A Crisis Of Queues.

A perfectly ordinary thing happened to me yesterday afternoon.

I had to queue in an office- in this case, my local social welfare office. I was there to navigate the complicated waters of signing on for social welfare when you have some part-time freelance work. Yesterday’s trip through the citizens information website had left me more baffled that I’d started. I figured I should just go to the office, explain my situation and see where to go next.

A short aside for those of you from the US: I gather that in your part of the world it’s seen as a sign of moral decrepitude to accept money from the state if you’re broke. This is not the case here. Signing on may not be fun, but it’s perfectly ordinary. In my experience, it’s not seen as reflecting on your character in the slightest.

Drawing the dole might not reflect on ones character. But you know what does? Queueing.

I arrive at the office. A security guard comes up to me as I’m working out where to go, and asks me if he can help me. I explain my situation- change of circumstances from signing on to something more complicated- and he points me in the direction of a desk. Lovely man.

I start to queue. A few minutes in, I realise I’m in the wrong queue- a fairly common side-effect of normally going by the second half of a double-barrelled surname. So I join the other line.

And am gripped by a powerful sense of anxiety. One which, I suspect (and I’ll be looking for your feedback on this bit) is particular to those of us who grew up in parts of what used to be the British Empire.

You see, I might yet be in the wrong queue.

For some of you this might not be a crisis. I’m told that you might see this as nothing worse than an inconvenience. The possibility of spending another fifteen or twenty minutes in a different line, if it turns out you were wrong. I’m told that for some people, the inability to queue correctly might not be seen as a moral failure on par with the inability to wear reasonably clean clothes, or to thank the bus driver as you get out.

Although I hear that for some of you, thanking the bus driver isn’t a thing either. We live in different worlds, where incorrect queuing says nothing about your worth as a human and you just walk out of buses without saying a word.

To my finely-honed sensibilities? I was faced with an impossible conundrum. On one hand, I could leave the queue and try the desk at the other side of the office. To do that, though, would mean walking past the security guard. He would know that I didn’t trust his expertise. What if it spoiled his day? What if a few minutes later, another person stood perplexed in front of the notice board and he didn’t feel like he could advise them? What if this means that they, too, ended up in the wrong queue?

But staying? Staying could be even worse. There were people in line behind me. They couldn’t be any happier than me to be standing in line at a social welfare office. If I stayed in this line and it was the wrong one, and if it took the lady at the desk some time to work out what to do with me, I could end up wasting five, maybe even ten minutes of their day.

With four or five people behind me? That’s more than a half hour of lived time that I could be taking from them. Throwing precious minutes of their one and only lives into the dustbin of standing in a line. What kind of person does that?!

Of course, it all turned out fine. I was in the right line. The lady at the desk was helpful and professional, and had my situation sorted out in just a few minutes.

Enough time, though, that I still made a point of apologising profusely to the people still waiting as I left.

But I want to know: is this a cultural thing? Is it just me? Or is this kind of anxiety universal? I have a hunch that it’s something to do with a combination of our ex-British colonial nothing of proper queueing as a pinnacle of civilised behaviour, where there’s nothing worse that bothering someone unnecessarily. But I could be wrong. It could just be me.

A Crisis Of Queues.
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12 thoughts on “A Crisis Of Queues.

  1. 1

    As an American, I’d probably ask a few people ahead of me, “I think this is the queue for (X) — is that what you think, too?” I assume that, in your part of the world, that amount of talking to strangers might get one locked up, right?

    Also, as an American, I’ve never had to type the word “queueing” before. What a nightmare. Are there any other English words that have five vowels in a row?

  2. 2

    Nobody at social services offices I have been to apologizes for anything,* not the caseworkers, not the clients. And while I have thanked cabbies, because that tends to be more of a one-on-one situation and social decorum seems to expect niceties in such sort of public interactions, I have never even heard of thanking bus drivers! We USians are a damn rude bunch.

    *Oh, except for the nurse who gave my kid a shot that made her faint. Even then it was more of “I am sorry you feel so terrible” and less “I am sorry I caused your troubles.”

    1. 2.1

      I’ve heard that our habit of apologising for everything is a bit of an Irish thing. Like the way that we say ‘sorry’ instead of ‘excuse me’ when asking people to make way for us?

      Thanking bus drivers is DEFINITELY a thing here. People leaving the bus at a busy stop is just a huge line of “thanks.. Thanks.. Thanks.. Thanks!”.

      And then sometimes if you’re on an intercity bus, by the time you leave the driver will have gotten out to open the baggage compartment. Which sometimes leads to the awkward situation where you know that you should thank someone, but you don’t know who.

      1. That’s kind of adorable from where I’m sitting. It’s also a good thing to know if Spouse and I ever manage to finally visit his paternal grandfather’s country of origin. Thank and/or apologize to everyone we see, got it! Heh.

        Aside– public buses have baggage compartments? As far as I can remember, we only have those on interstate buses run by private companies like Greyhound.

        1. Not only do public buses have baggage compartments, but they talk! With a really old-fashioned Irish accent!

          (and here I try to embed a youtube link into a comment. WISH ME LUCK)

  3. 3

    [quote]Which sometimes leads to the awkward situation where you know that you should thank someone, but you don’t know who.[/quote]
    (apologies for the botched formatting if I missed something… isn’t there a code reminder and a preview button under the reply box usually?)

    And they say we Canadians are the polite ones! πŸ™‚

    Had I been in your situation, I would have been anxious, but that’s because I’ve had some bad interactions with the government thanks to three (THREE!) clerks who had *not* understood properly my situation when I needed help with filling social welfare forms while working part-time. And yes, I ended up fined for $1,000, because it’s my fault for not knowing the intricacies of the law well enough to spot the glaring mistake made by the clerks I went to for help.

    Arg… that aside, I used to be kinda anxious of wasting someone’s time, until a few years ago. I don’t know what triggered it, but I figured that I’m allowed to make mistakes in good faith. Like you, I would still feel unable to clearly reject the guard’s directions, but before changing lines, I would probably have found a way to double-check with him. That way, whatever happens next is his fault. πŸ˜›

    1. 3.1

      I’ll see if I can check that out with the Powers That Tech. Go for html, not BB code πŸ™‚

      And that’s awful about the social welfare clerks!

      I find here that as long as I go in and let them know what’s going on, it’s more-or-less up to them to make sure I get the right forms and signed up for things. I can imagine it being far more stressful even than it is if I were expected to have an in-depth knowledge of the welfare system as well as everything else.

      On the other hand, I’m also pretty lucky- I’ve got reasonably simple needs (no kids or rent allowance or illness benefit to worry about), and the massive privilege of looking and sounding middle-class. It helps a LOT.

      I love that realisation about making mistakes in good faith! I can be really tough on myself- sometimes to the point of inaction- and it’s a long hard slog to let myself be imperfect.

    1. 4.1

      In fairness, my anxiety over being in the wrong queue was eclipsed (just!) by fear over what would happen if I was found to not have told social welfare about my new circumstances the very second they happened.

      Which is, you know, a far more realistic sort of thing to be scared about.

  4. 5

    Thanking (and greeting, saying goodbye to) bus drivers is basic decency here – that’s someone who has your lives in his or her hands every day on the commute! Nothing is more unpleasant than sitting in the bus with a pissed off driver, at 130 km/h on the motorway.
    As for queues, ex-soviet bloc countries like mine (CZ) have queuing in our blood, it’s like second nature to just pick a line and wait, to smile and give advice to anyone confused. But then nowadays there are ticket systems in most government offices, so queues only form early morning at the ticket machines.

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