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Queuing Culture of India: Let children be catalysts for positive public manners!

Respecting different cultures and the social protocol of foreign countries is easier said than done, when some prevailing local practices contradict one's core values. As for me, it is the queuing culture of India.

For the past few years, a series of initiatives were taken to make Delhi, where I reside, a world-class city to host the prestigious sporting event called Commonwealth Game that took place in October 2010. They included a call for behavior changes among Delhiites to give a positive impression of the city to visiting athletes, delegates and tourists. Although I noticed perceptible changes around some facilities and last minute touch-up works that were in progress, I continued to witness unpleasant conduct, such as urinating and spitting in public, which officials had been keen on prohibiting. But as an expat in Delhi, the crowded capital of India, I have been more passionate about promoting better queuing manners among the local residents because the act of "waiting one's turn" is so integrated in our daily lives that we cannot avoid being uninvolved, be it at the hospital reception, cash register, or flight check-in counter.

In fact, I used to worry whether I could instill a sense of equality and equity in my son while living in a highly hierarchical society in which people's aspirations for getting ahead of others are so fierce, but it turns out to be the other way around. Being a wise observer, my 9-year-old son has developed a better sense of fairness and social justice than if he would have in Japan otherwise, as he becomes interested in why things can be so unfair here. Rather than being judgmental, he learns to accept the queue culture of India as a fact of life, and urges me not to raise my voice in public because it won't solve a problem but only attract unnecessary onlookers. After all, my son is a far better diplomat in promoting good manners than I am.


Lessons learnt at the amusement park

Right after I arrived in New Delhi at the end of January 2007, I decided to take a break from unpacking and other chores, and took my son, age 5 at a time, to an amusement park in New Delhi for a change.2) It was supposed to be a fun day, but turned out to be another stressful day.

Though the park was old and small in scale, my son found one of his favorite rides: bumper cars. Since the waiting line was short, I let him wait alone in line while I stationed myself in front of the ride for him to come out. Contrary to my expectation, however, my son didn't come out the next turn, or the next, because as soon as the cars stopped, the kids who were bigger than my son jumped out of the cars, rushed back to the entrance while skipping the queue, and dashed to secure another ride the moment the gate reopened. Although I was hoping that someone, an operator of the ride or one of the parents, would call attention to the boys, nothing happened. Quite the contrary, some of the parents were busy waving at their children or taking their pictures. Feeling uneasy, I decided to step in. First, I went to talk to my son, urging him to run to grab a car before the big boys returned. But soon after I saw the helpless expression on his face, I realized it was a tall order for him as he was even more puzzled than I was. Next, I went to talk to the man who was in charge of the ride, but only to find out that he didn't understand English. Still, with the operation of the bumper cars interrupted and my making a scene, people started to gather around my son and me.

One of them, who I believed was a queue jumper's mother, asked me in English what happened, so I explained that "some kids" (I didn't say their children) jumped the queue, while everyone stared at me from head-to-toe. In reply, I got asked a number of questions: Where are you from? Where do you live? Where do you or your husband work? WHAT DO THESE QUESTIONS HAVE TO DO WITH QUEUEING? Instead of answering the questions, I ended up raising my voice saying, "Don't Indian schools teach children to make a queue? What kind of moral education does the Ministry of Education prepare for the future citizens of India?" I guess it was their first time seeing a foreigner questioning Indian education on account of queue jumping. I didn't get any answer from the crowd, but instead, these parents seemed to have assumed that it was better not to fuel this foreign woman's anger, and tried to soothe me as if I were upsetting for nothing, expediently saying "Why don't you send your son to go on a ride now? Nobody is in line." A few people also talked to the operator in Hindi to make sure my son got on a ride. My happy-go-lucky son went to have a ride, but I continued to feel awkward, upset, and embarrassed about the whole thing.

Why did riding on a bumper car have to be such a frustrating experience? Simple queuing and taking turns could have done the job. But in retrospect, the incident summarizes the social reality of India as well as what it means to live in India. Foremost, the concept of queuing is not as penetrated in India as it is in some other countries. It is common not to see a queue but a horde of people trying to get closer to the front, although the majority of people oblige to make a queue when encourageded (e.g., the poles with tapes are set). But even then, queue jumpers are prevalent. Second, Indian people often ask personal questions even only after exchanging a few greeting words. The book "Being Indian" by Pavan K Varma (2004) explains the logic behind these behaviors: Indians are obsessed with power, status or hierarchy, and are thus, highly sensitive to "who stands where in the pecking order." As a consequence, intrusive questions "are understood by both parties as a necessary prelude to establish the right equation between themselves, so that the accepted lines of deference, distance and familiarity are not crossed." I see what he means happening almost every day. Third, one should dress decently and speak proper English to argue one's case diplomatically with a firm attitude in order to be listened to and be respected by the other party. Otherwise, not only will one not be heard, but one will feel humiliated by the treatment from the other party, on top of attracting unwanted crowds.

