English people like to queue.
Sometimes this is wholly appropriate. At the bus stop everyone knows exactly who got to the stop in which order. Even if people don’t actually wait in a line, they form one as soon as the bus pulls up, in the precise order of arrival. The English have a very keen sense of what constitutes fairness, and get very irate if this is trampled over by someone pushing in the line out of turn.
Today amongst the many people waiting at the bus stop was a large group of teenage boys from a generic, non-English-speaking European country. As the bus pulled in, said group of boys started to push their way to the front of the queue, even though they shouldn’t have.
Usually if such an incident occurs, someone will give the perpetrator(s) a dirty look, roll their eyes, tut, and begin to gossip about it to their friend on the bus.
However, today was no ordinary day. One lady got extremely angry. She was so outraged by the queue jumping that she lost her cool and not only gave a look that could kill, but actually addressed the boys directly. I’m not even kidding.
“There is a queue, you know,” she informed them icily.
A few of the boys, caught in her death stare, shuffled to the back of the line, but not all of them.
“Don’t they know how to queue?” the lady muttered in disgust.
“That’s foreigners for you,” replied her boyfriend.
I’m telling you, us crazy Brits and our wild, irrational emotions. I’m surprised we haven’t all killed each other in one huge frenzied crime of passion yet.
British queues are not always appropriate though. Take Starbucks, for example. Yes, line up to place your order, but for goodness sake, you don’t need to line up to get your drinks at the next counter! Your order is placed, so there’s no chance of anyone pushing in front of you any more, and there isn’t space for two lines. Bunch up, people, and just step forward when your drink gets called out.
Americans do not believe in queues. Sometimes this seems like exactly the right approach (see above story about Starbucks).
Other times, however, a nice orderly line would not go amiss.
I was on a flight from Chicago to Minneapolis last summer where some of the bags, including mine, didn’t make it onto the plane.
When we arrived at O’Hare, we were directed to the small customer service office to give details of where our bags should be delivered the next day.
About twenty-five people crammed into the room, pushing and shoving and yelling, like a herd of goats stuck in a bathroom stall. Each person thought they were the most important, urgent case; each person felt entitled to be dealt with first.
It took me a full five minutes of standing there in shocked disbelief, being shunted this way and that, to realize that people were not going to form a line and wait their turn. Because no one thought they should wait, anger and irritation levels increased, no one had a minute to calm down and remember their manners, and there was general mayhem.
I got really homesick at that precise moment. I wanted a few tuts, some sarcastic asides and the chance to complain bitterly to others. But most of all, I wanted a queue, stretching from here to infinity, moving slowly forward, restoring order, common sense, and a reassuring sense of fairness and turn-taking.
But, alas, this story takes place on American soil. So I, like everyone else, sharply elbowed my way to the front, grabbed a clipboard and form out of someone else’s hands, and threw it back (albeit fairly gently) to the desk lady.
I walked away from the encounter a little confused. The American voice in my head was congratulating me for taking care of myself. The British voice (which sounds suspiciously like my Mother’s) was berating me for forgetting my manners and behaving unfairly.
In the end, my Mother and my British guilt won out and I decided I do prefer to be in queues, but only when they’re appropriate.