Forming a neat queue is inscribed in we Brits’ DNA. Not so our French counterparts. Our two countries are separated only by a 30-mile stretch of water, but in some respects it might as well be 30 light years. Having lived here for nearly 18 years, I don’t notice some of the cultural differences anymore or have happily embraced them. But there are still aspects of French life and culture that I don’t get. Queuing is one of them.
How do you queue in the UK (or when I lived there, anyway; it might have changed)?
Answer: line up in an orderly fashion, one behind the other, and wait your turn to be served.
How do you queue in France?
Answer: this is somewhat more complicated and operates according to the three-metre principle and the random position rule.
The three-metre principle
If you are next in line for the distributeur de billets (cash machine) at the bank, make sure you stand three metres from the person using it without actually standing outside the door. To some extent, this is fair enough. That person doesn’t want you seeing their code confidentiel. But perhaps three metres is a bit excessive.
Our local bank branch has automatic doors. If you are unfortunate enough to have someone queuing in front of you who works on the three-metre principle, you make the doors open and close nonstop. Not only is this irritating, it’s also uncomfortable when an icy gale is blowing, as I experienced 10 days ago.
The random position rule
Queuing at La Poste operates along similar lines, only they don’t have automatic doors. Customers take up random positions around the room, so that it’s difficult to tell whose turn it is. Even those in the ‘queue’ sometimes forget and look quizzically at each other trying to work it out.
If you are unable to adopt either of the above
It’s not so easy to adopt the random position rule or the three-metre principle at the supermarket checkout. But you can still cause désagrément to those behind you by staying at the end of the conveyor belt and preventing them from unloading their shopping onto it.
However, I have my strategy for dealing with this. No, it’s not ramming my trolley into their shins. I smile sweetly, point at the empty conveyor and ask, ‘Je peux?’ This usually works.
The milling about chaotically approach
The worst queuing experience I have ever had was when I took an exam in Toulouse. But this was the organisers’ fault, not the examinees’. Several hundred people milled about in front of a line of tables waiting to register. It wasn’t until you got to the front that you realised it was organised alphabetically according to your surname.
You then had to locate the right position, which was invariably not the one you were at. More milling about took place, leading to near chaos, so the exam started 15 minutes late. Why didn’t they post up A-F, G-L etc visibly on the wall behind? Or is that too British?
However, I am prepared to forgive the French all their queuing foibles, because they greet everyone when they enter a shop or a restaurant. You don’t get that in the UK, where everyone pretends no one else is there.
This post should be taken with a pinch of salt. But, as with all stereotypes, my queuing typology contains a grain of truth.
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