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The little differences: 4. Two years of queuing

It is part of every Brit’s DNA. It is “Britain’s contribution to civilisation”. And it is an art that locals in Basel do not seem to have mastered: queuing.

By Martin Pütter

Yes, I purposely described queuing as an art, and I am sure many British-born expats (as well as others as anglophile as I am) will agree with me. It is one of the things I have missed since returning to Basel a few years ago. As Jochen Wittmann, a London-based colleague of mine, once wrote: “It is Britain’s contribution to civilisation.” Well, if you look at how the Swiss do queuing, you may wonder how far civilisation has spread.

When living in Wimbledon, I came across a queue that has actually gained cult status. Every year in late June/early July, people want to watch the world’s best tennis players compete to win the All England Championships. So, to get the much sought-after tickets, they are prepared to queue for hours – sometimes even overnight. And I remember the BBC reporting that people had joined the queue just for the fun of it.

Elbows and subterfuge

Now imagine an agency in Basel, selling tickets for a concert by a very popular singer or band. Online booking is not possible (the website is down), so people have to turn up in person at the ticket agency’s office. Do you think the locals would form an orderly queue (unless railings or fences forced them to do so)? Or take drink stands, for example, or ice-cream vans in the summer, or food stalls. Brits would go to the end of the queue and wait their turn. Here everybody wants to be served immediately, and does not hesitate to use elbows or subterfuge to get what they want faster than the others.

Four hours a week

Winston Churchill allegedly said that you should not trust any statistics you have not forged yourself. Nevertheless, here is one about queuing (text in German only): Brits spend two years of their lives queuing – more than four hours a week. No wonder they have developed it into an art form. A Brit is famously able to form a queue consisting of just one person, and also knows where to start it. My friend Laurent Viret, former UK correspondent of the Basler Zeitung, once explained to me how to form a queue at a bus stop: “You get to the stop, stand next to the sign and face the direction where the bus is coming from – and you have formed a queue of one.” At bus or tram stops here people wait everywhere, in no particular order. They might let others off first (if they are lucky), and then the rush starts to get in.

“Oh dear”

The artistry continues. You see someone has formed a queue at the bus stop, and you join it. If you are not close enough to the person in front of you, the next one to join might ask: “Are you in the queue?” As Brits are masters of saying one thing and meaning something completely different, this translates as: “Oh dear, don’t you even know how to queue?”


The greatest taboo is jumping the queue. This is just not done. Do it, and you are an outcast, a social misfit. At least you do not have to fear for life and limb. The mildest reaction might be a politely raised eyebrow; at worst, an angry shout of “Oi, mate, the end of the queue’s here”. Now, I have to admit that the Swiss do have methods of effectively making people form a queue: the ticketing system at post offices, for example. You come in, draw a number, and when your number appears on the display you know it is your turn to get served. But this is a highly organised and regulated queuing system, not something organically grown.

Stand on the right

However, there is one situation where Brits tolerate queue-jumping, of a sort: on escalators in underground or train stations. Every visitor to London is surprised by the discipline of the people using those escalators. They stand on the right and walk on the left. If you dare stand on the left you may soon feel the effects of an elbow in your ribs, accompanied by perhaps not-so-pleasant comments about “bloody tourists”. Keeping the left free is for those who are in a rush to catch their train. The Swiss have tried to introduce this at their train stations as well, with various signs – but it will probably take generations before it becomes natural for the locals. So if you are in hurry to catch your train in Switzerland, use the stairs!

One Response to “The little differences: 4. Two years of queuing”

  1. Hi, loved it. This is truly one of the hardest things to get used to here in Switzerland/ Europe.
    Americans are also trained from Kinder-garden to line up properly. I can’t count the frustrating hours wasted here trying to wait decently at a self service restaurant(maybe the worst test for a standing in line sort of person), or kiosk or anywhere else. And it is always refreshing to visit home and be able to stand in proper lines with no one butting forward.

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