Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Standing in line: understanding order in chaos

One of the frequent complaints I hear from expats living in France is that "the French don't know how to stand in line".

(This article was written by my husband, who is French, and was meant to share some cultural trips with foreigners wanting to travel to France...):

According to many foreigners, it seems that as soon as waiting is involved, the French resort to immediate pushing, shoving, cutting in line, stepping on toes, and general utter disrespect for the simple rules of who got there first. Understandably, this is a cause of frustration for those who are used to patiently waiting for their turn.

I remember seeing a huge photo at my cinema theater that illustrated this perfectly. The photo was taken from the first floor of the theater on the day of the first Fete du Cinema, where you could see as many movies as you wanted for 24 hours for the price of one ticket. The street in front of the theater was entirely packed with people funneling into the front door, coming from all directions but all facing the same way. Bizarrely, while everyone seemed eager to get in, nobody seemed angry - it seemed perfectly normal. Luckily, this kind of situation is the exception, but in still happens on a lesser scale: for example, while upon disembarking the plane in the U.S. you have to stand in a neatly organized, snaky line to go through immigration, in France people form a large cone in front of the passport control desk, blocking the corridor and joining the "line" by attaching themselves to its sides rather than to its end (one could argue that these are actually foreign and not French people since we don't have to stand in line upon returning to our own country, but for the sake of this article we will consider that this line is French-managed).

It's not that the French were never taught this basic social skill - in fact, social etiquette is extremely important in France. But our perception of time and space is different. Specifically, French culture, like many other Latin countries, is a polychronic culture, as opposed to  monochronic cultures which are more common in Anglo-Saxon countries. This concept was developed by the renowned cultural anthropologist Edward Hall in 1959 and describes a culture's behavior with regards to the passage of time.

Monochronic societies tend to perceive time as linear and structured; polychronic ones consider that is made up of arbitrary units that can be filled with many different things. The most obvious result is that in the U.S. or in Germany, punctuality is a virtue; in France or Italy, it is just a vague suggestion. Another manifestation of this trait is that people may take on diverse tasks at the same time: for example, they may answer their email while they talk on the phone, or a store clerk may help several customers at the same time. While the customers may have arrived one after another, the clerk may greet and help each one before being done with the previous. In fact, in such a culture, a customer may find it offensive that the clerk wouldn't help them even though it is not "their turn": they would feel ignored. The linearity of service is therefore disrupted - and lines are unnecessary. QED.

Many French businesses do recognize that a structured line is more efficient than organized chaos, and have put in place the same kind of corralled line systems we are used to seeing in the U.S., but if there is no spatial limitation to how the line forms, you will probably see lines turning quickly into funnels.

One has to admit that the multi-customer approach can be more efficient though. For example, at the post office there is a line specifically for picking up packages. The attendant will take the slip from one customer, go to the back room and return with a package. Then she will take the slip from the next customer, return to the back room, and bring back another package. And so on. She could easily take three or four slips at a time and save herself several trips... but the instructions at the post office are clear: one customer at a time!

Note that the French are not the most polychronic and the Americans are not the most monochronic, as there are those cultures that exhibit these cultural traits even more. For example, I was standing at a gate at the Frankfurt airport once, waiting to board a plane to Mexico. The German travelers were standing in a perfect line starting at the door, equidistant from each other, waiting patiently - while the Mexican travelers were happily chatting all over the waiting lounge. The attendant came to open the door to the plane, then remember he had forgotten to make an announcement, so he left the door open and told the first Germain passenger in line to hold on for a minute. As soon as he left his post, a mob of Mexican passengers was rushing through the door, only too happy at this opportunity to be boarding early - while their German counterparts were watching in shock and still patiently waiting in line as they had been told to do; and I was in the back laughing at this clear example of cultural differences concerning waiting in lines.

As a Frenchman who has lived in the U.S. for an extended period of time where I became used to a more monochronic form of service, I must admit that I also get frustrated with the multi-tasking trait of polychronic cultures such as my homeland, France. In Paris I was recently at my desk once, and realized I needed an important piece of information from the colleague sitting across from me before I could give a customer an answer. I asked him for this information, he listened attentively... and immediately proceeded to make a phone call completely unrelated to my question. I looked at him with my jaw hanging, trying to refrain from using profanity: I had just told him that I needed that info right now and he goes off to do something else that could have waited! But sure enough, when he hung up he gave me the information I needed. It was going to take him a minute to locate it on his computer... so he figured he might as well use that time to address another issue on the phone while at the same time looking up the information I needed on the phone. I hated to admit it, but the system worked.

Understanding this cultural difference is not the recipe for eliminating the frustration associated with it, but it is certainly a first step. Unfortunately, the best recipe in this case is patience, and adapting to the behavior of the other people in line (nudging others out the way with your shoulder while blatantly ignoring them). Feel free to confront someone who cuts in front of you - they'll most likely apologize and make up some silly excuse ("I'm sorry, I didn't see you!" - yeah, right...). Just don't get upset: address them calmly, lest you want to be considered the crazy person! Say: "Hi - it seems you haven't seen that the line forms over there, not here" (pardon mais la queue commence là-bas, pas ici), and this does not open any argument and they will go to the back of the line.

As a side note on lines in polychronic countries, you may also be uncomfortable by the proximity of others in a formed line: the person behind you may stand as close as a foot from your back. A great trick to avoid this is to carry a backpack, possibly filled with a thick sweater. It'll buy you a foot!

Most importantly, as always with cultural differences, it is important to distinguish a cultural trait from the individual character of a the person. Don't assume that someone who does not follow the 'line rules' of your country is necessarily a jerk, it could just be the culture of the place. Or, perhaps this person cutting in line is afterall a jerk. Yet, that is okay too. There are jerks in every country and we're likely to run into them eventually.

**Photo Credit: Flickr CC - Some rights reserved by Eric Chan

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