Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Etiquette of the Queue

I joined the queue at the bank and congratulated myself for being third in line. It was sure to go fast. Normally we would be using the ATM on the street, but it freezes up in the winter and so we were using a window inside. After 15 minutes, however, we were no closer to the teller and the line was even longer.

Two young men in line behind me seemed to know each other.

"Let's go have a smoke," one said.

When they returned, the guys wanted back their places in line. But first they had to persuade the blond in the cream coat to let them in. After some fussing, she complied but she began a campaign of complaining about the slow service.

The two guys were talking louder now and aiming their remarks at the lady who was first in line. She was wrapped in mink from hat to hemline and had buddied up with lady #2, clad in a cotton coat, scarf knotted under her chin. Lady Mink stayed cool despite the on-going comments from the line and kept signing the long slips of paper that the teller pushed to her through the sliding tray.

"All this waiting for ten rubles, her whole pension," quipped one guy loud enough for all to hear. Her check would be pocket change is what he was saying.

Mrs. Mink didn't look up; she just kept signing her papers.

This wasn't the first time I had observed issues of the queue. Two summers ago, I was 6th or 7th in line, in this very line. As we inched forward, a couple of babyshkas, Russian grandmothers, charged up to the head of the line.

"We're next," they announced. "We've been waiting and we're next."

Actually, they had been resting in chairs along the wall. It's not uncommon here to step out of line to rest or to run another errand. Someone might be in line at the bank, at least in theory, while they are actually at the post office. When they return to the bank 10-15 minutes later, they want their spot back. Those waiting usually accommodate the multi-tasker with a sigh of resignation. But for me, the situation calls for more than a sigh. Perhaps it's all those years of teaching school and monitoring lunch lines, perhaps it's my fondness for etiquette or perhaps it's a reflection of my own culture where one waits in line or loses the spot. So, although I'm learning to be diplomatic about it, I do tend to verbalize displeasure at being pushed back in line. Rarely do I hear anyone else expressing annoyance about this or anything else for that matter.

That summer's day, however, I saw the Russian queue in a new light. The young people in spots 2, 3 and 4 weren't in the mood to be pushed back and they weren't budging. They were standing tight and close.

When the babyshkas got louder, the young security guard came over to investigate. He was blond, boyish and hesitant to get involved. He understood that Russian babyshkas are not timid souls. Chances are he had dealt with a babyshka of his own.

So he tried using persuasion. "Please, people. Please let these grandmothers get in line."

No one moved.

"You've got to let me in line. I'm a hero of the Great Patriotic War!" cried one. With that, she was playing her trump card. Being a war hero has its privileges, which include going to the head of a line and getting a seat on the bus. In theory, at least.

The young woman in spot #2 wasn't impressed.

"Check her documents," she countered. "She's probably just saying that."

Lady #3 had stories of her own. "Well, I've suffered too. My father perished in the war and I was orphaned. Besides that, I had a heart attack last week."

I was rather enjoying the conversation around me. For once I was not involved in upgrading the behavior of the queue.

Another babyshka shuffled into the bank and joined me at the end of the line. She smiled shyly.

"Won't you please allow me ahead of you? I won't take long. And my health isn't so good."

"With pleasure," I said, surprising myself at what a softy I had become.

The security guard overheard our little chat and recognized it as fodder a persuasive speech. He headed back to the front of the line where things were quieter although no one had given in just yet.

"Ladies, there's a foreigner here who was kind enough to let one of our babyshkas in front of her. Let's follow example of this foreigner and be kind to our own elderly."

Oddly enough, I don't remember how things turned out that day at the bank. But I do know that the etiquette of the queue continutes to challenge me as I adjust to Russian life. It's a culture which itself is in transition as younger people are more willing to be assertive and nudge public interaction to a higher level.

So, think you're next in line? You might be. Then again, if you happen to be in this neighborhood, don't bank on it.

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