Thursday, September 27, 2007


I was very amused that my automatic Russian-English dictionary correctly translated the title of this post when my mouse hovered over it. The dictionary is rather incomplete and sometime supplies the wrong contextual definition, or it recognizes only the lexical form and won't translate if word appears in a different form. It had no problem with "queuing," so I suppose the concept must be an important one in the Russian language.

While traveling in foreign countries, I can sometimes be quite good at blending in. But while I can skillfully hide certain American mannerisms, I’m not so willing to take on the customs of the new culture. There are certain Russian customs that I simply ignore and hope that no one will notice.

One of them is the “waiting in line” conversation. If anyone asks me, I try to be accommodating, but I refuse to initiate a discussion about who’s last in line. It’s just too strange. Here’s a typical dialogue:

“Who’s last in line here?”
“I am.”
“Then I’m after you.”

This is a perfectly normal conversation occurring in Russia. The question I have as a foreigner is, why on earth do they have to discuss it? Everyone knows that if you want to stand in line, you simply go to the end, stand behind the last person, and keep standing behind them until it’s your turn. If you step out of line early, because you forgot something, you go back to the end and begin again.

When we learned line etiquette in Russian class, we were all quite shocked. How could there be different sets of rules for standing in line? Isn't it common sense?

Russians use the waiting in line rules to deal with situations like this:let’s say that an elderly person comes in and doesn’t have the strength to stand in line. He/she initiates the “Who’s in line” conversation and then adds, “Tell everyone that I’m after you.” And goes to sit down. Now, another person enters and approaches the person who’s standing at the end of the line.

Person who’s physically last in line: “There’s a woman standing after me.” The elderly woman waves from a bench and the new arrival says, “Well then I’m after her.”

For some reason Russians like to get in line before they are finished shopping. Sometimes one person stands with the cart and one or more members of the party continue to run around the store collecting items. Other times one person stands in line without the cart and his companions bring the cart later.

Aside from saving a spot for their friends, Russians also ask strangers to save their place. Recently I was the last in line and a woman came up behind me. “Say that I’m after you,” she instructed. And left her eyeglasses in the basket behind me to “save” her spot while she ran off to get her groceries. It’s all about ensuring your special place and then getting others to work for you.

It’s the same concept on the bus with getting a seat. Elderly people rush on and hover over two seats at once. Indecisive? No, just saving a seat for their friend. When there isn’t enough of something, you take care of yourself and your own.

From the American point of view, it's immoral to break rules for the sake of your friends. From the Russian point of view, it's immoral to let down your friends for the sake of following the rules.


  1. That's interesting, Liz, what you're writing! What rule did exactly old granny break when she saved a place fjer her friend? That's annoying (especially, when not grannies, but young people do it), but I don't think that there is a rule.

    Now about grocery situation. I am amazaed at your attitude! You're getting russian - your default thiugh about a person is a negative one. I never considered that when I'm saving a place, I'm doing someone else's work.

    Russians have a very special attitude to queing, because it is the only piece of justice left for them. If you have a place in a queue you have got what you have a right for. We don't have any other garantees for our human rights :)

    And one more thing - you are in a very tired country - people are really tired because they have literally to survive and have absolutely no garantees - each man for himself. And St. Petersburg, because of the climate is the most tired city in this country. I've been to a number of cities here and in foreign countries, and I have never seen that the majority of people is so tired.

  2. Thanks for the comments, Natasha. I was thinking when I wrote the post that I should edit it a little more. Maybe I should have written something more about Russian history. Americans do not usually have to stand in line a long time for things in order to survive. We have long grocery lines and other lines that may take a few hours, but perhaps it is not the same as in Russia. And therefore we have different "rules."

    When I stand in line, I think, it is my right to be here because I have been standing in this spot and haven't run off to the bathroom or gone to get more groceries. In Russia, I feel deceived when I stand in a line thinking it is short, and then a crowd of people return to stand in front of me. I don't understand how it is "just," but I understand that it is one of the "rules" of the culture that Russians have accepted. I can follow the rules and be respectful, but psychologically they are hard to accept.

    I absolutely agree about St.Petersburg being the most tired city. I think it is the city whose citizens never sleep. If at 25 it makes me tired, what about the poor grannies? It is a good thing to remember when I am impatient with someone. "He/she is probably very tired and doesn't mean to be bothering me."

  3. Лиза, если бы тебе довелось побывать в очередях которые стоят по 12 часов, ты бы поняла Российские правила. :) Это наследие советской эпохи, когда кругом был дефицит. За хорошими товарами приходилось стоять по несколько часов. Половина жизни советского человека проходила в очередях.
    Я не оправдываю наши правила. Мне иногда кажется несправедливым, когда передо мной вклинивается человек 5 - 6. Сейчас, когда дефицита нет, эти правила начнут постепенно отмирать (я думаю).

