Americans can’t queue.
They’re not like the Italians, who approach a queue with the very best of intentions but are so overwhelmed with the intensity of their passions when they see the bus arrive, or the beauteous visage of the bank teller, that they’re compelled to rush forward en masse, turning a nearly-straight line into chaos. Instead, they’re more like a small child that has seen adults queueing before, and thinks she knows what’s going on, but hasn’t quite grasped the nuances yet.
The problem, as far as I can tell, is that Americans don’t see a queue as an entity in and of itself. Instead, they see the queue as a means to an end, and the thing foremost in their minds is achieving their goal, and not participating in the queue. I see it on the subway, I see it waiting for elevators, I see it in any shop with multiple servers or any bank of machines where there’s no roped-off single line. This last case is the one that causes me particular heartache: let me attempt to demonstrate with the below picture (which, incidentally, shows the interesting case in Saudi Arabia where men and women queue separately.)
Let’s imagine there are three servers at the counter in this McDonalds, each of which has only one customer, and that there is one person waiting in the centre a few steps behind those being served. I, naturally, stand behind this person, creating a single two-person queue, members of which will be served by the next available server. An American arrives behind me, and sees (in their mind) a two-person queue for the centre till, and no queue for the other tills. They then immediately walk up to one of the side tills and form their own queue. I cry a little and take out my smartphone to look for flights back home.
New Yorkers, by-the-by, don’t even queue. Instead, they stand or wait on line – and it took me quite a while to realise that people weren’t talking about being online in some bizarre situations – and I’ve never heard someone ask “is this the line?” or “is this the queue?” but always “are you on line?”.
The British, on the other hand, take queues very seriously. Even when there is no space to form an actual queue, Brits will find a way to establish one. A common techniques is “who’s last?” or “you’re after me” (verbally or through eye-contact) with nods and hand gestures to quickly show the server at the front of the queue whom to see to next. Queueing etiquette can briefly be summarised as first come first served, with the caveats that one may not join a queue until one is ready to be served and that all those who intend to be served must join the queue in order.
A minor breach of etiquette is met with small stares that are not withdrawn until well after half a second of eye contact is made. A major breach is met with the harshest of punishments: tutting. Some overly modern Brits will attempt an even sterner response, stage whispering “can you believe that?” but actions such as this serve only to cause embarrassment to the speaker, not the originally guilty party. The perfect tut is formed on the lips, and well-seen, but just inaudible, and a person receiving two or more tuts is likely to leave the area never to return.
I, perhaps, take queues even more seriously again. After all, I spent many of the formative years of my life serving them in a variety of exciting jobs. At the city centre McDonald’s in Cardiff we had 9 tills and a five-person fast lane, where we set the ‘most customers served per hour’ McDonald’s record back in 2002. Even there, after an FA Cup final or Stereophonics gigs, I saw queueing etiquette followed and a remarkable a lack of pushing.
If that’s not enough to show my love, back in University, I was a member of the Queueing Society (QueueSoc) whose members subscribed to the reverse of the American principle, and would queue with no goal whatsoever. We even tried to bring members of the public into the fold, setting up queues to nowhere that went around blind corners, with the eventual aim of having a queue that led absolutely nowhere populated only by members of the general public. We even succeeded a couple of times in Birmingham city centre and, although people tried to look bemused as they came to the end, I think our unspoken message got through to them and that they were glad of a break from the rampant capitalism that causes the majority of queues in the centre.
Yeah, I’m a Pretty Cool Guy.