At the recommendation of a friend due on the fact that we will be moving to England soon, I recently started reading “Watching the English“, a humorous book by social anthropologist Kate Fox that describes what is considered to be proper etiquette and behavior among the English. Last night I read the section on queuing and found the behavior and expectations described to be fairly similar to the social standards and behaviors I am familiar with from growing up in the Midwest region of the United States.
This morning, the missus, our daughter, and myself were heading to our local CPAM (France’s social security) office to update my wife’s status. On the walk, we discussed what I had read the precious evening. One thing I brought up from the book is a habit that, apparently, the English share with many Americans wherein there is a situation where there are two tellers/cashiers/ATMs/whathaveyou, and no preset system of queuing (ropes, rails, etc.) exist. In this case, it seems the English will tend to form a single line, with the first person in line going to the next available opening. We laughed because the French totally don’t do this. Either they don’t know how, they don’t care, they don’t want to or, sometimes, they believe that they have the right to go to whatever is open next, regardless of who has been waiting.
Fast-forward about an hour. We have updated the wife’s status, and are now going to utilize the automatic kiosks near the front door in order to request our European medical cards*. The layout here is not done very well, it is basically a dead end with the two kiosks situated in a row slightly to the left, so there is really only one way in or out. Meaning that when you are done, you have to walk back out through the line of people waiting to use one of the kiosks.
Through a stroke of luck, we arrive when there isn’t a huge line, and are quickly at the front. Instinctively, we hold back so that we can move to the next available kiosk. A line forms behind us. Of course, you know where this is going…
That’s right. Despite 1) there being an obvious queue of people, and 2) the obviousness that we, being at the front of the queue, are forming a specific line for either of the kiosks, some woman comes squeezing past us to go wait behind the person using the kiosk which is further away.
I didn’t know whether to laugh at the absurdity of this French woman, or slap her around a bit. I eventually decided to call her out on it.
I get her attention.
I jerk my thumb over my shoulder.
She feigns surprise at her line-jumping, tries to mutter a sheepish “Je suis désolé,” and moves herself to the back of the line.
Now, some people may think this is a bit of a one-off but, rest assured, this is the general attitude here in France.
Queues, you see, are for other people. Not me.
Now, of course, some may also think that every French person acts this way, which is untrue. As evidenced by what happened in the line after us.
As we finally move up to the next open kiosk (the closer of the two), we start doing what we need to do. I see an older woman walking up to the further kiosk, and suddenly I hear a man loudly telling her that there is a line. I turn around and, sure enough the man is at the front of the queue, with people behind him, and this woman thought she could just skedaddle past them all.
In an astonishing escalation, she started to argue to the point with him. He is telling her that there is a line and she is responding with “Je vu ! Je vu !” Which, essentially, means “Yeah, I saw it.”
Uh-huh. She didn’t even care that there was a line, and thought a valid argument against the people who have been waiting and called out her line-jumping was to tell them that she knows the line is there (implying that she doesn’t care).
So, there you have the yin and the yang of it. I’d like to say that most French are like us or that guy and actively try to form logical queues but, regretfully, it seems that most are like the two ladies who thought that THEY d0n’t have to abide by the norms of civilized people. Over three years of living her has taught me this.
Oh, and NEVER go the McDonalds by Bellecour at lunch or dinner time. Trust me. There is no queue there, only a mob.
*This card allows you to receive medical treatment in participating European countries under your resident country’s medical coverage. We are getting it as a “just in case” thing for when we go to England, as we are covered under France’s social security for quite a while.