The Elbow Push Factor

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

Damodar Mall
Updated: Mar 5, 2013 09:36:37 AM UTC

‘Born to be a grocer’ has a different meaning for me. After the traditional career track of IIT, IIM and Hindustan Unilever, I was going to be a grocer, much to my family’s disbelief. Selling ‘daal-chawal’ as a chosen vocation for the educated son was not their idea of smart choices. I wasn’t alone. I walked down the path with R K Damani of D Mart and Kishore Biyani of Big Bazaar, both avid customer observers and business creators by betting on the Indian consumer. Customer observation and insight hunting is now an instinct with me, after over a decade of consistent aisle running in all parts of the world. To my wife’s delight I love visiting stores, but much to her chagrin, I equally love chasing women customers to see what they are buying! Food, brands and retail, my vocation, catches everyone’s fancy. I’ve stirred up some recent excitement for myself shaping food stores for different ends of the market spectrum including upmarket Foodhall and now Fresh produce led neighbourhood store RelianceFresh, etc. I’m excited by various cuisines, languages and recently, learning to play music. But through all my adventures, one thing has stood by me always, a good cup of masala chai! Meet me @SupermarketWala

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 make sure that the gap is closed. 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 in queues of all kinds in urban India – bus stops, train stations, airports, colleges, temples, fancy buffet counters in five star hotels, farmhouse marriage parties, multiplexes. The findings were illuminating and near identical. The conclusion of the study read 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 5 minutes”. We called it the “Elbow Push Factor”.

It was interesting to me that the elbow push factor rule applies with equal validity across income and social strata. Most readers of this post, me included, brought up on specific notions of polite civic behaviour, find ourselves outraged by this. 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. But do designers of public spaces adequately take into account our need for a little bit of crowding?

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, be they weddings or marketplaces. So why should we balk at a little pushing?

With crowding comes competition. For as long as we remember, we have had to compete for everything, for money, goods, space and comfort. Need a bus? Push for a seat. Need college admission? Good luck with getting it! There are ten applicants for each seat. Need to see your favourite god? Darshan queues at the temple can be twenty four 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. Funnily enough, in India, retailers who have taken this as gospel truth and worked hard to offer immunity from 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 competition 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?

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