Stockholm Syndrome: The Waiting Game

As I write, I am waiting on the phone, on hold to an electricity company. A very gentle and not unattractive voice has just informed me that I am number 73 in the queue and that my call will be answered shortly.

Fair enough.

Yesterday lunchtime as I popped into Systembolaget the red counter flashed 130. I took my ticket. Number 191 – 61 people before me.

Never mind. A chance to grind through a newspaper.

And this morning I was at Stockholm’s central station which, for some reason, always seems to bring out a craving for a McDonald’s Sausage and Egg McMuffin.

(Actually I know the reason: fifteen years ago I visited Stockholm for the first time, arriving at the central station on a plodding and much-delayed overnight train from the north. Tired, hungry, poor and unaccustomed to things Swedish, the golden arches had never seemed so welcoming. It’s a Pavlovian thing.)

So today I decided to give in to my wanton desire and made a beeline for the balloon-festooned outlet at the end of the main station hall.

There were seven people in the queue for the only till which was open. The sleepy teenager behind the counter was unenthusiastic about her job, rolling her eyes every time the Italian tourists at the front of the queue changed their minds.

Someone who seemed to be slightly more senior – judging by the lack of eye contact with the customers, an acquired skill among reluctant serving staff – loitered behind the burger racks.

The Italians drifted off and the queue, which by this time had built up behind me, shuffled forward. It was all happening in slow motion. Even the McMusic was slowing down.

Angrily, I left. Then I hesitated and turned back – only to see that another till had opened, and had already been rushed by the people who were behind me. Just like in the school Christmas play, circa 1983, I had missed my queue.

So I steamed over to the substitute McDonald’s just over the road from the station. One till was open, and several people in the line already seemed annoyed.

I gave up and had a banana instead.

(I am now just 49 in the telephone queue, by the way.)

Swedes, or at least those foreigners who claim to know them, joke about themselves as great queuers. But they are not. The Russians – now they are great queuers, or at least they used to be.

The mark of a great queuer is when you don’t know how long you’ll be there for or if they’ll still have what you want when you get to the front – but still you queue.

What Swedish companies like Systembolaget and my electricity company (number 37 at the last silken-voiced announcement) understand is that in Sweden, service means not how quickly customers are served but how well-informed they are about the time they will have to wait.

Of course, the real solution would be to cut the cost of employing people and get them working harder to keep their jobs, but we’ll leave the politics to the editorial page.

Given the status quo, the ticket system totally neutralises any possibility of complaint because it is completely fair. The equality-enforcing ticket machine does not differentiate between rich or poor, young or old, man or woman, Swede or immigrant, the sharp-elbowed or the polite.

The system decides who’s next, and what could be more Swedish than that? As long as they are kept posted about their position, Swedes will wait many years in a queue for a Stockholm apartment – because to them that’s better than having someone getting priority by waving cash around.

I’m not in the habit of making suggestions to giant corporations, but here’s a tip for McDonald’s and countless international retail chains. When operating in Sweden, the labour costs mean you’ll never be able to afford to give good service. Indeed, Swedes don’t even expect good service.

But what they do expect, more than anything, is that your bad service is distributed equally.

Now I’m just number two in the telephone queue. And I’ve forgotten why the hell I called them in the first place.

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Stockholm Syndrome is a new series of articles from The Local focusing on life in the Swedish capital through a foreigner’s eyes.