Germany. Why. Can’t. You. Queue.

Germany, tell me something. I am on my knees, here, draped at your sensible shoe-clad feet. Why, for the love of God, do you struggle so fundamentally, so profoundly, with the notion of a tidy, fair queue? What is it about lining up for coffee, for bread, for the bloody bus, that sends you all into a primal spin, prepared to trample on each other, betray one another, shove and sidestep until all sense of civility, of humanity, has been sucked out of the air?

I saw James Bond last night. Two screenings were occurring within 15 minutes of each other; the OV and the German version. We arrived thirty minutes early to collect our reserved tickets, to find an enormous crowd milling about in the foyer. Because this is what Germans do, they mill.  They mill on footpaths, they mill on train stations, they mill in bakeries and coffee shops. In situations upon where, in England, or Australia, you would find a snake of people, with a clear leader who shall rightly receive service first, in Germany you find a crowd of hard, set faces, all quick to thrust a hand in the air and shriek, ‘zwei normale Brötchen’ before the server has had time to ask ‘wer bekommt?’ So the Germans were milling in the foyer, waiting for their cinema to open, like a swarm of beetles clutching plastic trays of corn chips and toxic cheese sauce. Upon purchasing our own corn chips and toxic cheese sauce, we asked if cinema 2 had opened yet, and were told it had. The beetles were waiting for cinema 1 to open.

Now, at this juncture, I ask you to imagine what could have been, had the cinema management requested all people join the appropriate queue for cinema 1 or cinema 2, thus leaving a thoroughfare between queues for general breathing space, and thus allowing people to not only know when their theatre had opened, but then be able to proceed in an orderly manner into the theatre upon doors opening. As it stood, the millers were blocking every inch of space from the entrance to the bar, and we had to brace and then push through seventy bodies, saying ‘entschuldigung’ ad nauseum because nobody moves. How hard is it? How hard is it to stand in a line, that enables everyone to move, breathe, and access where they have to go? Why do you all have to stand as some sort of giant, impenetrable human structure, which moves and acts as one? Are you all going to then begin a slow, en masse crawl into the cinema together? Do all seventy of you plan on easing through the doors, as one? What’s the plan here, Germany?

And it isn’t just at the movies. Have you ever seen what happens at a bus stop? With a couple of minutes before the bus pulls in, you step out and stand at approximately where it will brake and open its doors, and it’s just you. Only you. Perhaps you are the only one alighting this bus, you think. Super. You see it coming over the horizon, so you reach for your purse. Suddenly someone is at your right shoulder, and then someone else at their right shoulder. As the bus nears, a few people crawl out from the shadows and begin the patented German mill. Before you know it, as the bus pulls in, you are about ten people along in a two person deep crush, and everyone moves as one to the doors. Ditto with the trains. Everyone gets on and off at the same time, which means for a harrowing three seconds, you are locked in a weird sort of human chain before you all press past each other and in some miracle of science, twenty peple simultaneously disembark and board.

When I was a child, some school lunches came from the tuckshop, a handy little shop at school from which one could order hot or cold lunches, drinks, and snacks at designated times. Come recess or lunch, students would swarm to the tuckshop and immediately form a line. A line monitored by the teacher on tuckshop duty, to ensure orderliness and, above all, a modicum of fairness. You see, it was – and is – the gravest of insults to jump the queue. To push in. Pushing in was loudly called out, the perpetrator thoroughly shamed and moved to the back of the queue. Oh sure, people tried; there is the classic joining a friend who is near the front of the queue and ordering with them. Or the completely shamless going to the front of the queue to check the sandwich display and then seamlessly segueing into the queue and hoping no one will notice. Both of these things are appalling things to do to other people, who have been patiently and fairly waiting their turn. It just isn’t cricket. You don’t do it.

