x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The culture of the queue

Learning how to live without orderly line-ups in the UAE means having to adjust when going back to Britain.

'An Englishman, if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one," a witty fellow once declared. But there's plenty of truth in this jest, as Britons have an undeniable love of forming orderly lines, and it's drilled into us from an early age that "pushing in" is an abhorrent, antisocial behaviour.

Although I have no statistical evidence to back this up, I'd surmise that the lion's share of the violent crime that blights the UK's city centres is down to some reprobate shoving to the front of a nightclub queue or a kebab shop, leading to an inevitable brawl with those he's jumped ahead of. Yes, we're willing to shed blood over the maintenance of strict order while waiting for goods and services.

That's why, when we find ourselves submerged in the UAE's cultural stew, it's incredibly unsettling to find that other nationalities are less formal in their queuing habits.

It takes a while to grasp the concept, but we soon learn that unless we want to spend half our lives tutting at queue-jumpers, the surest way to get served is to abandon all courtesy, dump all your would-be purchases on the shop's counter, nudge and barge to protect your territory, then leave it to the sales assistant's whim whether it's your turn or not.

I've found the hot spots for this chaotic approach are the Etisalat counters located in malls. As the stalls have no clearly defined front side, it means that at busy times the handful of flustered sales clerks within have to deal with a slew of customers approaching from all angles. Such was the state of disarray while recently trying to pay my monthly internet bill at one of the stalls. In an attempt to catch the attention of the lone sales assistant, myself and six other impatient customers leant over the counter towards him frantically waving our internet bills in his direction, like excited Wall Street traders on the stock exchange floor tussling to buy some hotly tipped shares.

While this assertive approach is a necessity over here, the problem arises that whenever I return to the UK, I just can't revert to my former queuing habits. For example, on my last visit this summer, I automatically strolled to the front of a lengthy queue in my bank, without thinking twice about the heinous faux pas I was committing. Later that day at the post office, I came close to elbowing a sweet, white-haired old gent in the face, when he happened to get a bit too close behind me at the counter, and without looking back, I assumed he was trying to intrude on my position in the queue.

Fortunately, I stayed clear of my hometown's nightspots or after-hours takeaway joints while I was there, or I'm sure I'd have received the beating of my life and be writing this from a hospital bed.