How often has this happened to you? You are deep in thought, solving some complicated problem. You've just about had a breakthrough when someone walks by—
"Hey, I just have a quick question for you; I was thinking about—"
Your focus is upended, your train of thought evaporates, and now you have to react quickly for the sake of damage control. It's an uncomfortable position, because on the one hand you'd really like your train of thought back, or if that's impossible, to salvage what's left of it. And on the other hand, you'd probably enjoy talking with that person about exactly what they want to talk about, if only they had picked a better moment. Ideally, you'd like to balance getting back to your puzzle as quickly as possible, with letting the person know that you don't resent the person or the topic, just the timing.
And how often has this happened to you? You've just discovered something that your friend would definitely like to know about. You walk over to where they're working and, really trying to be as inobtrusive as possible, you say, "Hey I see that you're busy—is now a good time? I've just found out—"
"Ugh." says your friend, losing focus. "Oh, well. What's up?"
The problem is that even the most polite initiator demands the attention of the listener—"Are you busy? Is now a good time?". No matter how gently and briefly you try to demand someone's attention, you still have to open a two-way conversation even to let someone know that you have something to say.
You could have just waited until the other person no longer seemed busy, of course. But then only the other person knows when they're genuinely not busy; you'd have to guess. You might guess too early and interrupt them when they're busy, or guess too late and miss out on an opportunity to tell them something they'd rather know sooner. ("Oh, why didn't you tell me sooner? I wasn't actually that busy!")
There's a better way! In this short note, I describe the strategy that my friends, colleagues, and I use to alleviate this social problem for everyone involved. It allows people who are focusing to stay on track without missing out, and allows people who have something to say to be considerate while making themselves known.
You can tell that it works. We use it at work, when studying, at home. The people I've shared it with have passed it on to the social groups they're part of. It's nice because it allows people to be a lot more productive themselves, and to be obviously, mindfully considerate of others in an easy-to-follow way. This post is for everyone who wants the opportunity to participate in such a system themselves.
In everyday life, a queue is a line of people waiting to be attended to. The cashier in a grocery store has a queue of people waiting to pay for their groceries; the mail clerk has a queue of people wanting to send packages; the restaurant has a queue of people waiting to be seated. The fundamental rule of queues is first come, first serve: you handle the first person in line, then the second, and so on.
The social queue system is a group policy for interacting with others by waiting your turn. The rules are as follows:
- Attention. Every person has things they're focusing on at the moment. We think of it as that person's attention queue.
- Queue! If you want to request someone's attention, you can put yourself into their attention queue. To put yourself in someone's queue, say the word "Queue!" to them. Now you're in their list waiting for your turn.
- Dequeue! If someone says "Queue!" to you, you keep working on what you're working on. When you've finished (or have reached a good break point), you can tell the person that it's their turn. To tell someone it's their turn, say the word "Dequeue!" to them. That means that you're ready to hear what they have to say.
- Restraint. In detail, the queueing process is supposed to be as inobtrusive as possible, and the only thing you should interrupt someone with is the word "Queue", after which the polite thing to do is to immediately find something else to do. In particular, you should avoid waiting for a sign of acknowledgement, or injecting a small piece of conversation, or hovering impatiently in the area while you wait your turn.
- Re-enforcement. The queue system takes some time to become a habit. If someone interrupts you because they've forgotten to "Queue!" themselves, you can just remind them. When I've forgotten, people have gently cut me off with "Uh, queue that.", which works just fine.
The social queue system works because it introduces a short, one-sided conversation that people can use to request others' attention. Because the single word "Queue!" is more like an ambient sound than a conversation, you can accommodate it subliminally without diverting much of your real attention. Because the queue system sets up an expectation that you will eventually get to everyone in your queue, people who want your attention know that the word "Queue!" is enough, and don't feel like they have to push further.
That's all there is to it.
I've experimented with different variations over the years — different social groups and people with different social needs might tailor this system for their own purposes. For example:
- Did you hear me say Queue? Because the policy is to keep on working—basically making it inoffensive and standard to "ignore" someone who says Queue—a person who has something to say might worry about whether you heard the word Queue or not. The concern is waiting forever without actually being in line. To me, this is a deliberate design decision—I'd rather have the puzzlers generally keep their focus and initiators occasionally not say what they'd want, rather than the usual other way around. But one possible solution is for the listener to have a way of briefly acknowledging that something has been queued—for example, by replying "Ack!" ("Acknowledged!"), or "Mmm-hmm". I usually find this too mentally taxing personally, but it may work for others. See the next item in this list for an alternative.