Queueing, at its very heart, is about fairness. You put in the waiting time, you take your turn, the service is fairly, evenly distributed and there is a sense of order and civil procession. I know, that if I am behind someone in a queue, it is because they got their before me, have thus been waiting longer, and should thus be served before me. Arriving at a busy cafe or a busy bakery isn’t an invitation to try and outsmart some poor dolt who has been waiting ten minutes longer than me, by methodically pushing forward until you are at the frontline, and then raising your hand like a whip, when asked ‘who is next’. Or sidling up to ‘check out the sandwiches’ and then just happening to be the ‘first in line’ and shamelessly placing your order head of the ten people waiting behind you. That is called being rude, and frankly, mean. It is one thing to form an impenetrable human structure and block an entrance, quite another to manoeuvre yourself into a position than enables you getting served before someone who has been waiting for twenty minutes behind you. The former is bloody irritating and senseless, the latter is wildly impolite. And Germans, you do both.

And here is the kicker; you are a nation known for your love of order. You even SAY ‘all is in order’ when English speakers would say ‘all is well.’ ‘Ordnung’ is the most used German word after ‘wurst‘. You love a process. You love efficiency. And yet you cannot form a line of people to save yourselves. It beggars belief. Sometimes I wonder if you are taking the piss; how is it possible you are so motivated by order and efficiency, but as a race, lose your collective shit when it comes to the most basic form of those very virtues?

So tell me, please. Why? Why. Can’t. You. Queue?

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55 Replies to “Germany. Why. Can’t. You. Queue.”

  1. Having visited Germany a half dozen times over the past decade, I’ve definitely experienced the anxiety at crowded bakeries, supermarket meat counters and other shops, but I can’t say that I’ve ever been overlooked or passed over by a clerk. But that “fear” is definitely there.

  2. Ich glaube unsere Effizienz und Hang zur Pünktlichkeit stehen da zum Teil im Weg. Man geht zu einem vereinbarten Termin und will noch schnell in die Bäckerei. Da man aber nicht zu spät kommen will will man als Erster dran kommen, weil man hat es eilig. Aber das hat wohl jeder und somit versteht sich selbst jeder als der der als erstes dran kommen muss. Kurios ist das schon 😀

  3. As a native German I am constantly asking myself this. And I would not count me out in every situation: I, too, sometimes bully towards an opening door of a bus and I cannot explain it. In other situations, though, I try to act differently. Imagine, for example, a situation in which there are two ATMs. In Germany, there are constantly forming lines for every single ATM, instead of one line for all ATMs. This has improved a bit in the last years, though (at least, this is my impression). Another thing, my pet peeve, in fact, are escalators. Germans simply are not able to grasp the concept of “stand on the right, walk on the left”. There is ALWAYS one who will stand on the left. Sometimes as the only one on the whole escalator completely oblivious of all the hate accumulating behind him… I think, it all boils down to a latent selfishness present in most if not all Germans (“me first, rest — don’t care”). I just wonder, too: why? Maybe it is a consciousness of anxiety, inherited through the generations, of being left empty handed and thus starving to death if you don’t get there first. Very primordial.

      1. ATMs…sure…I can agree. However, at any supermarket one may also find some curious bastard child of chaos and forming-a-line occurring. If you are near enough to the cashier (i.e. near the rack of pill-bottled, breath-freshener gum, Bild newspapers and nasty shots of quasi-moonshine) you will fall into an orderly line. However, beyond this end-aisle rack, watch out…the millers crowd and jump lines like crazy. And what about any line that has actually formed past these borders? Once a new service aisle opens up, forget about it. It’s pure mayhem…usually, the first ones to overtake that new territory are the old grumpy ladies behind you squealing “noch eine Kasse bitte!” at the top of their lungs. Patience is a virtue.

  4. I-MUST-GET-THERE-FIRST!
    ZU-ERST!!
    You should try going alpine skiing. Same thing, no cue. I was trained from klein auf to develop the skills required to get to the lift ASAP.
    The only nation I know to be worse than us are the Spanards. They make the Germans look like cueless pussies!
    As usual I agree with your observations 100%. It is cognitive dissonance that the ordnungsliebenden Deutschen don’t cue.

    1. I would love to see a Spanish vs German milling situation – I have no doubt the Spaniards would probably win, perhaps due to stealthier moves?

  5. Simply our daily little revolution in times of total adaption. Going by train every day I stopped complaining about people not queuing (even though complaining makes you a little bit more german 😉 ).

