English Lesson: Cultural differences

From the NYT
The Ultimate Body Language: How You Line Up for Mickey

HONG KONG DISNEYLAND, the second Disney foray into Asia, is known to some in the theme park business as Disney Lite. At a little more than 300 acres, it’s far smaller than Disney parks in the United States, Japan and France, with fewer of the elaborate signature rides.

But in one area, at least, the Hong Kong park more than holds its own: the lines.

In several weeks of trial runs leading up to the official opening last week, parkgoers complained of waits of over two hours for some attractions. One visitor said that in 12 hours at the park, he went on all of four rides.

While many problems were no doubt attributable to the newness of the place and its employees – the first few weeks being the worst time to visit any theme park – the waits led some Hong Kong officials to urge Disney to reduce the planned number of daily customers, currently 30,000. And the delays sparked cultural complaints in Internet discussion groups, with some Hong Kong residents saying the problems were made worse by pushing and shoving by mainland Chinese visitors unaccustomed to orderly waiting.

There are, in fact, cultural differences in how people behave while in line, according to social scientists and park designers. Those differences have even led to physical changes in so-called queuing areas at some parks.

Rongrong Zhou, an assistant professor of marketing at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the differences went beyond a Hong Kong-mainland split. Ms. Zhou, who has studied the psychology of queuing in Hong Kong, although not at theme parks, said there was a tendency among Asians and others in more collective cultures to compare their situation with those around them. This may make it more likely that they will remain in a line even if it is excessively long.

Ms. Zhou said this finding was rooted in a somewhat paradoxical observation: that it is the people behind a person in line, rather than in front, that determines the person’s behavior.

“The likelihood of people giving up and leaving the queue is lower when they see more people behind them,” Ms. Zhou said. “You feel like you are in a better position than the others behind you.”

By contrast, she said, Americans and others in more individualistic societies make fewer “social comparisons” of this sort. They don’t necessarily feel better that more people are behind them, but feel bad if too many people are in front of them. Lines in these cultures tend to be more self-limiting.

Question: What cultural diffences have you noticed between Koreans, Japanese, Americans and Europeans

In a place like Hong Kong, however, the lines may just grow and grow. “The longer the line, people think the service is more worthwhile to get,” Ms. Zhou said.

Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, said that in the first few weeks of the Hong Kong park’s operation, officials have noticed more specific differences between Hong Kong visitors and those from the mainland. About 25 percent of Hong Kong residents, Mr. Rasulo said, had already visited a Disney theme park. As a result, he said, they “seem a little more respectful.”

Visitors from mainland China, where only 1 percent have visited a Disney park, are still trying to figure out how lines work. “They are not as impulsive” as some of their peers in Europe, he said, but they also are not as patient as the Japanese.

Europeans, Mr. Rasulo added, “have very different attitudes about how they wait for things.” At the Disneyland Resort Paris, while British visitors are orderly, French and Italians “never saw a line they couldn’t be in front of.”

After the French park opened, Mr. Rasulo said, the company made the lines narrower by moving handrails closer together to try to prevent people from pushing ahead of others. He said the Peter Pan attraction at the Paris park was so popular that it is the only Peter Pan ride in all of Disney’s parks to have Fastpass, which allows people to come back at a specific time and is an effective way to control pushy crowds.

Peter Alexander, a former Disney and Universal Studios theme park designer who at one time was director of project management for Tokyo Disneyland, said that most cultures are tolerant of waiting, though some more than others. The Japanese, said Mr. Alexander, who is now president of Totally Fun Company, a park design firm in Tampa, Fla., are among the most patient. “They are very Eastern mystical in their ignoring everybody else, and that’s why they are able to deal with long lines,” he said.

And forget cutting in line at Tokyo Disneyland, where people spread out large mats along the parade route to reserve their spot hours beforehand. No one, Mr. Rasulo said, steps on the mats, and children wait patiently there with their parents until the parade begins.

“The only place where I have been consistently advised that people can’t stand to wait in line is the Middle East,” Mr. Alexander said. The solution at theme parks in that region, he said, is to increase ride capacity so that little or no waiting is necessary.

The other parks where people don’t have to wait in line are the ones that are failures, Mr. Alexander said. He described one, Walibi Schtroumpf, a Smurf-themed park in eastern France, that attracted less than half of its projected two million visitors a year.

“You don’t wait in line at Walibi Schtroumpf,” Mr. Alexander said, “because there’s nobody there.”

Q: How are Koreans at queing?