Having just returned to Singapore after a couple of months back in New Zealand, I have it in mind to research and write the comparative study of queuing behavior across cultures. An early experience of this came in Italy some years back (I think Bill Bryson has offered an opinion on the
Italian art of queuing by stealth) – and what appeared to be chaos in the butcher’s shop in Lucca actually turned out to be managed by very clear shared understandings and processes. All that was required was for us, as the most recent entrants into the shop, to ask who was – until now – last in line. And, while there was a great deal of milling around, all that the butchers needed to do was to ask who was next.
But . . . don’t try that in the Post Office. And the difference? In Lucca, there’s a shared, tightly understood set of norms; in the Post Office, the norm is competitive.
But what provokes this comment is my experience in a wonderful small general store, opposite the megastore Mustafa’s (their new, gleaming, stainless steel eyesore). I called into the packed jumble of provisions to get fruit, which turned into an expedition to pick up irresistible pickles, curry condiments etc. While there were three tills operating, there was no obvious (to me) queuing process. So I stood more or less in front of one of the tills, where there was only one person in front of me. There were other customers off to the side, but nowhere near the tills. The till operator caught my eye but gave no acknowledgement. But when the person in front of me moved off, the till operator called past me to one of the people standing off to the side. Aha! There was a system.
Interestingly, and unlike in NZ, no-one pointed out to me that I was pushing in on the line. It was assumed – in a high-context culture way – that I’d pick up the message. And no doubt once I moved off to nonchalantly buy more items and return to the back of the queue, there were nods of approval, even if not obvious to me.
I like that.