Thursday, May 15, 2008

"The line forms in the back, lady." - Kyiv, Ukraine

In the past two days I've again experienced the Ukrainian queuing culture that is quite foreign to we Americans. Today it happened to me at a bus stop. Yesterday at the bank. It is the practice of one entering a line, and then proceeding ask the person in front of or behind you to save your place while you go run your other errands or have a cup of coffee. It's great for that person, but I find it quite rude to the others patiently waiting in line and especially to those whom you've put in the position of defending your place in line to all those people who arrive in line after you've gone and come back. I'm sure we all can understand, when in a big hurry, the joy of entering a bank and seeing that you're #3 in line, then the subsequent frustration of excruciatingly slow service while 4 more people one-by-one step in front of you claiming that the persons in front of them saved their place in line.

I've run into this practice many times since living in Ukraine. I believe it's a holdover mentality from the days when goods were scarce and people had to wait in line for a day just to buy bare essentials. You have to "multi-task" to keep your family fed and clothed before midnight each day. And in those days no one was in a particular hurry. They were either unemployed or not getting paid, so who cares if they wait for 3 or 30 minutes. But those days are long over. Shelves are full in most shops. People are working long hours - and getting paid. The value of their time is becoming more dear. Sound familiar, my fellow Americans?

So I think this practice will eventually die out. But I think it could be helped along a bit. First, people have to feel societal pressure not to do this. I can see by many people's reaction, that they don't like this practice either, but usually keep silent or agree to save a place to avoid appearing petty. But I, as politely as possible, usually point out the rudeness of this practice when it happens to me, and (politely) refuse to save places in line. The times I've done this, the look on the person's face seems to tell me that they, too, realize they are asking for too big of a favor.

Second, customer-facing workers in companies (pharmacists, bank tellers, ticket sellers, fast food order takers) need to exercise better line control. It could be as easy as posting a sign asking people not to save places in line, thereby lifting the responsibility for education from the customer. They can also be more assertive in serving people as they come to the window. For example, once in a pharmacy I was next in line after waiting about 15 minutes when the guy waiting behind decides he's tired of waiting and just walks around me and places his order. The pharmacist said nothing and began to fill his order until I stepped in.

Anyway, not one of life's major issues but something that, if resolved, could remove one of the miriad anxieties and stresses people must deal with on a daily basis. I also believe that any business that introduces "effective queue management" techniques, will find a more satisfied customer.

What do you think?