Sometimes I think Germany has a split personality or something.
On the one hand, it is an extremely orderly, well-organized country that exudes efficiency. On the other, there is practically social anarchy when it comes to queuing. Queuing, or “getting in line” as the Yanks like to say, doesn’t get nearly the respect here in Germany that one would expect.
Growing up in the US, I developed a fairly strong sense of the social importance of standing in a line to be served, but living in the UK for 5 1/2 years fine-tuned this awareness and took it to a whole other level. There, not only do you stand in line, but you do so exceedingly politely and by taking such extra measures as placing the divider after your last item so the person behind you can begin to unload their items onto the conveyor belt. And you never, I mean NEVER, queue jump. To do so would be horribly rude, so if there’s ever any doubt – even the tiniest – of who was there first, you defer to the other person and politely indicate they should go first (which can be a fun when they do the same…back and forth, back and forth, back…oh, you get the idea.)
Now while Germans do sometimes kindly place the little divider thingy onto the conveyor belt, the act of queue jumping isn’t nearly the monstrosity to them that it is to the Brits. It doesn’t matter where you are, really; at the bakery, waiting for the bus, at the cashier in a clothing store…if Germans can, they WILL find a way to get in front of you. No matter what.* Sometimes they’ll even blatantly ask if you they can get in front of you if they think they have less things than you, and are in a hurry. I’ve had this happen to me multiple times, which is slightly annoying but preferable to someone doing it without asking. (Are you Brits shuddering at the horror of this yet?)
Thanks to my friend Susanne, who kindly bought me the Xenophobe’s Guide to the Germans, I was prepared in advance (as much as one can be) for this cultural shock. But expecting it and experiencing it are two different things and it still annoys me every time it happens. It happened twice (TWICE!) in one day on Thursday, first at the library and then in a shop. Both times it was women. The first time, at the library, it was a mother pushing a pram. I had queued a bit to the side to ensure that there was a path accessible behind me so people could pass through. She came up and stood directly behind the person at the counter, either not seeing me (or, more likely, choosing to not see me.) The second time was a little later when I was in a shop trying to buy a shirt. There were two cashier people, helping each other rather than ringing up individually, and someone to the side of me (who came up after me) handed her things to one of them, somehow ignoring the fact that I was standing right there waiting, too. The strange thing is how it doesn’t seem to be considered rude. When committing the act, it’s almost like they’re pleading a silent ignorance (“I can’t see you there RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME, lalalala. You don’t exist, lalalala”), or like it’s a competition with everyone jostling to see who will get the prize, i.e. to the register, first. Any gap – any opportunity at all – and they’ll get in front of you even if you’ve been waiting there for eons. If there were an Olympic sport for queue-jumping, surely the Germans would take the gold medal for their deft, clever manoeuvres and steadfast ability to focus on the prize and make everything else (i.e. other people waiting in the queue) disappear into the background. Such mastery and skill, really….
Most frustrating of all is that my lack of language skills means I don’t even have the guts to stand up for myself and say something when it happens. So I just stand there and accept my fate, knowing I probably won’t get to pay for my item until they close and there’s no one left in the store but me. But unluckily for all you would-be queue jumpers out there, that’s about the change as I’m now studying German. So watch out, ’cause I’ll be putting you in your place soon – literally.
*Of course I’m generalizing here. There are very polite Germans, too, who wait their turn and acknowledge when you’re there first. I might start carrying gold stars and reward those who do. A little positive reinforcement never hurt anyone.