Sunday, February 21, 2010

Mind the Queue (a cultural note from Jon)

So, let's start with the basics.  In Britain, it's not a 'line" it's a queue.  Etymology? Apparently French, meaning "tail."  That makes sense enough.

More importantly, queues are a major cultural live-wire.  In Britain, you don't "jump the queue," if you you do, they may jump you.  Not really, but you may feel actual physical pains from the amount of nasty, dagger-eyes slabbing you from behind, and it's entirely possible that you will be publicly shamed.

This is all in theory, of course.  I've never seen it happen.  That's because people are so trained (or scared) not to jump the queue that they don't.  Ever.  Seriously, I've never seen someone jump the queue.  One clearly immigrant guy at the grocery store lost his head a few weeks ago and walked right in front of me to take his place at the self-serve checkout machine.  But he only lasted a nano-second before he popped right around and excused himself profusely to me for forgetting there was a queue.  Not that I had said anything.

O wait, Amelia has just read this over my shoulder and reminded me we did see ONE person ONCE jump the queue.  And it was raining at a outdoor light festival at the Cathedral and some folks walked right into the Cathedral rather than stand patiently for 30 minutes in the rain to get in.  Someone yelled sharply at the them, "MIND THE QUEUE!!!"  We were coming out and had, of course, not waited in the rain. (We don't really have British patience for queues.)  We used good ol' American ingenuity and went around to the back entrance where there was no line! Ha-ha!

This is all a lead-in to yesterday.  We were standing in a queue, and my impatience began to kick in.  "Why am I feeling culturally annoyed?" I asked myself.  We had traveled to York by car and parked at the Park and Ride to take the bus into town to see the Jorvik Viking Festival.  Here's the scene:

A small canopy with some benches for what would be a normal amount of commuters to the city centre.  One bus pulled up to the curb (double-length) with two more behind it.  A queue of would-be Jorvik celebrators and York-shoppers standing some 200 long all streaming from the one bus in front of the one canopy.  Each buying their tickets from the bus driver for the first bus.  The other two buses are just waiting.  No movement from their drivers.  No movement from the queue.

I realized then that it was entirely possible (if not likely) that in the States people would not wait patiently in the queue for the first bus but would break their line in half and begin trying to get onto the second or even the third bus.  In a very logical way, everyone would get to their destination sooner if they all split up and got on three different buses with three different drivers giving out three different sets of tickets.  But not in Britain.  In Britain, you "Mind the Queue."

That meant that everyone waited until the first bus was loaded, then the second one drove up and it too was patiently loaded, then the third, and so on.  Quietly. Orderly.  With no one but my inner American having showing the slightest sense of annoyance at this way of doing things.

Oh well.  It could be worse.  I could be in a hurry all the time instead of trying to slow down and let things take their time like the Brits do.  (I wonder if they would ever have road rage here... I doubt it.)  And after all, it could be worse.  I could be in Russia.  There (correct me if I'm wrong Karen), if you see a queue you get in it and you wait.  You may have no idea what it's for, but if there's a queue, it's probably worth having, and Russians can wait a LONG time in their lines.  5 hours I once spent in a queue in Russia!  (Long winters have trained them well for patience, I guess.)

So, remember, when in Britain, mind the queue!


Orrey said...

I think what we experienced when driving from the Newcastle airport to Durham on our first day could almost technically be considered 'road rage'.

Grace H. Lin said...

I believe it, Jon... I never knew that "queues" were so important to the British until I was scolded once at the airport...

About five years ago, John and I had arrived in Taiwan and were standing in line to go through customs. We decided to "divide and conquer" so John stood in one line and I stood in another. My line was going faster so then JOhn just came and stood with me. Well, a nice-looking, tall, young British man who stood behind me and got really upset that we had done that. He said, "Well, I'm not surprised since you're an American" (he saw my passport). I didn't know what to say and felt really bad. So I apologized and asked if he wanted to get in front of us (I don't know what I thought this would make it all better but it was all I could think of at that point!). He said that it wouldn't matter since we had cut in front of all the people standing behind him. He just turned his nose up in the air and refused to look at me. No kidding! Then, this older Asian lady in front of us scolded us too for making us Chinese people look bad to a white man. I started crying afterwards.

Never will I do that again! Haha.

In Asia, there's no such thing as lines. Whoever gets there first - whether you squeeze, shove, or yell out your order - gets served first. Living in Monterey Park (which is 99% Chinese immigrants), I've gotten so annoyed by people who would cut in front of me at the grocery store, just because there's 6 inches of space between me and the conveyer belt. If I'm at a fast food Chinese restaurant, people will call out their order from behind me even though I'm right in front of them! I've had to speak up and stand my ground, which isn't always easy since they're usually elderly.

Anglican Student US said...

Ooo, Orrey, do tell!

OMG! "Wow" to both your stories. I think the elderly Chinese lady in the passport line should be more concerned about the Brit making Himself look bad! (Very interesting (and sad) that she would be so concerned about what a 'white man' thinks.) Queue etiquette is based on the host culture you're in. I doubt one is really better than another. I certainly think Mexico doesn't believe in lines. When we landed in Cancun for our honeymoon nearly ten years ago, there was just one huge (1,500-2,000 people) mass of people squished into one HOT (no a/c) room with six or seven gates at the front. No line to be seen. Push and shove (within a certain range) was the prevailing way and eventually you got through it.
But 6 inches! Yikes, man. That's cutthroat! I wouldn't last. I'd be smiling and bowing and letting every old Chinese lady cut in front of me (thinking they were all so adorable), probably! But then, again, after a while, maybe I'd grow elbows and subtle basketball-like "blocking" maneuvers!

An anthropologist at UT once told a class I was in, "Anthropology is the study of other people's trash." He didn't mean it exactly literally, but culture lives in the things we say and do in everyday queues/lines. It's a "discard" from the culture. Noone's sitting down writing out "Now, here is what you do in a queue..." You just pick it up as you "swim" in the culture. So, since anthropology is the study of's often dealing with "discarded" messages. (I probably should have been an anthropologist because I think cultures are just FASCINATING!)

Thanks for your comments! =)

Grace H. Lin said...

Yeah, you're too nice, Jon. But then again, I can't see little old ladies trying to cut in front of you =). I have so many Chinese grocery store stories... recently, I picked up a package of meat only to have it snatched out of my hands by an old lady. Um, hello?!?!

I admit, I can be racist against my own ethnicity. I need to be better about loving my people =).

Heather C said...

In Germany, the person with the sharpest elbows makes it to the front of the queue. We had to learn to go outside of what we felt was polite as Americans and be uncomfortably aggressive to hold our place in line or we'd never make it to the front.

Dawn said...

Such an interesting discussion! I greatly enjoyed the post and the comments!

Janet said...

Who knew that queues/lines were so interesting in different cultures. It would be fascinating to find out what the people were really like that "elbowed" their way to front or yelled their orders ahead of you in line. Also, I wonder what I would do after a bit of time of being at the back of the line for more than a few minutes -- like being in line at the Texas Motor Vehicle Dept when time seems as if it is a different time zone or warp or rift in "regular time." I hope I would be generous and let the elbowers and shouters roll off my back. I have learned to take a book to read while waiting in line. However, after a lot of provocation, I might be a screaming, bumping, elbower, with a slimy snarl....but I hope not.