Sunday, 18 March 2007

Last in the queue

Supposedly, “who is last?” is the most frequently asked question in Spanish shops. To have to address total strangers will make many Northern Europeans feel a bit uncomfortable. To make matters worse, the customers do not ask this to the staff, who at least have a formal role in establishing order in the store, but to each other. A tourist who feels lost in the queues of a local market or small shops, will have to take refuge to one of the new hypermarkets. There you find the same anonymous queues as we are used to back home.

Although intimidating to non-locals, the Spanish queue system can be very efficient. When coming into a store you can immediately head for the counter and ask the group of people waiting there who is the last – take note that they rarely stand after each other in a straight line –and then establish eye contact with that person. After that, you can without a problem go back to the shelves and start to select products. In case another person comes to join the queue, you are guaranteed that the person in front of you will point into your direction to indicate that you are waiting, although a bit further away.

This way of organizing a queue works also in more formal contexts. The first time I came to our primary care unit C.A.P. Jaume I here in Vilanova, I felt totally lost. At the reception the told me to sit down in the waiting room, right in front of the doctor’s office. Once there, I noticed how one patient after the other went in to the doctor. All of them seemed to know their turns perfectly, although the doctor did not come out to call any names. When I asked how the queue worked they answered me that I should just wait to be called, which felt very unfair since I had a specific hour for my appointment.

What I did not understand was that this was another example of Spanish queuing. People here tend to treat appointment hours less punctually than we do in Northern Europe, so the final appointment order is set up in the waiting room. When you get there you just have to sit down and wait. Do not be discouraged if it seems that the doctor has forgotten about you for a while. After a four to five people you can be sure that he will come out and check who has arrived. Among those of you who are present, he will establish your turns according to the original appointment hours. He will then expect you to enter into his office in that order without further intervention from his side. As you will understand, for local people here it is therefore perfectly normal to establish eye contacts with the other patients in a waiting room, while for many a foreigner this will feel like a lack of respect for people’s right to privacy.

I find the Spanish way of queuing quite distinctive from what I know from other countries. Catalans make a lot of noise about being different from the rest of Spain. Since I think that Catalan-Spanish similarities and differences are a highly interesting topic, I can promise to come back to it on this blog. When it comes to queuing, the Catalans behave like the Spanish. The fact that latter ask “¿Quién es el último?” while the former say “Qui es l’últim?” does not qualify as a difference.

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