  4. Да, вы правы, я должна была объяснить в статье о дефиците. Может потом напишу "часть 2." Дело в том, что знание истории просто не поможет "культурный шок." Наверное, и наши амерканские правила также являются наследием чего-то. Постараюсь узнавать.

  5. In America, we are taught from an early age that you need to earn your place in line. The person who has been physically standing or waiting the longest has the right to be in front. If you go ahead of someone who has been standing longer than you have, then you are consider to be "cutting" in line and it's generally frowned upon whether you get glares or people yell at you. In my experience, people have different tolerance levels for cutting, and it sometimes also depends on the setting.

    In the grocery store, you are expected to have all the items you want to buy ready before you go and pay for them. It doesn't count as waiting if you ask someone to hold a place for you and then go off and do your food shopping. We all want to get out of the store as soon as possible to take our perishable food home to the fridge or freezer, it just doesn't make sense if someone is already waiting and you go ahead of them even though you finished your shopping after they did. If people are shopping together in one household, you should split the items you want to buy and then you will be done twice as fast and you can both get in line.

    If you are at the movies with a friend, however, and you have already bought a ticket, it is more acceptable to go off and get popcorn and let your friend hold both of your places in line to get into the theater. One person can save seats for their group, and people don't usually go to the movies alone, so you kind of accept that this isn't a strict type of line.

    Another exception is when you have waited in line for a long time and you can't finish your transactions without filling out a certain form, the official may tell you to fill out the form and then come straight back to that window without waiting in line all over again. I have seen this happen in the post office and department of motor vehicles.

  6. Liz,

    Thanks so much for your post.
    My husband pointed it to me, saying "You need to read it--last paragraph describes our differences perfectly." I read it and couldn't stop laughing because as a Russian, I wouldn't think twice implementing the same rules here, in the US, even after living here 10 out of 26 years of my life! In fact, I think I did it three times just yesterday. :) I didnt even live that much during Soviet Union lines, but I think it transferred to me from my parents and until this post, I wasnt even thinking why my husband(who is American) is so surprised by my devious plans of how we are going to beat the line as soon as we enter the store(ok, why lie, i devise plans even while we are still driving to the store). I never realized that not everyone lives by the same "queueing rules" here.

    Ah, we're all are different with our cultural things and they don't make us right or wrong. It's a great point though-- thanks so much!

  7. Thanks for commenting, Masha! I wrote this post over 2 years ago, and whenever someone leaves a comment, I think about this topic again and remember that it really does represent one of the bigger cultural differences!

    Once you are conscious of something, it is hard to return to a state of not noticing! After living in Russia, I always think about cleaning my shoes, whether or not I need a plastic bag, etc.

  8. I can't believe I missed this post before - I LOVE IT! Maybe I need to take a page from Masha's book and start planning my action before going into the store; one of the stores I go to usually has long and unpleasant lines...however, the people are not particularly civilized there; I think any sort of cutting might end up in a fistfight!

    As you were describing this I saw the difference being that here in the US it is each man for himself. Too bad if someone else is old or crippled or whatever; they should hire someone to do their shopping or deal with the discomfort. (On one hand I know we are taught kindness to the elderly and all, but generally, I see the each one for himself theory played out).

    In Russia there is more of a communal sense. Not that it is extended outside of the group, family, whatever, but at least it is extended that far! My husband and I, or children and I have gone to the store together, and we'd never think of trying to "pull anything" by joining a family member who was further along in line.

  9. The other thing I noticed is that unless there was a long the hotel or at the bank, post office, etc. people seemed to "side up" rather than line up. The next person would stand next to me rather than behind me, which seemed odd since it rather eliminated the idea of any sort of private conversation.

  10. Yes, I know what you mean about "siding up." It actually happens to me in the metro while waiting for a train. I get there first and stand a few feet from where the doors will be. Then as other people come along, instead of deferring to me and getting behind me, they gather at my side or even step in front of me. Obviously in the metro there isn't an actual line, but I think in the U.S. it's common courtesy to hang back and not rush the people in front of you.

    I suppose the U.S. is more individualistic. You do see people letting others go first, but in general I think it is just expected that everyone is playing fair and going by the rules.

  11. Hello Elizabeth,
    I just wanted to say
    that you are a talented
    writer! Respect!

  12. Liz, first off, I like your blog.

    I'm Russian but I have to acknowledge that we as a culture have zero queuing skills. It drives me up the wall when I have to queue in this country (for exactly the reasons you've described in your post), especially when I've just come back from England where queuing is a national sport and everyone is a world class athlete at it to a point where even a single person standing on their own at a bus stop will always form an orderly queue of one.

  13. "Skill" may be relative. If chaos is what gets results, so be it! So funny what you wrote about the English, made me laugh.


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