  6. Hi hi, so true! I have to remind myself of this every single time I move here in London – there’s always a queue somewhere and my inner German just doesn’t get it 😉

  7. – I learned the skill to move my way forward in a mill without actually touching or pushing anybody in my school years in Germany and it has come in handy many a times in those situations of Anglo-mills at the end of queues or in any tightly crowded spaces like open air concerts, demonstrations etc.
    – Even though Germans aren’t standing in a line they are usually aware of their place in the imaginary queue by registering who came in after yourself.
    – The most brazenly jumping of queues I keep encountering here in Ireland with people just walking to the front to take their place and when challenged by me going “oh there is a queue? I never noticed!” fully relying on the fact that their fellow compatriots don’t dare to make a fuss in public but will only bitch about it for days to come.

    1. It is so true! Many Germans can actually stealthily move through a mill and magically appear at the front, as if they had been there all along!

  8. We can form orderly lines and wait our turn but only do so at the post office. I live in Germany since I was born and why that is remains elusive to me.

      1. That’s it: Queue ropes are the key. Give us Germans queue ropes and we will happily queue. We need more of them. I really wonder why there are still so few businesses that have them. Maybe I should go into the queue rope business…

  9. I try to remember whether/where in Germany I may have had a similar experience as I am sure you do/did.

    Maybe I unconsciously avoid queues, maybe I have spent my time only in the orderly queuing parts of Germany (I grew up in Franconia, went to uni in Heidelberg and have lived 20+ years in the Rhineland) but no, everybody here just queues. It’s a friggin nuisance if you ask me. None of that rioting atmosphere when we went to the cineplex last night.
    At the baker this morning, the orlderly queue reached all the way down the footpath and we even spoke to each other – politely!!!

    I now think there is something seriously wrong with me. Maybe I just space it out???

    Wait! I remember now, the last horrific non-queuing experience was at the airport gate in London this summer. Probably all German passengers.

    1. Definitely all German passengers hahahaaha. I do have to say, there is one bakery near us that has a VERY orderly queue … only on Sunday mornings. But it is lovely, and calming.

  10. As a German who lived abroad the last 5 years I must say that there are many things that annoy me in Germany… But actually not queuing. I don’t know from which region you come but here around Stuttgart I’m constantly asked by others who are waiting if I’m the next one. Still no queue of course but much better than stated here. In fact I think the German’s love for super aggressive complains leads to more order and makes people refrain from being too selfish… If that’s a good thing is another story though. But let me guess – you’ve never been to Mexico… Now that’s survival of the fittest I can tell you…

  11. We germans make fun of the snakelines in england. We don’t want to feel like part of a good working maschine. The missing identification as a social unit is paired with ignorance. I hate it too. Perhaps germany has to form a new identity, the people are proud of and within people feel as a unit again. It could happen now, where many are helping and welcoming refugees together and we as germans are forming a new identity

    1. Thumbs pressed! But something tells me the wilful disregard for snakelines is part of the German identity … and as much as it drives me CRAZY, we don’t want the Germans to become like the Brits and Aussies, do we?

  12. Thank you Liv for your astute, humorous,witty and well written posts. I love reading them , often smile and recognise many the German peculiarities I have forgotten, since emigrating many moons ago. I suspect this non queuing “disorder” stems from war times and the fear to miss out on rations, food etc.I can’t throw out any food, nor can I leave leftovers on my plate.Luckily we have chickens 🙂 This has filtered down the generations and is still noticeable in myself ( born 1956), but luckily not in my grown up children.By the way, I do queue here in New Zealand.
    Thanks again for always enjoyable reading and inviting the reader to reflect on Germany’s cultural background.
    Kind regards
    Maike

  13. Ahhh Liv, I’m going to Germany in two weeks and you just triggered some anxiety related to queuing! I know exactly what you mean and I can feel my fists clenching, my chest tightening, preparing myself to push through. The problem is if you don’t do it you’ll probably never make it to the front as everyone behind you will continue to push through. I hate it, absolutely hate it and I am so very grateful to live in Australia where queuing is such a joyful experience!

