standing in line – a nerd’s analysis and international relations

 

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Paris, not The Happiest Place on Earth

 

A buddy of mine is visiting the Happiest Place on Earth at the moment. On FB, he mentioned that there at Disneyworld there were some parents pushing their way forward in line, and how it was mostly people from other countries. 

I don’t know about you, but I see this, and it makes me crazy.

Maybe it’s me getting older, but it feels like I am more aware of these little rules all around us that just make things “go better.” Minute assumptions or agreements we all kind of make so society doesn’t run off the rails.

Using turn signals, letting people off the elevator before you try to get on, and standing in an organized line. Putting your luggage inn the overhead so that others can fit theirs, too. Eating your meal and then leaving the restaurant, so they can fill the table after you. 

You know, “normal.” When we don’t just do these simple things, chaos ensues, and it bothers me at a level so deep it’s embarrassing, sometimes. 


But here’s the thing

These assumptions of normal are different all over the world. Of course I know this in an academic way, from my schooling. I know this in a rational way, like any educated person does – disparate cultures are different, and have “different ways.” All of this knowledge goes out the window, or really never entered my mind, when I see someone jumping line. 

What? 

Fuuuuuuuuuuckyyyouuuuuuuuuuuu, buddy. I don’t care where you grew up. Get back to the end of the line and wait your goddamn turn to buy the new Harry Potter and the Chamber of Gandalf book, before I make a Gladiator-level spectacle here. Or have an aneurysm while I quietly fume.  

It happens when I’m traveling, too. Where the hell is my waiter? All these people drive like madmen! Why can’t we even all just stand in a simple line?

This is of course, ridiculous of me. Let’s talk about standing in line, in America.


In America…

If you grew up there when I did, when you were in Kindergarten or 1st grade some teacher yelled at you or whooped your ass until you learned to stand in a straight line.

Standing in line was never fun; you had to keep quiet, not be disruptive or poke people. you were to not make fart noises, and just be patient until you got to the head of the line. Where you quietly did your business then GTFO thank you, so the next kid could pay for their Salisbury steak. Or check out their copy of Green Eggs and Ham. Or whatever. 

So – no fun, keep quiet, no pushing, be patient, it’ll be over sooner if we all just cooperate, don’t be an asshole; it’s more efficient this way. And again: no fun.

That sums up how we feel about lines in American, drummed into us from childhood. A few things we can extract from this: long lines immediately cause stress, even if there’s no other “bad” stimulus laying about. Also, standing in line is kind of a chore; you put in your time, you get your reward. No one would ever choose to stand in line or look forward to it, it’s kind of a necessary evil that will be over soon if we all just settle down. It’s an equalizer – we all stand in line. Mostly. If someone goes to the head of the line, there better be a -serious- fucking reason. Like, they happen to be Ryan Reynolds. Or they spent, like, 10x more on their ticket. 

In the US, this is pretty deeply driven into us. So much so that, at the airport, even if someone had a cowbell around their neck and a standard bearer next to them with a big flag that signified they paid more than 10x what I may have for my ticket, I’d still be pissed if they moved to the front of my line.

So the airport people just make special lines, to avoid this social angst. This goes down much easier, to an American. I may resent the guy in that line for a moment, as I look at my cattle-herd of a line with forlorn despair. But that’s momentary. And maybe this is also American, but a few seconds later I think about how to work the system. “How do I get into that line?” And I start scheming. Live a better life? See up my pennies? Beat up Ryan Reynolds and take his ticket?

All viable options. But that idea of social mobility ( through smarts, money, or violence. #whatever ) is there – a very American thing. 


Lines in other parts of the world – a quick survey

Russia – standing in line is an art form, honed by great experience. The Russians have forgotten more about line-standing than the americans will ever know. They also make serious use of the Different Lines for Different people idea.

Great Britain – same as the US, except maybe a little more accepting of the social strata. “Ho hum, this is my lot in life. I’ll piss down my leg and smile, rather than complain about this line and how I need to use the loo.”

US Hawaiian islands – the “Quantum Line,” where there is a cloud of potential, people in quantum super-position around the area of the register. When you observe the line by asking “who’s in line?” All the people collapse into a recognizable line. If only for a moment. 

Italy – no recognizable queuing up, but maybe there’s one of those little number thingys. But the use of space is a free for all. Nudging up to the front or glass is perfectly fine, because they like to rub bodies here. Buonasera!

India – there are male lines and female lines. This is important because you slink up and spoon the guy immediately ahead of you, and the guy behind you does the same thing to you from behind. There is apparently a perfectly sane reason for this intimacy – to deter line-cutters, who have a refined art to edging in near the front of a line, and pretending they never saw the line to begin with, shocked they’re being called out on it. Hmmmm.

Kenya – a no-line free-for-all, from an American point of view. Let’s talk about this, as a counter to American Line Philosophy. 


Meanwhile, in Kenya

In Kenya, standing in line is at least as much about chatting with your neighbor as it is about getting a particular thing done. No one sweats waiting, because it’s like social time. And at the end there’s this bonus, and you get to order poultry. Or a train ticket, or whatever. If someone is in a hurry, they just move up to the front. This may involve body contact, but eh. We’re all friends here, right? If someone needs to go ahead, they need to go ahead. No problem for me. Why are they so busy? It must suck to be them. 


So what does it all mean?

How we feel about standing in lines is a great insight into our own culture, but also the idea of what you think is normal and rude might be different in other places. 

Do you think they have it “wrong?” That your culture is “right?” I’ll tell you this – regardless of how you feel about wrong and right, you can save yourself a ton of stress if you read up about a culture before you visit a place. “place cultural norms” and “place driving norms” and “place social norms” and “place gestures” are all great google searches. Be prepared for what everyone around you feels is right and wrong, regardless of what you might think. In your back yard, do things your way. In someone else’s garden… when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Beyond lines or traffic or hand gestures… what else is culturally relative? Guns? Social mobility? Freedom of the press? Organized crime?


Big questions to ponder, while standing in line. 

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