What is it about Polish people and lines?

I just returned from a fascinating and enjoyable trip to Warsaw.

The only negative to the trip (besides the fact it is a 9 hour flight to get there) was how incredibly rude the Poles were about lines. I have never seen such obvious disrespect for other people when it came to cutting in lines, even when it meant that the person who cut would have to stand in front of you in line for the next 15 minutes. In the United States, people will cut in lines in cars, but usually not when on foot, because of the discomfort of having people you just mistreated standing next to you. A car provides insulation from the social stigma. In Poland, no such distinction appears to be made. (When I told Dubner about this, he told me to stop complaining and save it for when I next went to Israel, where he says there is simply no such thing as a line.)

Just to test my hypothesis, at the airport as I boarded the plane — it was an utter free for all with everyone invited to enter the plane at once — I made a mental note of the most egregious line cutters. Then, when we got to Customs in the United States, I watched to see which of the worst cutters went to the U.S. citizens line and which went to the visitors line. Not one of the worst offenders was an American citizen, supporting my conjecture.

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.


This is absolutely not a question of Economics, but solely of Culture. "Rude" is not an objective term; Switzerland is a wealthy country, as is Germany, but lining up (queueing) is unheard of...just as in Poland, Hungary, etc. (but totally in contrast to Japan).

While living in Switzerland, my American friends and I would set our goals before a day's skiing: NO ONE cuts in in front of us! The Germans, Swiss, French and Austrian skiers would be astonished at our reaction - no offence was intended!

Whether it's skiing, trains, buses, banks, whatever, continental Europeans regard a queue as a quaint British or American invention. On the other hand, they frequently find Anglo-Saxon informality ("Hi, I'm Bob") to be rude... It really is all in the eye of the beholder.

Fernando Postigo

If you think Polish people does not respect lines, please do not come to Brazil. Here the people use their bags or coats to reserve place in restaurant table. It is terrible....


in Canada we are the opposite --whatever line you are in there is one or 2 people who always let people in ..oh you have a child please go ahead of me , oh you have a cane please go ahead of me , oh you are in a hurry go ahead of me , meanwhile my ten minute line up has now become a 1/2 hour long !
wish l was Polish .........not really imagine the jokes Polish Canadian


People cutting in line downright enrages me. I do find it funny that being in a car empowers people much the same way the internet does. This feeling of anonymity makes people act in ways that make me scratch my head. Apparently the Poles just don't give a crap.


I would think in a communist country where there are often shortages of critical commodities, jumping the queue would become a survival skill.


you haven't seen anything until you've been to China!


yes China only country with 5 left turn lanes and 5 right turn lanes on a 2 lane road ........


Not related to this article, but I thought the authors would find this interesting.



Yup, in Brazil is kinda hard too. But you shouldn't generalize saying that "The Polish people cut lines". Sounds like you had some hard times in a Polish McDonalds and wants some revenge now.


I think queuing nations are actually in the minority. I doubt it's related to communism or food shortages or anything like that; my anecdotal experience suggests that pushing in is just not frowned upon, socially, in many countries.


I can't remember if this was from a book or newspaper article, but somebody did a study on lines -- or rather, "queues" -- and culture, and one of the countries which very much respected lines was, in fact, Israel.

In particular, the study analyzed lines for buses. The perculiar thing (according to the study) about Israeli bus lines was that if one were to just come up to a crowded bus stop, there would be no evidence of a line at all. However, when the bus comes, people were clearly letting others get on first, which actually revealed the order of arrival. When interviewed, the Israelis said that they just observed who was already at the bus stop ahead of them, and they would just let all those people on first.

FWIW, I checked with friends who are regular visitors to Israel or Israeli nationals, and they confirm this phonomenon about lines in Israel.


Hey... Not nice...

As Polish-Canadian, I resent your generalizations (main post), yet can't help but agree (RandyfromCanada). I cannot speak about current line-standing etiquette, but during communism it more the fear of public lynching than courtesy that kept people... well... in line. Letting people cut in front of you was equally bad as cutting in, but there was notable exception. Pregnant women and disabled were always sold necessities like meat or toilet paper without waiting (I'm not sure whether that was guaranteed by law, but it was always treated as if it was).