  14. I just talked about this with a few expat Germans a few days ago. A very odd phenomenon indeed. Having grown up in Germany, I find the desire to jump to queue myself, somehow, inbred, I grew up with that. Using your elbows is essential if you try to make it onto a school bus in Germany. So that survival skill sticks with you. I have no idea why that is, given that all else is always so “ordentlich”.

  15. I agree with Maike and had the same thought while reading you very funny article. It has to be a left over thing from the war years.
    But I also think, that it is getting better. I remember when I was in school it was super important to get into the school bus as one of the first pupils, otherwise you could be the one standing not sitting. But nowadays I see orderly queues at the market, the bank, the post office. Maybe at the cinema it is harder because you have so much time on your hands before the doors open. No need to form a queue when you have tickets with seat numbers.

    1. This could be spot on – quite a few commenters have come forward and said it is the same in The Netherlands and Greece and Poland … so perhaps it is a hangover from tougher times.

  16. hahah, Liv, that really bugs you, huh ?? Me, living abroad but native German asked myself the same thing over and over again. I adapted over the years to stay calm and relaxed whenever I visit home and queue jumping happens… Cause I tell myself, the train / plane will not leave without me ( as I will get in eventually, trust me on that… even if I do have o push my way through on ocasion ) .
    The movie won’t start without me because , like so many other people, I am at the cinema way in advance even though I usually do have a seat reservation already and that won’t be even neccesary.

    So far I was fine with queue jumping at the bakery or such sorts. If that happened ( not very often ) it was usually rude old grandmas and they are just not worth my time to hassle with them .. ) I try not to get into stressy situations and usually have a good time frame to do my stuff

    But I guess, as someone already wrote b4, people are usually stressed to get from A to B and therefore need to be 1st in line in order to get moving asap again… I dunno.

    I used to work in a restaurant where bus coaches stopped ( usually with elderly peole… yupp, them again ) They stressed me and my colleagues out to no end to get their food quick-quick to gulp it down just to wait afterwards for the bus driver for another 30 minutes minimum outside in the cold at the bus ( of course not in a queue… 😉 )
    Because he, of course, took his time to eat and chat and just take his break… There is no point in telling his passengers to relax as the bus ain’t going anywhere cause the driver still eats or hasen’t even ordered yet… Trust me, I tried to make my point …to no avail.

    People often seem to be afraid to miss out on sth when they’re not first, I have no idea… But hey, I usually get a smile and a thnx when I let people go past me if there happens to be a queue.. (e.g. supermarket …and the person has just a few items )

    I guess, we as a nation are just not being tought to queue like in the UK or down under. ( I mean, I was at a school in the UK and they had a one way system on their corridors.. Hello? that’s a bit much, don’t u think ??? Of course I’ve been told off as I didn’t even realize that schools can have one way systems… )

    …the fun every day life part of living abroad … 😉

  17. The only major orderly queues I’ve seen are at the grocers. Can’t imagine someone cutting queues at Lidl or Aldi around here (Mainz). After 4 years in Japan, it took a year NOT to be irritated with the non-queuing philosophy, regardless of the number of blog warnings I read prior to our move.

  18. Hihihi totally true, it’s the worst to figure out who was first, the unspoken conversations at the bakery, of “I wanna go first but I don’t wanna argue with you, just in case you were actually first”, so you exchange looks and uncomfortable gestures and maybe an insecure smile. Ugh, I hate it but I catch myself doing it all the time – it doesn’t even get me faster to my goal, my destination neither does it give me satisfaction or happiness, so why am I doing it? I can queue everywhere in the world and be happy with it. as soon as I get back home: boom! Old bad behaviour! (I’m a native German)

  19. I learned how to maneuver through a mill during school. If you weren’t strong enough to push through the crowd in front of the bus you simply couldn’t take the bus back home because it was full. You had to walk or wait another 30 minutes for another bus to arrive. No one cared about queuing and I hated that. Learning in English lessons that it is different in UK I were frustrated why no one can do it in Germany. In my opinion it’s annoying when people don’t know how to queue. Surprisingly those people that try to sneek in are old hags or foreigners most of the time (just like the situation on escalators – walk left stand right)

