View of part of the Fujairah Corniche and the Hajar Mountains in the Background

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The UAE on Queue

The first time it happened to me I was dumbstruck. I was at the local plumbing shop asking the shopkeeper for a new washing machine hose when an Emirati man came into the shop, greeted the shopkeepers and stood in front of me demanding service. I stood back, watched him get his bolts and pipes and after he left I resumed my request.

I realized that for most of my life I have lived in countries that have a strong queue culture. This tradition was exported by the British, about whom George Mikes joked, "An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one." Queues give to the Brits a sense of belonging, so much so, that they will stand in a queue even when they have no idea what it is for. This British obsession is exemplified in the blog entitled, Standing in a Queue, which explores in quirky detail the culture and etiquette of queues in different parts of the world. One Englishman who was put on hold in a telephone queue was glad to be switched to a football commentary. He was so engrossed that when he was finally put through to the receptionist he begged, “Please put me back so I can get the final score!”

Although India was settled by the British, the queue tradition never took root and replaced the pushing and shoving which is essential for anyone wanting to get onto an Indian train.

While in America people form a ‘line’ and in Canada people ‘line up’, the British form or join a ‘queue’. The word is French for ‘tail’ and long before a ‘queue’ described people standing in a tail formation it referred to the pigtail of plaited hair down the back of the neck which was en vogue in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The British historian, Thomas Carlyle observed in 1837 that the talent of spontaneously standing in a queue was a distinguishing mark of the French but this feature is no longer evident today. Au contraire! When explaining why relations between the French and the English were so bad, a recent traveler to France said:

“It has nothing to do with thousands of years of wars and battles and bloodshed and incest and grudges that never die. It has to do with the fact that French people simply refuse to stand in a proper line for anything. They don’t respect the queue… English people live for the queue! ... The queue is our life. It gives order to the madness. And the French refuse to live by the queue. They just don’t do it!”

Another person said, “You could be standing in line [in France] for thirty minutes, and some French dude will just walk right to the front. It really is enough to make you hate a whole race of people.” These episodes train you to ditch any strongly held preference of having your personal space as the likelihood of queue barging is diminished by standing as close as possible to the person in front of you.

I experienced ‘queue jumping’ again in the UAE when I recently paid my electricity bill. As I joined the twisted tail of 15-20 Indian and Pakistani men, I calculated that at an average payment time of 2-3 minutes, I was in for a long wait. There was a separate queue for women, which is the local custom to avoid prolonged stares from the opposite sex and is another expression of the segregated culture in the Emirates.

Those who study the art of queue management say that customers get less impatient if the lines snake, to create the illusion that people are moving faster but in this waiting area, the line was mainly straight and it extended through two rooms. There was no television monitor or what the American amusement parks call ‘inline entertainment’, to take people’s attention away from the clock.

An Emirati man entered the hallway and went straight to the counter, followed soon after by another compatriot. They shook hands, kissed and hovered about until the cashier served them, whereupon they glided out with their receipts. Later a businessman arrived shouting Arabic into his mobile phone. As he continued his conversation he strode confidently to the counter, dropping his account and money onto the cashier’s desk. His power dressing at this electricity office had the desired effect because he was served at lightning speed.

As I got within three of the counter one of the cashiers announced that the computers had seized, that they would have to be rebooted and that service would recommence in fifteen minutes. There was no point in storming out and going to the opposition for this is the only electricity supplier in the city and if the bill is not paid the power is cut off. When I eventually reached the counter and got the receipt in my hand I asked the cashier, “Why don’t you follow the principle of ‘first come, first served?” he appeared unimpressed with my question and muttered things about people not being able to get a car park and customers having a sick relative at home. UAE citizens appear to receive preferential treatment over expatriates on a temporary visa and one’s age and standing (wasta in Arabic) allows you to claim pole position.

A visit to the local dental hospital gave further insights into the practice of queuing and customer service. After sitting in the waiting room for an hour and watching other people getting called to see their dentist an Egyptian businessman exploded and demanded that the receptionist tell him why he was being overlooked. “Time is money!” he said. “I can’t sit here all day! It’s unfair!” Later when I got my call up and treatment I was told I would have to come again to finish the dental work. After being given a date I asked what time I should come. “Anytime,” said the dentist. “I never give out appointments because no one ever keeps them.”

The checkouts at UAE supermarkets and the narrow lines at the immigration hall at the international airports are signs, however, that the queue culture is taking root in the Middle East. While queues reduce the feeling of unfairness, one is still left with the challenge of deciding which queue is the shortest. Many international companies and new government facilities, have established the ‘virtual queue’ in which they issue customers with numbers that allow them to take a seat until their number appears on the television monitor.

The Chinese have never been predisposed to queues but their government has recently instigated a campaign to promote a queue culture. With the Beijing Olympics approaching in 2008, government leaders and games officials are worried about how rude they might appear to their international guests. To ensure a favourable impression they have established a campaign to promote lining up, along with other measures to curb the public vices of spitting, cursing, littering and mangling the English language on signs and menus.

On 11 April 2007 Beijing inaugurated ‘Queuing Day’ which will be held on the 11th of every month because the date symbolizes an orderly line. Jim Yardley, in his article, ‘No Spitting on the Road to Olympic Glory, Beijing Says,’ reported that “Volunteers wearing satin ‘Queuing Day’ sashes shooed rush-hour commuters into lines at busy subway stations, while hospital administrators and a few city officials handed out long-stemmed roses to patients who stood in line to pay their bills or pick up medicines.”

Some of the slogans adopted by various districts in China to promote the new culture included the following:

“It’s civilized to queue, it’s glorious to be polite.”

“Voluntarily wait in line, be polite and put other people first.”

“I care about and participate in the Olympics and set an example by queuing.”

“I am a member of the queue.”

The UAE may not opt to instigate Queuing Day with sashes, slogans and long-stemmed roses but it will be fascinating to monitor the ongoing experience of queuing in the Emirates.

Geoff Pound

Image: This group seems to be having fun in a queue.