Stemming from this upbringing, I find nothing so irritating as people cutting in, especially friends joining their friends in front of the line, though I do frequently let people in the supermarket line immediately behind me go first if I have many more items than they do.


Wasn't perfection an impossibility on its own terms? Or was that tenure?

I should really get moving...



Yep, you've got it backwards. They cut lines _because_ they spent so much time having lived under communism. They know there is only a limited amount of if they wait in line, they might miss out. ;-)

With the Olympics in China, they have begun 'line days' to teach the locals how to queue for public transport and be polite for all the visitors. Similar situation - limited number of seats.

I think you need to visit more countries while holding tightly onto your own ideas of what's 'right' and 'wrong'. You'll be offended by much more than just someone cutting in line.

But I'm curious - For those 15 minutes in line, did you heckle and argue with the person who cut in or not? (Another example of a social norm...)


It boils down to where you go 'wait for your turn at the NSA dupe questioning ethnic economic cat' joke no joke.

I'd really like to know if you actually believe what you write, though.


Adam Pieniazek

You definetly got the theory reversed Steven...

I just gave the link to this story to one of my good friends, Lucy, who's a huge fan of your book (I've never read it) and told her this story made me wicked mad! Now, I'm 100% American (born and raised here, so I'm just as American as any other American) and 100% Polish (both my parents were born and raised in Poland), so I have a very good insight into Polish communism. I wasn't mad that you called Polish people rude (not true btw, we're very nice people!) but that your economical analysis is really bad here.

You saved yourself by the the last few sentences but this is really a case of supply and demand, the founding blocks of economics!

As I told Lucy, the demand can be seen by the line formed (in other words how many people are in the line, how many people join the line and how "frenzied" the line appears); the supply (especially in communist Poland or any communist nations) is unknown and thus is assumed by everyone in the line and everyone observing the line to be smaller than it really is.

Thus any rational/logical person will cut the line as much as possible to increase their chance at getting some of the supply. Having experienced terrible logistics during communist rule, the Poles have simply adapted to getting to a supply any way possible. If you consider it from an economics perspective, why wouldn't you cut? Sure, there is a potential to get beat up, but if you and everyone else believes the supply is rapidly depleting (and especially if it is a crucial supply, such as food), you'd be stupid to stand patiently in line while the cutters get their supply.

The true amount of the supply is also irrelevant, it's the fact that the supply is unknown and thus must be assumed to be limited. Any rational person will use all of the tools at their disposal to maximize their return, in this case, cutting a line to save time and increase their chance at obtaining some of the supply.

From a sociological perspective, you might also deduce that the Poles have grown so fond of freedom and are so anti-establishment that they view cutting as a way to express their freedom.

In either case, Steven, the line cutters may be acting rudely from an American's perspective, but they for sure are also acting wisely and economically.



those were some line cuttin' poles huh?

Al Sharptonski should be calling you soon.


The most frustrating line is the grocery store checkout in Israel where the habit is to just leave your empty cart in line with your companion or child while you walk around the store, occasionally returning to drop items into it. It is both maddening and hilarious to experience.


The height of queuing culture are the impeccable English. They naturally brought this civilized idea to every country they touched.

The most excellent exception is the India train system. It starts at the ticket windows. God help you and god save the queen. Because you are in a fight with a mass of other bodies to get the attention of the ticket fellow. But don't worry because after an hour of heavy sweating and intimate contact with your fellow passengers want-to-bees and even as they tell you that the train is full, they will sell you a ticket.

So now with your ticket firmly in hand you must prepare yourself for the ultimate challenge. You must get in the mindset of the sumo. Meld your body into an unstoppable object. They say there is no "Q" in the Indian language. And Indian queuing is nonexistent once the train appears.

Do not wait for the passengers arriving who want off the train to exit the car. This is not about politeness. It's about getting on the train. En masse. With every one else. But certainly if anyone is left behind, it must not be you.


Adam Pieniazek

Ever been to a college town on a weekend night Steven? I'm sure you'll find your fair share of cutting going on as co-eds try to scheme their way into bars and clubs!