  20. Well I gotta say I’ve been living in Germany for 5 years now. I admit that at first no snakelines made me crazy. Now I find myself doing the exact same thing as germans. I take trains and buses to work every day and I gotta say it’s rush hour for kids and workers alike. So if you wanna catch a seat you gotta push. Adapting. It’s all it takes. You won’t notice it after a while. Just find yourself doing it

  21. I’ve been living in Germany for two months and I just had my cultural integration training yesterday. I asked the instructor about why this happens and she told me about the impatience of Germans and that the dense population and crowding in Europe has taught them to be on the offensive for their space. It’s a very intimidating atmosphere. Every time I go to the store I have to fight to maintain my space in line. I agree with you, it’s just downright mean sometimes!

  22. When we lived in Korea, we got very comfortable with the whole pushing/crowding thing (although the Koreans are really pretty good at queueing in places like bakeries and fast food restaurants) – it’s a small country full of people, and they are all trying to get somewhere in a hurry, so I guess that explains it, but it was still very stressful on the subway or busses when things got crowded. It was glorious to move to the UK and find that (nearly) everything I’d heard about orderliness and queueing was more or less spot on. Such a breath of fresh air after 4 years of being squashed! Interestingly,

  23. You’ve no doubt experienced what happens in a supermarket when an additional cash register opens….. Meanwhile, I’ve given up asking why Germans don’t queue and have accepted the German way. That doesn’t mean to say that I won’t try to queue, or let the person who’s been waiting longer go ahead of me.

  24. This really strikes a chord in me, especially the bus/train scenario. So true! People’s apparent inability to queue has always stressed me out. It doesn’t matter at all whether someone was at the stop long before everyone else, as soon as the crowd forms they can easily end up being last if they’re not bold enough. What has always been annoying me most was that adults would even push past children sometimes. It’s all a very, very odd dynamic and it seems like it’s just too much of an established pattern for anyone to break on their own. Even though it’s absolutely nerve-racking and I doubt that anyone likes it.

    If, at the supermarket, a new checkout opens I don’t even bother trying to get there, since having to maneuver two little children plus groceries would take way too long anyway. It’s like a starting shot for everyone to run and get there first 😉

    As for the bus again, when I was a primary school child taking the bus to school every day there was a rather simple solution: When you got to the bus stop you put your school bag down on the sidewalk, the child arriving next put theirs behind yours and so on. This way there was a queue of bags that was also the order in which we would get on the bus.

    Anyway, maybe it’s all a northern German thing…? (Along with the complaining 😉

  25. Ha! Just because you fail to see the system, doesn’t mean there is none. We call it freedom queuing(we don’t, actually) because what you anglos do is just 100% filthy communism. Whenever there is a chance to move forward, move forward!

  26. Great post :)! It made me laugh out loud more than once. Some explanations for our problem with queues have already been offered but I think I might be able to add some more perspective:

    1. Queues to a German mind are inherently wrong because they force you to waste time that could be spend in a useful way.
    2. A queue means that the system is already broken. Otherwise you wouldn’t be forced to waste your time.
    3. Nobody in their right mind should have to comply with a broken system. There got to be a way around it.
    4. So when people push against me in trains, busses or supermarkets I don’t take it personally. It is not their fault that there are not enough seats or cash points.

    Germans really hate wasting time. I once went to Moscow and our hosts asked us whether we wanted to visit the museum. My friend and I said yes but then we realized that we would have to stand in a queue for at least two hours to get in (seriously the queue must have been longer than a kilometre!). Dumbfounded we stared at our Russian friends. It was beyond comprehension that people voluntarily stand in a queue for hours when they could to other things. I think this is also the reason why some Germans make fun of the British for queuing “all the time”. We equate queues with a broken system.

  27. Why Can’t We Queue?

    Cause we never learnt it. It is – as my predecessors wrote – really ungerman.
    A Real Hun Has Elbows!

    Moreover: In my English lessons at school I learnt to joke about british families who like to queue up in their homes in front of the the fireplace instead of watching TV.

