Queuing is one of the more widespread eccentric obsessions of the English. We love it and hate it with equal fervour, as we do with everything that means something to us. As Bill Bailey says: “We’re a predominantly chipper nation…infused with a wistful melancholy,” which is to say, we can’t appreciate the silver lining without the cloud. We like the cloud; it keeps us in the shade where we can keep to ourselves while suspiciously watching everyone else.
Queuing, on the face of it, is just a functional means to make sure everybody gets to a given service in the proper order, without any trouble. But, more than that, there is something about the grey futility of lining up and harshly applying the rules of queuing with little regard for their intent. Oh and yes, for all you non-English people out there, you read that right: There are rules to queuing. I won’t go through them all because it would take far too long but here is a summary:
The first one is obvious even to the unenlightened. No queue-jumping. The order rather generates itself: The first one to the cashier is the first in line, then that person acts as the barrier for the queue, thus, the first person to them is the second in line and so on. English people don’t like breaking the awkward quiet of public life but if you jump into a queue like it’s nothing, expect a reaction. Something akin to the reaction you would experience if you just spat on everyone else in the queue.
Another fairly obvious one, although one that foreign people often think they can break without ramifications: If you leave the queue for more than a few seconds, or more than a few feet away, you have left the queue and must join the back. Your position in the queue isn’t yours, you’re holding it for the person behind you so when you leave, you’ve lost all claim on that place. If you want to grab something within reach of your place, that is allowed. If you want to grab something only just out of reach then you can quickly and with exaggerated movements, lean over to get it, making it obvious to those behind you that you will be only the tiniest moment and are not forfeiting your place.
A somewhat more unexpected one now: If you’re in the queue and you get interested in a product next to you because of being bored with the wait, you’re in danger of losing your place. This is because if you’re engrossed in examining a product and not concentrating on the queue, you have effectively become a shopper again and no longer a queuer. If someone passes you without you noticing and the queue moves on, you can’t claim your place back, you’ve been exiled.
Finally, a subtle one: Inviting someone you know to join you where you are in the queue is not allowed. Generally you won’t get away with this unless you make it certain, one way or another, to the people around you that you are, and always have been, with the person that’s joined you. That way you’re like a composite noun: One entity made from two people.
I’m sure from an outside perspective this seems strange and utterly pointless. Well I’m not here to disagree with you, only to warn you that we take these rules, along with countless others on the same subject, very seriously indeed. Woe betide anyone who crosses the joint sacred English rules of queuing and social detachment.