Maybe you saw it back in late 2022 on TV: lines, literally miles long, snaking through Central London as locals and visitors queued up to pay their respects at the passing of Queen Elizabeth. It was quintessentially British, to see lines that long, and perfectly reasonable for anyone who wanted to honor Her Majesty to wait 8, 10, or even 12 hours in a relatively orderly line to do so. (Heck, LOMM founder Valerie even spent time in #TheQueue during her trip.)
Lining up – or queueing – as you’re more likely to hear it called, is a pretty common behavior. You’ll see it in many parts of daily life when visiting London, from popular attractions to Tube ticket barriers and buses. Actually, one might say: if it’s worth waiting for, it’s worth waiting in line for! In reality, queueing hold a special historic place in the heart of Londoners: it dates back to the 19th Century, but came to symbolize the commitment of patriotic Brittons to an orderly, civilized world they hoped to preserve through World War II.
All this to say, it’s more than likely that you’ll find yourself in a queue or two during your trip! Additonally, there are some very specific aspects of queueing etiquette in London that will help you navigate this experience; there’s little chaos, lots of personal space, and firm rules for behavior. Ready to learn the basics so you can avoid social faux pas and even embarassing “Hard Stare” that makes even the most hardened traveler nervous?
1. Never Jump the Queue/Cut the Line
When it comes to queuing etiquette in London, the biggest faux pas you can make is to try to “jump the queue” (cut the line). The English rule of queuing dictates that on arrival somewhere that has already formed a line, it is expected that you politely join the end of it. This way, each person waiting for whatever happens to be at the end of said line receives it in the order in which they arrived, which just seems fair all around, really.
Cutting the line in London would almost certainly be considered exceptionally rude, and perhaps even aggressive behavior and would be met with some very disgruntled faces, tongue-clicking, and perhaps even confrontation – more on that below. Politely waiting your turn, like everyone else, is most definitely the correct way to conduct yourself in this scenario.
2. Join at the End of the Queue
Leading on perfectly from the topic above, it is expected, in London queuing etiquette, that when you arrive somewhere that has already formed a queue, you politely join at the end of it. Well, assuming what is at the end of the queue is what you are actually there for of course!
In packed areas of the city where people are queuing for public transport, entry to attractions or similar, it is very common to hear people asking “is this the end of the queue?” as they frantically try to find where to correctly join the line! This question is usually responded to in a friendly and helpful manner, with many people then commenting on the annoyance and inconvenience of the crowds. (British people love to unite in indignation!)
3. Keep Your Own Place
It can be very tempting if you are in a particularly long and mind-numbingly boring queue, to ask the stranger in front or behind you to keep your place while you nip off to do something else. This could be anything from hoping to grab a drink or snack to running to the loo (bathroom/restroom/toilet)… but it’s a no-no!
In London queuing etiquette, asking someone to hold you spot while you dash off for something – really anything! – is frowned upon. Some people find the concept and responsibility of holding someone else’s spot in the line a cause of stress and anxiety, particularly when the person eventually returns, others behind may think you have allowed them to jump the line. Also, many would be of the opinion that if they have to stand there with aching feet, an increasing thirst, and/or a filling bladder, why should they do so on behalf of a total stranger, while they wander off?
So, unless it’s absolutely desperate, avoid asking anyone to keep your place in the line.
4. Maintain a Proper Distance
Let’s be honest, being squashed up against a load of other human beings that you don’t know, as you queue for something is not a particularly pleasant experience for anyone. The least that we can do is keep a reasonable distance from the person in front and hope that the people behind allow us the same respect.
Since the pandemic, people have generally been much more thoughtful of other people’s space, and long may that continue. If you do find yourself being crowded in a queue then it is perfectly acceptable to politely ask the culprits to give you a little more personal space.
5. Mind Your Suitcase/Trolley
We have all been there when an over-amorous suitcase or trolley pusher has clumsily run their wheeled item into the back of our legs. Ouch!
Don’t be that guy or gal: be very careful not to run any of your luggage into other people as you navigate your way along the line. Also, be very mindful of keeping all of your belongings under your control. Londoners are particularly wary of unsupervised luggage, and such items can cause concern and even fear (about security) in some, so be sure to keep your belongings with you and under control whilst you queue.
6. Know Where Queues Apply (& Where They Don’t!)
As we approach the end of my list of London queuing etiquette tips, another thing to keep in mind is to figure out where queues apply, and indeed where they don’t! For example, queues don’t really apply at the pub; it’s mostly a scrum where everyone works their way up to the front in a mass that’s more or less fair – but certainly not an orderly line.
For another example, I, for one, have joined the end of what I thought was a queue, only half paying attention, with my eyes on my phone. I didn’t notice that people were going forward to the counter that I was waiting for, out of order of the line, until I finally reached the front and realized I was supposed to have collected a number at the start, and we were being called forward by the number, not our place in the orderly line. That’s 20 minutes of my life I won’t get back!
7. Master the Paddington “Hard Stare”
While this isn’t queuing etiquette in London per se, I did mention that if you violate these rules, you might be subject to some uniquely undesirable behavior to try and get you “back in line” (both literally and figuratively!).
The “hard stare” is one of the most common tools of social compliance when it comes to queueing. This has been used by Londoners and indeed the English forever, but was made famous by everyone’s favorite bear, Paddington, in the 2014 film of the same name. (It’s a great clip if you want to watch it briefly!)
Generally speaking, British people don’t like confrontation and will go out of their way to avoid it. However, that doesn’t mean that they will allow rude behavior – such as cutting a line – to go unpunished. Oh no! Impolite acts of such shocking magnitude require the use of the Hard Stare. A facial expression of displeasure so intense that it causes the victim to panic, sweat, and hopefully feel deservedly ashamed for their outrageous queue etiquette-violating behavior.
The Hard Stare is also excellent for use on those who try to cut the queue, don’t respect your personal space whilst in the line, and those who run their luggage over your feet – basically, you can use it whenever anyone breaks one of these queueing rules you now know!
Have any other questions about queueing properly in London, or these etiquette tips? Let me know in the comments below!