Friday, August 07, 2009

In which I wait my turn

"Wait your turn, honey."

A mom admonishes her two-year-old child to return to her place in line at the library. There's a running joke that "queuing-up" is the national British sport, but truly we Anglos have the cultural norm of observing "first come, first served" down to a science. Polite parents start indoctrinating their children when they are very young with this policy, some even going so far as to encourage the further nicety of allowing the elderly, the disabled, the pregnant, those with only a few items, or even those with small children, through the line ahead of ourselves. And we retain the utmost wrath for those brazen enough to show no concern for a fellow human being and push their ego and agenda ahead of ours.

I heard that Africans and Asians were a much more communally focused culture, one that strove to "save face" and avoid embarrassments at all costs. I reasoned that this meant they would look at those around them and identify the ones most in need to be put first. They would wait their turn, knowing it was not their personal agenda that was the most important, but that of the greater good.

So it came to a shock to me to realize just how wrong this essential skill in polite human interaction turned out to be in the wider world.

When you go to a bank in many other countries, if you stand back and allow the person currently completing a transaction any privacy, you'll never get helped.

If you go to a government office with paperwork or a question, you'd better be prepared to step on toes and use your Western size and weight to bull you through the crowd to the counter in front of the clerk. And no indoor voices, please.

And heaven help you should you ever want tickets at a limited-seating event. In that case, be sure to sharpen your elbows the night before and wear your heaviest motorcycling boots. Camping out in line isn't going to do you and ounce of good if you're not ready to stomp on some toes when the doors open.

How is it that survival in cultures that downplay the personal ego hinges on one's ability to block out every other person's concern but their own? And yet, in our culture which promotes individualism and taking care of Number One, our survival as a community seems to rely on our ability to respect the rights and even needs of others?

It seems balance is required in everything - and the one thing that keeps chaos from reigning in our land is that parent gently reminding a child to "wait your turn."

And yeah, it's good to be home and to leave my steel-toed shoes in the closet.

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