Saturday, 18 December 2010


I was waiting for a bus a fortnight ago in Cesky Krumlov. There was quite a crowd of people at the bus stop, but none of them were queuing. That includes me - a Brit! We all milled around chatting, I and a number of others sat on a bench. The bus appeared and still no queue materialised, instead everyone moved towards the bus door and formed a disordered huddle. It was a very polite huddle, but a huddle nonetheless. The only friction arose when some schoolchildren pushed in front of an elderly lady, but they soon were put in their place by a stern word.

Then a few days ago I waited for a bus in Cheltenham. Of course there was a queue. There would have been a queue, regardless of how many people were waiting. In fact the Brits will form a queue of one - I do. There's an empty bus stop, what do I do? I stand next to the sign looking in the direction of the bus. Arrivals at the bus stop then form a queue behind me. If anyone pushes into the queue they are subjected to stares and even the muttered comment "Some people have no manners, really!" But they are unlikely to be challenged.

Such queuing behaviour is relatively easily to read for non-Brits, what is more difficult is the virtual queue. What do I mean by that? Well, a good example is in a pub. In my youth I worked as a barmaid and so had an opportunity to observe it closely. You do not form a queue when you want to buy a beer, but there is a virtual queue. The barman serves people in the order in which they arrived at the bar. To register your presence with the barman you catch his eye, often with a jerk of the head backwards. He will nod to acknowledge you and then you wait your turn. This can be problematic in a very crowded bar, but as a barmaid I soon learned that the skill of remembering the order of the virtual queue is essential.

Once a snooty customer said to me ""When are you going to serve me, I'm an undergraduate of Oxford University?" There was a stunned silence in the bar, fellow students tried to hide and the locals clenched their teeth. Every rule of English behaviour had been broken.

In such a circumstance the barmaid is entitled to lose her British reserve. "And I'm a graduate," I replied, "And you'll bloody well wait your turn."  General cheers. 

I've heard the argument that the British queuing habit is due to rationing. But I think that is complete tosh. Rationing was over 50 years ago and still we are doing it. Plus I rather suspect that under the Nazis and then under the Communists the Czech too would have been used to queuing, indeed Czech bureaucracy still requires it. They just don't do it all the time.


Philip Wilkinson said...

One of Russian novelist Vladimir Sorokin's novels, The Queue, first published in France in 1986, consists entirely of dialogue that takes place in a Moscow queue. After decades of this kind of communist queuing, no wonder the Czechs now mill around. I suspect, on the other hand, that British queueing goes back further in time than rationing. It certainly goes deep into the British psyche.

potok said...

Then there is Anna Akhmatova's remarkable poem The Requiem. In this the poet is inspired to write about the sufferings of the Russian people during the Stalinist terror by her experience in a queue outside the prison in which her son is being held.

Karin said...

I live in Greece, where the the idea of queueing does not exist at all! My British friends who live in Greece, and go back to England twice a year lament that queueing there is not happening much and the young have NO manners at all! In the USA, where I am visiting now, people do not form a line, as such, but no one (so far) has butted to the head of the line, they more or less notice who was before them and then wait until their turn comes. But every culture is different.

Karen said...

I think it's the general law-abiding nature of Brits. I remember once when I was teaching English to a class of Czech executives, one of them said that was what he admired the most about British people: they viewed the law as created on their behalf and followed it. It's a lovely compliment, isn't it?

Queueing seems so self-evident but I appreciated how the Czechs labeled the cement subway platform directions pointing out how to get on and off the metro so that those getting on knew where to generally aim and where those getting off would be headed. One can't assume in a world capital that everyone will think alike.

Turks don't queue. For example, I've watched them try and get on a grocery shuttle and not wait first for the person loaded down with groceries to get off first. I always want to say '' don't worry, no one is going to forget you!'' I'll have to get one of them to explain to me why queueing is not a Turkish thing.


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