in line, essentially taking a ‘cut’ in front of the 25 people who have accumulated behind her. Is that equitable? We’ve all done it, so I guess we must allow it. But imagine how easy it would be to abuse this concept: an entire extended family, 11 members strong, plus friends, cuts in front of you to join their party. Is this fair? Maybe there should be a designated number — three maybe, or five — representing how many members of your party can join you in a line where there are others cooling their heels behind you.

The French are horrible at standing in line. They don’t seem to respect the orderliness that Americans do. However, compared to the Italians, the French are downright submissive and docile line-standers. Italy is pure chaos. They have shabby morals when it comes to standing in line; they laugh in the face of line decorum. They don’t even respect lines in traffic, where the stakes are infinitely higher than the line at the theater’s will-call window.

The Brits probably exceed us Americans in terms of dutiful compliance concerning lines. There are always exceptions, of course, with the uncontrolled anarchy of their soccer matches springing to mind.

Line-standing has even generated its own science, complete with data. The verdict? The quickest and fairest way to process people through a line where there are multiple attendants is to form one line that feeds each station as its attendant becomes free. In fact, this is exactly the system in use at most banks, post offices (including Zionsville's), airlines and some libraries. First-come, first-served is honored, and no one is stuck in a slow line.

However, grocery stores in this country, for some reason, do not employ this lovely system. Marsh, Kroger, Meijer and Wal-Mart all force you to choose a line, then live with your inevitably lousy choice as the woman in front of you requires a price check on aisle seven, a replacement for her damaged package of frozen lima beans and management approval on her out-of-state check.

In England, I was delighted to visit a greengrocer that did indeed operate on the simple one-line principle. A long, disheartening line forms, but it moves quite quickly. A disembodied voice from somewhere trills out “Till No.12,” to direct you to the appropriate cashier. Once you’ve reached the head of the line, you need to stay alert to your cashier assignment, not get lost in reverie over the British use of the word ‘till.’

If no system seems to be in place, I try to force one line. Yesterday, I was waiting to use one of two occupied self-serve machines at the Post Office. I stood smack in the center behind them, so as not to make a commitment to either. My intent was to pounce on the first available, and also to encourage subsequent patrons to queue up behind me, sensing my method, without me having to cite the data and mention how I learned this in business school. It worked.

I propose that lines at gas stations should operate on the one-line system, as well as groceries, libraries and big box stores. Unfortunately, though, even the equality of the one-line system can’t outfox the torment of line-cutters. Life persists in being unfair.

Ingrid Cummings is a Zionsville resident, public speaker, writer and broadcaster. E-mail her at ingrid@rubiconbrio.net.

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