- Is anything in my queue? The social queue policy is designed to help you keep your focus as much as possible. One consequence is it's so inobtrusive, you might reach a stopping point and not remember whether anyone has said queue recently, or whether you failed to hear it. But if you're working in an environment where the people queueing things are in your general vicinity, you can try to check whether anyone has queued anything. I'll occasionally say "Dequeue?" speculatively in case anyone has something to say that I missed. Or, you can just try to catch someone's eye— if you're working jointly with someone, then they may be attentive enough to notice when you look up at them from your work. That involves less noise that might disturb others working nearby.
- Oops, never mind. Often enough, I'll get stuck on a problem and want to ask a friend for help, so I say "Queue!". But I figure out the answer before I get dequeued. The standard policy (which involves no interruption) is to wait until you get dequeued, then to say, "Never mind; I figured it out." But if the other person will probably try to finish their work faster because you're in their queue, it might be better to save them the trouble. You might agree to adopt a convention of interrupting with "Never mind", "Belay that", or the deliberately ugly term "Unqueue!". I'd be careful about this, in case "Never minds" end up happening so much as to be distracting.
- Who, me? If you're working in a group of people, there's a chance it could be ambiguous who you're saying Queue to. In that case, you could say "Queue: [their name]", instead.
- Queue one, queue two. Some people really like the way social queues give you an orderly list of things to deal with. If you like, you can adopt a convention where you can enqueue yourself multiple times. For example, suppose I've had an important revelation, so I say "Queue!". Later, I additionally realize something that must be handled before tomorrow, so I again say "Queue!". Now I'm in the queue twice. Additionally, if I think of several items at once, I might say "Queue three things,". As always, though, it's the initiator's responsibility to remember just what and how many items they've put in someone's queue.
- Distinguishing how urgent your message is. Sometimes you've found an essential bit of information; other times, you'd just like to share a joke. Part of the solution involves coming to an agreement about how much banter you'd actually like to have—a casual study session might be different from a project deadline. If you've decided you'd like some amount of banter, I've found that using "Queue!" and "Queue unimportant!" allow you to make that distinction, usually without passing on so much information that it becomes distracting.
- Asking what it's about. Saying "Dequeue!" sometimes feels like giving someone indefinite use of your time and attention, without even knowing what they want to talk about. Maybe you have a small break where you'd like to handle someone's request, but not if it's time-consuming or detailed; maybe you'd just like to prioritize.
To solve this, you can always offer a disclaimer: "Dequeue—I've got five minutes to talk, will that be alright?". Or you can just ask the other person what's in the queue without actually dequeueing it. (If you'd prefer a terse keyword for that purpose, I've occasionally used "Peek!" as a way of asking what's in the queue without committing to dealing with it immediately.)
- I became busy in the meantime. Sometimes you put yourself in someone's queue, then you become busy with something else, then that person tries to dequeue you, but you're busy. If you need an explicit policy to handle this, a "queue trampoline" can work — when someone says "Dequeue!", tell them to queue it instead.
- Who's next? In one memorable instance, a friend of mine who was coordinating a bunch of people became so inundated with queue requests that it became an actual challenge to remember who was supposed to be dequeued in what order. Here's a strategy to preserve fairness and avoid mental overhead in these extremes: in a setting where essentially one person will be queued by everyone else, you might decide to actually write out that person's queue of names (on a readily-visible whiteboard, for example). Alternatively, have a policy where everyone keeps track of their own position in the busy person's queue: to add yourself to the busy person's queue, find the last person who was added to the queue and tell them you want to be added, too; when the busy person dequeues you, tell the person after you that they're up next.
In computer science, we distinguish between "queues", which are first-come, first-serve lists, and their opposite, "stacks", which serve whoever's arrived most recently. To add items to a queue, you enqueue them in the back of the list. To add items to a stack, you push them onto the top of the stack.
In our default interactions with people, we demand, however politely and briefly, to be engaged in a two-way conversation. In this short note, I've described another possible convention—one which helps people be less pushy, and instead more observant of social queues.