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Sweden and the art of standing in line

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Sweden and the art of standing in line
15:30 CET+01:00
Grab a ticket, wait your turn, then pounce. Paddy Kelly examines the vicissitudes and intricacies of queuing in Sweden.

If you come to Sweden, one of the first things you will notice are the queues, and the strange relationship of the average Swede to them.

I come from a country where a queue is, at best, a temporary storage location until it is time to charge into or onto something in the manner of a herd of cows escaping a paddock, so I do admire the Swedes and their steadfast belief in the power of orderly lines of individually numbered people.

But it has all gone a bit overboard, I'm afraid, and the Swedes have been used to queues dictating their lives for so long that they barely have the ability to function without them.

There are queues everywhere, in places where you never suspected a queue would be necessary: bakeries, bike shops, cheese counters and, for all I know, churches and funeral parlours.

However the Swedes have refined their queuing over the years, so that now they can queue without seeming to queue at all. They do this with the aid of their ubiquitous ticket machines. And when I say "ubiquitous" I mean all OVER the place.

Upon entering a shop or financial institution of any kind, you should first locate the ticket machine; there will be one, trust me. You should then take a ticket. If you find that there are several kinds of tickets, you should take one of each; and, if you have any left over, you can use them to make friends on the way out, when they will be worth their weight in gold.

The ticket quite often will have a time estimate, showing how long you have to wait until it is your turn. This allows you to leave the premises and hang about just outside the door, peering through the window every few minutes in a concerned and suspicious manner.

When your number is finally called you had better be there, on the correct spot, at the correct moment, or they will skip by you to the next person and your chance might very well disappear forever.

There is also the return telephone queue, which I quite like. You ring the queue and an automatic voice tells you that they will call you back. So you hang up, go about your business and they DO call you back in a while, when a human has become available. Very nice indeed.

There is also the traditional telephone queue, which I like a good deal less, since I am not a fan of sitting with a mobile telephone pressed to my ear, microwaving the soft meaty parts of my head as I wait for the little robot to say "You are in position six ... hundred ... and twelve" every once in a while.

In fact the Systembolaget chain, where all wine and spirits are purchased in Sweden, is the high temple of queuing. If you go there on a Saturday you may get to stand in one long queue just to get into the store, and then another one inside to pay for your purchases. Double queue bonus!

There is only one area where the queuing powers of the Swedes deserts them, and this is in the area of paxing. Paxing refers to the practice of entering a cafe or restaurant where, before you join the queue, you skip ahead into the seating area and lay a jacket or bag somewhere in order to "reserve" a place. Then you slide back to the end of the line with a smug expression.

Now, I am of the opinion that the queue is for both the food/drink AND the seating, and that this is a rude and cynical activity which is exactly like queue jumping and should be dealt with in a similar manner. Most Swedes, however, do not seem to agree with me.

Once I experienced this first-hand in a cafe. A guy came in, reserved the best seat in the place with his jacket and bag, and then joined the back of the queue. I, located towards the front, was not pleased and when I received my food I made directly for "his" table and simply took it. There was frowning, certainly; there was muttering, absolutely; there were in fact sharp looks all round, but we both knew he really had no right to do what he did. And so I scored a prime table (and a certain amount of he-man respect from my date).

Which brings me to the question of WHY people believe that items of clothing can be used to “reserve” places? How does it work? Should the reserving object have a minimum size or be a certain colour? Should there be one object per reserved place? How long will the “reservation” hold for? And, if the object should happen to slide onto the floor, do we take the whole thing to a small claims court, or do we just meet up in the alley behind the cafe with a fistful of keys and some coins in a sock and simply have at each other?

Maybe there should be one queue for the food, and one for the seating, to help things along. And maybe one more for the bathroom. But wait, what if there's a coffee machine for refills, we should probably have a queue for that too. And it could get a bit messy when people want to all leave at the same time, so we should probably thrown one in there also...

Well, you see where I'm going. Suffice to say that the queue is a very central part of Swedish life and just as the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow (and the Irish a hundred and four words for potatoes) so the Swedes have a hundred words for standing around and waiting impatiently with a small printed number in your hand.

(Well, at least they should.)

Paddy's tips: If you want to see some proper Swedish queues in Stockholm I can recommend Systembolaget on Götgatan on a Saturday, SEB bank at Sergels Torg any day around lunchtime, and the baked goods counter at Gunnarsons, also on Götgatan. Happy standing!

Paddy has been trapped in Sweden since 1997 and can't seem to find the door. You can read his thrice-weekly rants here.

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