Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Standing in line — Mexican style

Those of you living in Mexico: have y’all noticed that people here are pretty terrible at standing in lines?

Here they’re prepared for this and have set up systems that make cutting impossible when not cutting is crucial. For example: 

  • At the bank: You get a number, and can’t see anyone until your number is called, a system which cleverly removes the psychological disappointment (and sometimes torture) of seeing the line. 
  • At government offices: A security guard often stands as a literal gatekeeper, sorting out who’s got appointments and who doesn’t, and sometimes, who’s a friend and knows someone on the inside. Sometimes, they’ll direct you past the line to ask a question to some random person, at which point I sheepishly slink by everyone else while trying to curb my urge to explain that I was told to do this and I’m not really cutting. 

In many cases, though, it’s every man for himself. 

The bus pulls into the station, and almost everyone is standing with their bags in the aisle by the time it stops. People that were sitting in the back plow forward, seeming to have never heard of a system in which passengers get off in a way that doesn’t require you to jump in like a kamikaze pilot if you don’t want to be the last person off. 

Should I even mention the Metro?

The story is much the same at food stands and stores, the workers tending to whoever’s closest and/or loudest, regardless of how they got there. On one hand, I get it: they don’t get paid enough to be policing people in line, which is a stressful job that I’ve done (more on that below). Plus, since standing in line properly isn’t a big deal anyway, why would they?

As someone who often flies out of San Antonio or Houston to get back home to Mexico, the flight attendants and airline workers have learned to be very strict, sometimes even harsh, about the order in which people are allowed to get on the plane. I roll my eyes thinking, “This is a losing battle, lady; better save your energy and just get through it.”

As someone whose personality is (okay, somewhat) rooted in behaving as socially correctly as possible — because there’s no way I’d be able to get my needs met through the force of physical strength, personality or otherwise — I count on others to abide by the rules. 

This can be tricky since those rules, as well as the importance they may or may not have, can vary from culture to culture. 

One thing I noticed immediately when I arrived here is that standing in line and taking turns is not quite as high up on the list of major cultural values in Mexico as it is in my own country, the United States. Manners and habits learned in childhood die hard, though, and even after 20 years here, my feathers get ruffled frequently.

Because to get attention in a place where lines aren’t really happening, you have to do two things that I found terrifying as a child and that I still don’t love: you have to physically push yourself to where you need to be, and you have to speak up — sometimes several times! Ack!

I feel calmest when in the company of someone who will do this for me; unfortunately, mine is my shy kid’s strategy too, which means that I’m usually that person for her (wasn’t she supposed to be a Sagittarius? What is this?).

From what I can tell, though, people don’t seem to get all that worked up about it. 

But to me, all this jostling looks and feels like chaos. And chaos is not something I appreciate, especially as a person who will never be quite fluent in the physical language of putting oneself where you need to be at the time you need to be there. 

But like driving, there is a system: first you, then me, then you. Make eye contact. Get right up next to the person in front of you, otherwise the others will think you’re skipping your turn. 

And perhaps my most important lesson of all: people won’t always give you points for — in an attempt to be polite — not putting yourself in front; they’ll just think you’re a dummy. 

Still, I’ve been culturally chauvinistic enough to try imposing the way I think these things should be done on others — to no avail.

At the high school I worked at here in Mexico, I was constantly scolding students at lunchtime to just stand in line instead of shouting what they wanted to the snack bar workers, who maddeningly would get right to work on whatever the loudest kid had ordered.

I thought it was the epitome of rudeness and entitlement (all these kids had servants at home, after all), and I felt like a fish swimming upstream: struggling, but determined.

Once they got their food, however, I’d observe behavior I’d have never seen in my own country: they’d share it with pretty much everyone around them. The proud new owner of a bag of chips would eat maybe four chips total, as the rest were offered to their friends, and sometimes even me — even though I’d just spent all that energy frowning at them.

And that’s the flip side of the coin: they’re generous, even as a crowded, disorderly bunch. In contrast, I eat my own meals as if I were in prison, jealously guarding what’s on my plate.

Perhaps making a big show about individual turns and rights says more about my own culture than this one.

Sarah DeVries is a writer and translator based in Xalapa, Veracruz. She can be reached through her website, sarahedevries.substack.com.

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