Last week at Wimbledon I was given a formal, printed card about how to queue. Most people spend some part of their lives standing in line. Whether in a store, at the post office, at the bank or waiting to enter a train or plane, we must wait. For each situation, there are informal rules about who goes first; there are norms about how to queue. Not everyone follows the rules. But to get a formal card, printed in color on heavy paper about how to stand in line was a truly unique experience.
The six instructions on the Queue Card followed the bold announcement: “You must adhere to the queue code of conduct.” And the fourth instruction was very blunt: “Queue jumping is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.” No punishments were mentioned, but this was obviously serious business.
The Championships at Wimbledon are indeed a very serious business. There is the Gentlemen’s Championship, not the men’s, and the Ladies Championship, not the women’s. The oldest major tennis tournament, since 1877, and the only remaining major played on grass, is filled with tradition such as strawberries and cream (I must say, seeing Prince Harry in the Royal Box in jeans was somehow disappointing in this respect.)
The serious business of the tournament is reflected in the queue card. But what does it mean to say that “Queue jumping is not acceptable and will not be tolerated”? In a world with an abundance of norms and an increased diminishing punishment for their violations, it seems quaint to use expressions like “not acceptable” and “will not be tolerated.” I saw no policemen patrolling the queue formation. Then again, I saw few policemen anywhere at the Championships, and those I did see were not wearing guns.
To be “not acceptable” and “not tolerated” implies a threshold of conduct that is particular to a certain culture. Not mentioning punishment, such as the amount of the fine or eventual prison sentence, implies that people understand and accept the general rule. “Not acceptable” and “not tolerated” are strong statements about merely jumping ahead of someone else in line. The bar for a very simple transgression is very high in England but not for most of the world. Properly standing in line, a very common event, is obviously important there.
There is something more than charming about this. If people make the effort to be polite in small activities like standing in line, then we assume that other activities will also include a reasonable level of politeness. People who respect the rules of queuing, it is assumed, will respect other societal rules as well.
Upon leaving the grounds of Wimbledon with a Swiss hat on – I had hoped to see Federer in the finals – an Honorary Steward said: “Thank you for coming and I wish you a pleasant return home.” How British! How civilized! It was the first time anyone had said that to me at a sporting event.