    The only rule of that family game is: Father, mother, children queued up like organ-pipes. The foremost one looking onto the fire for some minutes, then silently moving to the tail of the queue. The second one repeating this, and so on and so on all over the evening.

    And – so I learnt at school – they enjoy it.

  28. It’s one of the two things that make me feel like a stranger in my own country: (1) I’d like to have a queue, because it gives me a feeling of order and fairness and (2) I hate wurst and I think my people are disgusting for eating the amounts of it they do. go figure 😉

  29. It truly drives me crazy when I’m not prememtively prepared to deal with a jumper or line cutter (when there is a line, as rare as that happens)

    On one occasion, I was at a T-mobile store and after waiting in line for no less than 40 mins and with the guy that was in front of me was being helped, I was next. In walks a pretty attractive young woman; she comes right in, glances at the line and then stands right next to the guy being helped. I had to assume that this was his girlfriend since she was practically shoulder and shoulder with him and did see there was a line but found her boyfriend. I was new to Germany and was not at understanding a word being said amongst the three.
    But then the guy walks off…
    I then loudly say “excuse me there is a line here, we all have been waiting in for over 30 mins” (in English) Desperately trying not to flip out.
    She then holds up her phone and with an ‘I’m too pretty to wait’ face and pleads for ‘just 2 mins’ (not even the whole word minutes, literally: M I N S)

    With those words and THAT face, I lose all sense of civility; snatch her phone out of herd hand and casually toss it out the still-with-people-lined-up-in-it, keeping-it-open door right on to the thorough fair. At that point I knew I was wrong so I just walked right out, she also didn’t walk back in after she picked up her phone outside but I never ever stepped foot in there again.

  30. Oh my god, this is so true! I don’t understand it either! It seems that German culture is riddled with contradictions. The university may have signs all over the place saying “bitte Ordnung halten”, but as soon as there is anything remotely resembling a line all hell breaks loose and Ordnung goes right out the window. I DON’T UNDERSTAND! Germany is also known for efficiency, but if you’ve ever dealt with Germany bureaucracy in any form you will know that that is where efficiency and speed go to die.

    So glad I found your blog! I love reading about other expats’ experiences in Germany 🙂

    -Danielle
    solongusa.blogspot.com

  31. As an Aussie that sounds like a waking nightmare.

    But then I started to wonder if there is an order to it after all. It’s efficient it’s just optimised for a different variable than fairness, namely ‘need’ (or ‘wanting it’). The mill operates as a filter to keep those who don’t need it or want it enough back but let through anyone desperate enough to fight for it.

    So if your husband is dying of cancer and his last wish is a bite of his favourite strudel from his favourite bakery you can unsheath those elbows and be in and out in 30 seconds, but if you’re just waiting for a bus that won’t come for another 50 minutes and you don’t really care you don’t mess with the lady with razors for elbows, a look of bottomless determination in her eyes and an apparently life-threatening addiction to strudel. Who knows, maybe she really needs it?

  32. It’s very similar in Croatia where I’ve lived for the last 2 years (US expat). They funnel-up rather than a line-up. They will push you out of the way before you’ve received your change at the supermarket. Try getting on a flight… it’s madness.

    I’ve realized that I need to adapt to these stresses because I can’t adopt the behavior. Part of my plan to adapt is to avoid close contact with the locals. The supermarket is the worst stressor for me – half the time it’s okay, half the time I want to punch a puppy after finally getting into my car. So I’m working on a plan to have my groceries delivered. And for other times, I plan to carry little bottles of whiskey to get through them.

  33. Caroline and James’ comments are spot on.
    I’ve never been to Germany before, but I’d like to warn that it’s not always a good idea to force (for lack of a better word) an Anglo value on a non-Anglo country, especially when that non-Anglo country has its own standards.
    Sometimes they queue, but it depends on the venue and location. In the end, except for the occasional rude pushing, I guess it’s cultural differences.

    My 0,02 €

    As far as complaining goes, some other blogs out there can explain:
    http://www.lilit-kommunikation.de/german-culture-why-do-we-complain-so-much
    http://mygermantravels.com/2011/06/german-culture-%E2%80%93-art-of-complaining/

What do you think?