The English queue even in a crowded bar, when the casual observer might see no physical evidence. But is this any different to the Canadians, or Singaporeans, both high quality queuing nations? Why do the English queue. I think I have the secret.
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My personal bible for this sort of discussion is Watching the English by Kate Fox. Kate explored how foreigners viewed the English and their queues. Here are some quotes:
‘The queue for the bus, for example … everybody stands in a line and gets on one by one in order. It drives me crazy – it is so slow! Here in Italy we stand near the sign and when the bus comes we all get on – quickly!’
Hungarian George Mikes: “On the continent, if people are waiting at a bus-stop they loiter around in a seemingly vague fashion. When the bus arrives they make a dash for it … An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.’
Kate Fox notes : “Where there is an ambiguity, such as the ‘two cashiers at one counter’ problem …we often simply resolve it of our own accord, silently and without fuss – in this case by forming a single orderly queue, a few feet back from the counter, so that the customer at the front can step forward whenever one of the cashiers becomes free. We also often form these scrupulously fair single queues when buying tickets from a row of machines. …many of the foreign visitors I interviewed regard these processes with open-mouthed amazement. Bill Bryson comments glowingly on exactly the same typical queuing scenario in his book about England.
And of queue jumping: “Paradoxically, it is only in England, where queue-jumping is regarded as deeply immoral, that the queue-jumper is likely to get away with the offence. We huff and puff and scowl and mutter and seethe with righteous indignation, but only rarely do we actually speak up and tell the jumper to go to the back of the queue.
George Mikes: ‘A man in a queue is a fair man; he is minding his own business; he lives and lets live; he gives the other fellow a chance; he practises a duty while waiting to practise his own rights; he does almost everything an Englishman believes in doing.’
Social awkwardness is key
Here’s the theory I like – a chronic and national social awkwardness; Kate Fox’s ‘social dis-ease’. The English do not like to stand out, or get in the way, we will avoid confrontation – unless we are on a hen party or stag night of course. That means being scrupulously fair. This in turn makes queue jumping in any form an ethical issue. And what do you need to avoid queue jumping? Paradoxically, you need a queue. So that you can’t be accused of jumping it.