What managing a queue of people taught me about living in society

Portuguese love to break bend rules. That’s why we make good testers. #ShamelessSelfPromotion

By default, the individual matters more than society and its rules — e.g., Portuguese don’t wait for people to get out of the train before entering, they just go at the same time. There are plenty more examples, but let’s just say that we’re the opposite of Swedes, Japanese or Canadians when it comes to rules.

Every year I do volunteer work at conventions and my responsibilities are never the same. Last time I was asked to manage the queue for a session with national YouTubers. The room had a limited number of seats. The goal was to seat everyone fairly (first come, first served) and block the entrance once capacity was full. Easy?

Kids (don’t care about rules) + Portuguese (bending a rule is a worthy challenge) + YouTuber euphoria (shuts down rational side of the brain) = recipe for chaos

How it happened

  • The cheaters find ways to bend the rules and get in
  • Volunteers notice it and ask staff for guidance: “they’re in, let them be”
  • The lawful notice it and get angry at you, demanding entrance
    • At this point you have a full row of kids seating on the floor
  • Most rules are now replaced by subjective decisions on-the-fly
    • Volunteers lose their authority and need staff by their side
  • Some lawful become cheaters
  • Some volunteers off-duty enter ahead of lawful, just like cheaters
  • Staff gives up and opens the gate
    • It doesn’t really make a difference because by now the room is packed

Lessons Learned

  • Rules should be objective and apply to everyone
  • Plan ahead how to deal with overflow or edge cases
  • Rule makers (staff) set the maximum quality of the system
  • Rule enforcers (volunteers) set the minimum quality of the system
  • Players (crowd) will always try to beat the system
  • The “cheater” players get the best prize
  • The “lawful” players get what’s left from the cheaters

Success?

For staff, it was a success. The room was full and people were fighting to get in. We got people’s attention and we delivered to our sponsors. We won.

For kids, it was a success. They got to see their favourite idols. The lawful kids learned that it doesn’t pay off to stay in line, because cheaters will steal their seat in the front row. Children see, children do. We learned.

For parents, it was a success. They did whatever was necessary to make their kids happy (and quiet). The rules in place were crap, but that’s the default in this country. We don’t care.

For me, it was a disaster. As a rule enforcer, I failed. I saw the sad look of those lawful kids. I disappointed them. I felt guilty for proving them that nice people finish last. I said to one girl “you followed the rules and you deserved a better seat; I’m as angry as you are, yet there’s nothing I can do, I’m so sorry”. I shook my head.

I need a plane ticket to Japan…