08 June 2009

The invisible queue

I am stood at the bar, it’s Friday evening and the pub is busy. The crowd is a diverse mix of students, suits and tradesmen, clustered in groups and speaking loudly to make them selves heard. The bar itself is busy but not too crowded and as I move in and perch my elbows on the wooden surface I subconsciously note the people already being served and those waiting. The bar staff are efficient and nobody is stressed, both the bar staff and those waiting instinctively know who is next and people take their turn. A new barman comes in from the back room and approaches our end of the bar. He gestures to the large tattooed and shaven headed guy who has just appeared at my side. He immediately and without fuss, defers to me just saying “this fellas was ere first”. I nod appreciation with a quick “cheers mate” and place my order.

This is the “invisible queue* in action. It’s a British thing and it works amazingly well. Nobody is lined up, but everyone at the bar knows their place and the place of those around them. Nobody tries to get served faster or earlier and everyone is happy. What is most interesting is that nobody ever taught us this, it just happens automatically. Most people are not even aware that it is happening it just a part of the etiquette.

Meanwhile back in Norway and I am standing at a bar, I suggest to the barman that the women next to me might have been before me and she is straight in without any acknowledgement. Just as she is getting served I am elbowed in the side of the head by a guy who forces his way through the waiting people and leans right across the bar waving money and shouting at the barman. When I turn and suggest to him that he may like to wait his turn he looks at me with totally incredulity, like I am some sort of idiot.

Were ever the “invisible queue” came from in the British national psyche, you can be pretty sure that it didn’t come with the Vikings.

(*The concept of the invisible queue was first coined by Kate Fox in her excellent book, “Watching the English)

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