The gap… mind it

Damodar Mall | Updated on September 19, 2014


When it comes to queues, Indians actually feel reassured by a certain amount of crowding — even a respectable amount of personal space is abhorrent to their competitive instincts

Ritu Agarwal, a banker in Delhi, was on her way to London for an extended training trip. At the swanky new airport in Delhi, she stood in the check-in queue of the airline, and found something pushing against the back of her legs. When she looked, she found the passenger behind her gesturing her to move forward, his baggage trolley nudging her ahead. Ritu found that there was a gap between her and the person in front, and the passenger behind her was urging her to close the gap. Ritu is a frequent international traveller because of her job, and nowhere is she prodded like this when she’s in a queue. She moved ahead and all was well yet again. No more prodding.

Try this experiment anywhere in India — in a supermarket billing queue, keep a polite distance of about a foot and a half between your trolley and the shopper in front of you. Now count the number of ways in which fellow shoppers close the gap. See how someone simply comes along and steps right into the space in front. Just as you’re sending the interloper to the back of the queue, you experience the slight but firm nudge on your lower calf from the trolley behind you. When you turn back, the person with the trolley will make a gentle gesture for you to move forward. If you continue to resist the myriad ways in which people try to force you into closing the gap, it will soon be used by people as a corridor for ‘cutting’ across to the other side.

Some time back, on my request, Piyul Mukherjee and her Proact consumer research team repeated this very curious experiment on queues of all kinds in urban India — at bus stops, train stations, airports, colleges, temples, fancy buffet counters in five-star hotels, farmhouse marriage parties and multiplexes. The findings were illuminating and near identical. The conclusion of the study reads as follows:

‘If you leave a space measuring more than your forearm — from the tip of your finger to your elbow — between you and the person just ahead of you in a queue, in India, such a gap is just not feasible to sustain. It shall get bridged or occupied within five minutes.’ We called this the ‘Elbow-push Factor’.

It’s interesting that the elbow-push factor applies with equal validity across income and social strata. Most of us wouldn’t agree. We’ve been brought up on Western notions of politeness and what constitutes civic behaviour. We’re outraged by such behaviour. We are taught to give room, be patient and respect the personal space of a couple of feet around others. But the forearm rule tells us that our collective behaviour is at complete variance with these notions of urban privacy. While we have ‘learnt’ to respect privacy, our inherent attitude towards it is somewhat different. For Indians, personal space isn’t defined in physical terms. We see nothing wrong or disrespectful or invasive in jostling each other around. Intellectually, we might find such behaviour distasteful, but nonetheless it is part of our ethos and so cannot be dismissed. Quite simply, this is how we are. But do designers of public spaces adequately take into account our ‘need’ for a little bit of crowding? That sounds funny. Are we really in need of crowding? How can anyone want to get crowded!?

The explanation isn’t too difficult to find. Culturally, we have always had a bias towards the collective. Our instincts of family, community, chawl, and mohalla are still deep-rooted. Even our gods are not individual heroes, but ‘family people’, unlike in the West. In an overcrowded country like India, we are natural, instinctive, benign intruders into each others’ lives. We see nothing wrong or uncouth in developing intimacy with another person, even a total stranger. We easily pick up conversations with strangers while waiting for our flight to board, or to be served at a fast food restaurant, or even when we are sitting in a library. We are comfortable in crowded areas — weddings or marketplaces. So why should we baulk at slight nudges in queues?

With crowding comes competition. For as long as we can remember, we have had to compete for everything — money, goods, space, and comfort. Need a bus? Push for a seat. Need college admission? Good luck with getting it! There are 10 applicants jostling for each seat. Need to see your favourite god? Darshan queues at the temple can be 24 hours long. Less than a quarter of a century ago, you had to fight to get milk from a milk booth because of shortage. We have been competing with fellow shoppers, travellers, students, and devotees for getting just a little ahead. In that mindset, ‘wasting’ precious queue space just does not gel with our instincts. A gap in the queue is a potential competitive risk that makes us uncomfortable.

Some western retail pundits talk about the ‘butt-brush factor’. That is, people don’t like getting jostled or bumped into, especially from behind. They get put off and reduce or completely give up purchasing when they encounter the ‘butt-brush factor’ in a store. Ironically, in India, retailers who have taken this as gospel truth and worked hard to offer immunity from the butt-brush, find themselves struggling with inadequate numbers of customers. In the Indian scheme, luxurious and spacious layouts are decoded as wasteful and therefore expensive by average customers! Indeed, the colloquial speak in Hindi for spacious stores is not ‘ shaant’ (quiet or peaceful), but ‘ soona’ (forlorn, empty).

In a nation of a billion aspirants and unparalleled population density, the shortage of space and its implications for our behaviour are not going to vanish in a hurry. The queues with their ‘elbow-push factor’ are here to stay for the foreseeable future. Those of us who are space planners, educationists, temple trustees, marriage party hosts or modern retailers have to take this reality into account while designing our offerings. People actually feel reassured by a certain polite level of elbow push, a certain amount of crowding as long as it does not degenerate into disorder and chaos. Otherwise people feel disoriented and even disregarded. Keeping a vigil is as important as moving forward. And aren’t we in a hurry to move forward?

(Excerpted from Damodar Mall's book Super-marketWala: Secrets to winning consumer India)

Published on September 19, 2014

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