Why Can't Germans Queue?
The eagle eyed among you may have noticed that England is having a few problems. Brexit still hangs in the air like a particularly stale fart, rail networks are collapsing under the weight of their own incompetence and a footballer got a tattoo. As bad as it sounds, it gets worse. Apparently, young people don’t feel patriotic. According to a recent survey, only 45% of 18-24 year olds said that they were proud to be English. The results of the survey sparked a debate on social media and among the media at large over what it was to be English and whether pride was an appropriate emotion for a country famed for being unable to express any emotions at all. When it comes to questions of national pride, I generally defer to the German comedian and commentator Jan Böhmermann’s position, that it is better to be “proud of not being proud”.
Despite this general view, there is one area of Englishness that I do find an immense sense of pride: the English ability to queue. Queuing in England has reached a level akin to performance art. Up and down the country, the English are forming queues and standing in line with a near silent patience that should be admired the world over. We queue for toilets, for clubs and for deep fried chicken. Rarely to we need any prompting to form a queue, just an in-built knowledge that the best way to wait for anything is in a line. Some countries require signage such as “Queue here” to guide patrons, but the English hive-mind knows where and when a queue is required and acts accordingly.
The English need little external policing of their queues since queue management is often a collective responsibility. Those who attempt to “push in” after a queue has formed will be met with an overwhelming array of tuts and muttered phrases such as “Typical”. It takes someone of true steel and determination to weather such as storm of passive aggression, either that or being French.
We have not only mastered linier queuing but have also expanded our repertoire to include queuing two abreast, tandem queuing and the ever-elusive serpentine. To fully grasp the English art of the queue, simply go to any pub. Here you will find the highest achievement of English culture the Flush Queue. This example involves a queue forming flush against the bar in a horizontal line. This can be a source of confusion to the uninitiated, given the fact that it is not always clear who is first. Of course, the English all know who is first, due to highly developed peripheral vision. This helps us identify the rightful head of the queue and avoid any accusations of staring at the person next to you. Thus, the punishment for skipping the pub queue must be severe. Pub queue skippers know the order and have chosen anarchy and for that, the punishment can only be expulsion from the premises.
Having learned the ancient English rituals of the queue, I was therefore ill prepared for how the Germans operate their own system of queuing. Instead of observing the solemn ceremony of lining up, the Germans have chosen to turn their queues into a full contact sport. Standing close enough to touch the person in front is accepted as the norm here, something that would earn a straight red card and a forceful rebuke in England. Sometimes I’m unsure if I’m waiting for the next cashier or being coerced into creating an involuntary Human Centipede. Fear of coming into skin on skin contact with a stranger aside, the Germans have also chosen to queue jockey, which is to say jump from queue to queue in the hope that one will move faster than the other. There is no more chaotic a scene than the moment a cashier opens a new checkout on a busy Friday afternoon. I have seen pleasant old ladies move at lighting speed, all elbows and fake knees, snarling with indignation at the idea that someone might get their groceries a second before them.
If further proof were needed of the havoc that a German queue can inspire, catch a flight to any airport in Germany. At the departure gate, the first thing you will notice are the keen-eyed Germans, strapping on running shoes, applying war paint and readying their gum guards in case they are required to sprint to the front. Every announcement is met with bird like head twitches, ready and waiting for their opportunity to elbow drop a family of three to get on the plane 3.5 seconds before them. Once a queue has somewhat formed, don’t be surprised to find our Teutonic cousins forming sub-queues, to the left and right of the main line, to baffle and bemuse other travellers and hopefully beat the time-honoured system of patiently waiting their turn. Either that, or they wait in small groups for a chance to skip ahead while someone scrabbles around looking for their ticket.
Like anything in Germany, there is a process. It might be aggressive, it might involve the terror of someone accidently brushing your arm and it might mean a little jostling. If I’m honest, I have grown to appreciate the German queue, in-spite of my English cultural programming. How often in life are we afforded the opportunity to offer some “Sweet Chin Music” to a ten-year-old trying to buy socks at C&A on a Tuesday afternoon? Never, that’s how often. I might respect the great cultural gift my English forbearers have handed down to me in the form of the queue, but they also gave me immense social awkwardness, meaning I always end up offering up my space in the queue, out of a misguided sense of politeness. I say long live the the German queue, especially since I’ve just ordered knuckle dusters for the next time I go to Aldi.