October 19, 2011

Local Vocab: Spanish Queue Culture

At first blush, to an outsider, it may seem that Spain is hardly a country with strong norms about lining up ("hacer cola"). One rarely encounters here the orderly, single-file lines in Anglosaxon countries, the distinctive "queue culture" for which the British are famously fastidious. But don't be fooled. In fact, Spain has a deeply ingrained _virtual_ queue culture, and it is likely, visitors, that you (perhaps unwittingly) have already experienced it.

If you have ever entered an "horno" (bakery) or approached the counter ("mostrador") for "fiambres" (coldcuts) or at marketplace stand, were waiting to be served, and wondered what that person who approached it had just asked you, chances are it was one of the following:

     "¿Quién es el último [en la cola]?" (Who is the last person [in line]?)
     "¿Hay que coger número/turno?" (Does one need to grab a number/turn?)

These represent the two ways in which Spaniards form their virtual queues, and are why they thus feel no compunction about physically lining up, and indeed are more likely to clump together in social groups in what appears a completely disorganized manner. The first approach depends on each person remembering who is in front of them. When you enter, you ask and remember who is the last person, and when the next person comes in they ask and you answer. From that point on, you need have no care in the world about the line until the person directly in front of you is attended to, at which point you prepare to make your order. In the meantime, as the virtual queue ticks down, you can, for example, peruse the counter completely out of line order and decide what you want to buy, or perhaps walk a little ways over (but still in sight of the line) and chat with that neighbor of yours and catch up on each other's lives ("ponerse al corriente") or share gossip ("cotilleo").

The classic turn dispenser in a supermarket.
The second approach, usually employed only during rush hours at food counters or routinely in more official bureaucratic institutions, is to find this characteristically red number dispenser, grab a number or "turno" (turn) and then wait for it to appear on the digital display. The longer I live here, the more I become convinced that this red device is the most important tool for social organization in the country. It is certainly ever-present in daily life in Spain. (I wish I could find a visual of a recent commercial campaign here, for an online service, which parodied the device to make a point about no longer having to wait in queues to be served.)

And once you have your number, look for this digital display to wait for your turn.

And anyone who upsets this neat system of lining up is as likely to irritate and leave locals indignant as one would upset a Brit or American if they cut in line. (Ah, the everyday morality dramas of "first come, first served" commercial ethics.) So, yes, Spaniards do know how to queue, they just do so virtually.

And everything is relative. Apparently one Galician blogger believes that the Chinese
are even more chaotic than the Spanish at forming a line

But there are exceptions and lapses in this system. The worst case is at airports, where the gate line for a flight can often turn into a mass of people all glutted around the ticket check, no real line whatsoever. I've begun to suspect, however, that this is more because of the presence of guiris than Spaniards. In their time on holiday in Spain, I think foreigners get the wrong impression that it is laissez faire at the queue, and so many a time I have noticed it is the Brits or Germans who are rushing past the line to the front of the gate, which only spurs on the Spaniards to reciprocate… leading to the clueless queue-less chaos. An example of international normlessness, not informal Spanish custom. Now if only they could introduce that little red device here.

"In a rush," to the left. "In no rush," stand to the right. The Valencia Metro's
effort to inculcate in its citizenry a common English protocol.


Mike Powell said...

It's hard to describe how much I prefer the Spanish queuing system... especially in Valencia's big post office. Pulling a number allows you to sit down on the benches and relax, instead of waiting in line, tapping your foot impatiently for a half hour.

Will - My Spanish Adventure said...

Ace article, I can vouch for the queuing system being much worse in Asia. Spain's rather quite civil by comparison!

An American Spaniard said...

Mike, I also like the turn-taking system. And in Valencia's Central Post Office it offers you the leisure to stare up at that fantastic ceiling.

Will, that's good to know, and thanks for weighing in. All of these queuing systems are designed to reward that modern instinct/neurosis in us that is in a rush and obsessed with efficient use of time. I try to remind myself of this whenever I get in a slow or messy line.

Mr Grumpy said...

It winds me up enormously when nobody seems to know when the 'ticket ' system is in use. Also, when you have taken your ticket and believe yourself to be next inline to be served, only to find that a number of shoppers turn up and 'push in ' after having taken their ticket earlier, and left the shop only to come back later, having kept their place in the queue.

An American Spaniard said...

Mr. Grumpy, I can completely understand that frustration. Though, again, there is something kind of unhealthy about modern living which encourages us to lose patience over such a trivial loss of time...

It reminds me of this commercial in the States for a credit card where there is a steady moving line of purchasers all using Mastercard. And then, suddenly, the line is halted because someone (scandal!) uses cash instead of card. The lesson is meant to be that everyone will be happier and all will be more efficient if we all have a (Mastercard) credit card to shop with. But I can't help but think it is appealing to our lesser, pettier natures.

Better to think 'zen warrior' in such moments—patience and understanding, all arrives in its time—and try to shrug it off, right?

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