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.