Crowd Compression

Studying behavior never stops.  And it comes in all forms, from complex societies gasping for breath, to the simple, linear, line.

Yes, there is behavior in the simple line.

You say “What?  How can there be behavior in a line?”

Of course there is line drawing.  Drawing and art are behaviors, but not necessarily simple.

There is line dancing.  But that’s another form of expression along with a good dose of socializing thrown in.  No, not the simplest form of behavior.  There’s something simpler still!

As simple as a line in mathematics?  Perhaps not.  Let’s face it.  The one dimensional construct is as simple as it gets.  Unless you like Norton Juster’s book.

No, the line I’m referring to is the one you might be standing in even as you read this.  The line at the bank, or the line of cars getting on the highway.  Or the line heading to the ticket window for off-track-betting.  Those lines.

As a young student, I learned the art of line-manship.  I like to think it was one of my minors.  I learned to dodge, weave, thread, and yes, even cut into lines.  Most importantly, I learned how to avoid them altogether.

However, it was a recent line experience that reminded me that there’s some insight into human nature buried within every line.  Here’s how.

I was recently in a line catching a flight from Japan to Korea.  Expectant travelers filled the corridor, shuffling and fidgeting about.  The longer we waited, the greater the fidgeting.

Suddenly a surge.  Was the head of the line finally moving forward, onto the flight?

No, none of the people at the very front were moving.  Someone behind them decided to take a small step forward, compressing the space between himself and the next person more than before.  The person behind him did the same thing, and so on.

By the time the new compressed line reached my place, it was a good two or three steps!

We weren’t moving, but we were given the impression of moving.  Our personal space had been three hands in front and back, and now it was only two hands.  Not comfortable for me.

Does this new personal space distance help any of us get on board the flight any faster?  No.  Does the few steps some of us were able to take let off enough steam so that we can patiently wait another fifteen minutes?  Maybe.

What’s important about this line is that everyone waited about fifteen minutes before they decided they’d waited long enough.  Their personal space had been worth three hands before they waited.  After fifteen minutes it was only worth two hands.

Why does any of this matter?  Because every culture, every age, and every venue has a different exhibition of these characteristics.

A Korean crowd compresses more and faster than a Japanese crowd.  The Chinese crowd compresses more and faster than the Korean.

When a Western culture compresses there is likely to be conflict.  In Eastern cultures, conflict is rare.

Compression at sporting events, and large musical rock concerts generally see the most compression.  Classical and operatic events see the least.

Why it matters is it allows us a little window into the heart of the culture, and ourselves.  it may also teach us how to deal with lines during emergencies so that people don’t get crushed to death.

Finally, perhaps we will all learn enough about lines so that no one has to stand in one any more.

I wonder how long I’ll have to wait in line to see that happen?



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