My son still remembers the incident as of today and tells me how scary I was in the amusement park. I admit that I was naïve at the time, and I sure didn't show him a good example of resolving a conflict that emerged because of differences in social protocol.


Queue Jumping in India and the way I generally handle the situation

By now, I am getting much better at handling the queue culture of India. In general, the situation falls under either one of the following.

First, when I don't see a queue but a crowd massed before the counter, I follow the proverb, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do."; I try to make my way to the counter as gracefully as possible without pushing or elbowing others. Second, when there is a queue and if I see someone trying to barge in, I say to the person politely, "excuse me, I was waiting here" or "there is a line formed." Interestingly enough, most of the time, I get the answer, "Oh, I didn't see you. Please go ahead," or "Oh, I am sorry. I didn't see the line." As long as we both remain diplomatic, it works well.

But once there was a time that I was told by an Indian man "this is India, so you should follow our way" at the cash register of a large book store. His comment drew attention of everyone around us. Whereas I lost the words to reply, a few people ahead of me gave way to me, and the cashier also told me to hand over the books, suggesting I would be attended next. Though nobody dared to say anything, Indian people there appeared to have felt embarrassed with what he said about the "Indian way."


Let children be our diplomats to spread queuing habits

The truth is, I can never get used to the (current) queue culture of India, which makes me re-appreciate an invention of queuing as well as a society with public consensus on queuing. After all, making them wait on a first-come first-served basis, it is one of the simplest, most reliable and fair systems to organize people to get to the same objective.

Wondering why Indians don't have a habit of making a queue, I actually asked a number of Indian friends if children at Indian school learn to make queues, and confirmed that they do. So, why don't they continue to practice the same in society at large? In search for the answer, I devoured a number of books, such as "Games Indians Play: why we are the way we are," "We are like that only: understanding the logic of consumer India," "A Better India A Better World," and aforementioned "Being Indian," but none of them explained the logic behind their queuing behavior in particular. Still, based on bits and pieces of information from the books, especially "Being Indian" a superb book by Pavan K Varma to understand Indian psyche, combined with my own observations, I have come to assume it is due to the pragmatic and goal oriented nature of Indians (i.e., the ends are more important than means) who have ambitions to move upward whenever there is a possibility as they live in a highly populated, competitive, and hierarchal society. Further, the Indian people assume "the world is inherently unfair" as is explained by Mr. Varma. In fact, even the poorest don't seem to fantasize egalitarianism. Whereas their never-give-up and give-it-a-try attitudes can be India's strength and advantages, they don't work well with the traits that are needed for queuing (e.g., be patient and fair for no reward). Thus, without any financial or social penalty, a number of Indian people have less incentive to form a queue and more incentive to jump a queue to get ahead of others because they won't lose anything anyhow.

As India goes global, however, it may be to the country's advantage that every Indian learn to make a queue. While it seems a daunting task to promote a positive queue culture among the nearly 1.2 billion Indians, it may be done by mobilizing Indian children as catalysts. First, many grown-ups don't make a queue, but at least children learn to queue up at school. Second, it is far more difficult to change the behavior of adults, but not that of children. Third, children tend to be more attuned to fairness than adults. Fourth, the number of young population of Indian being so large, they will be the ones who define the future of India. Alternatively, it is to the children's advantage to get into a habit of queuing, which is prevalent in many other parts of the world, for the nation's reputation and continuous growth. Lastly, even though parents may be reluctant to form a queue, they have the potential to change behavior should their children call their attention to it.

As India transforms into a world leader, children of India today highly pride themselves on being citizens of the country. I keep myself optimistic that they will not only strive to succeed in their own lives but also to become world leaders in public demeanor.

 


 

1)The nineteenth Commonwealth Games was held between Oct. 3-14 in Delhi. The Commonwealth Games is held every four years. The participant countries are those that were once part of the British Empire. For further information on Common Wealth Game 2010, please refer to http://www.cwgdelhi2010.org/

2)This amusement park, Appu Ghar, was closed in 2008.

3)V. Raghunathan(2006). Games Indians Play: why we are the way we are. Penguin Portfolio.

4)Rama Bijapurkar(2007).We are like that only: Understanding the Logic of Consumer India. Penguin Books India.

5)NR Narayana Murthy (2009). A Better India A Better World. Penguin Books India.

6)In 2005, about 36 percent of the population was below age 15 and more than half the population is below age 25. http://www.prb.org/pdf06/61.3IndiasPopulationReality_Eng.pdf

Profile

Teruko Kagohashi

Teruko Kagohashi is a Transcultural Education/Parenting Consultant who has extensive overseas studying and/or working experiences, including Japan, the United States, Germany, Australia, Bolivia and India. She currently resides with her husband and a son (elementary school age) in New Delhi, India. She has a dual master’s degree from the Teachers College and the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University in New York.
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