Books, British, Culture, Dutch, English, Netherlands

Why The Dutch Refuse to Queue Like the English

Many years ago I read Watching the English by Kate Fox. It’s a fascinating read if you are English, spend time with English people, or you just want to get to know us English folk a little better. There was a lot of penny dropping going on during my scurry through the chapters, lots of thigh slapping and “So THAT’s why”…… in fact it’s probably time for a reread as the book has been revised and updated!

The English, as a nation, are polite. Very very polite. It makes dealing with some of the more blunt Dutch manners even harder for English expats than some other nationalities. However, an American reader got in touch about the annoyance he feels at the lack of queue etiquette in the Netherlands. Ahh, I thought, a pet topic of mine! I am English, therefore I queue.

Even after 15 years living outside of England queuing is ingrained. It runs though my blood. If someone around me contravenes queuing etiquette I tut very loudly indeed – and if the crime warrants it I am not afraid to simultaneously roll my eyes. I know, don’t mess with me in a queue.

So this is how queuing works: Queuing is done patiently, joining the line of people in order of arrival and staying in that order until entering the premises or beginning the activity you are queuing up for. Sounds simple enough right?

Take the example of waiting for a bus. If adhering to accepted queuing rules, English people get on the bus in the same order they arrive at the bus stop. So if you arrive last, you are at the end of the queue, and if there are no seats on the bus that means you are the guy standing up clinging on for dear life to one of those rubber handles that dangle down. Logical huh?

Not in the Netherlands. Many, many, many moons ago, I used to get the bus to work. Every morning I had used my quota of tutting and eye rolling for the day by the time I even got on the bus. First to arrive at the bus stop most mornings gave me the RIGHT to get on the bus first. Right? No. The Dutch way to enter a bus is by means of everyone charging and scrambling over each other to get on the bus and screw the order you arrived at the bus stop in. If that means arriving first but being the moron to spend the 30 minute bus journey standing up whilst hurtling down the motorway at 100km per hour then so be it. I believe the same Dutch queuing method can be found across the country on train station platforms too.

The other strange thing about Dutch queuing is how lines are formed in the most obstructive manner possible for passers-by. Take cash machines for example. Instead of forming a sideways queue, along the wall of the building (usually a bank) and out of harm’s way, a Dutch queue stretches outwards directly facing the pinautomaat blocking pathways, bike paths, roads or motorways – whatever happens to be near the cash machine. It seems that the obstruction and inconvenience caused by the queue must be optimal in order to be able to call the line a successful one. (Notable is that lines for cash machines do adhere to ‘taking action in the order people arrive in’ rule.)

Dutch queuing behaviour had long baffled me until I read this headline in the NRC many years back:

“Brit op Titanic was te beleefd” 

Translated this means “Brits on the Ttitanic were too polite”. I read on, and in short, from research undertaken by the Universities of Zurich and Queensland, the British men on board the sinking Titanic were too polite for their own good. By standing patiently in line to let women and children go first, whilst their American counterparts fought to get to the front of the queues to get on lifeboats, British men had 15% less chance than the Americans of surviving the disaster.

So there you have it. Disregarding the rules for queuing saves lives. So next time you are shoved aside to get on a bus or train remember this: the lack of Dutch queuing etiquette has nothing to do with the absence of manners or politeness, it’s is actually a result of some inherent survival instinct – which is incredibly important when boarding a bus or train, or paying for your shopping in the Netherlands…….

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9 thoughts on “Why The Dutch Refuse to Queue Like the English”

  1. Dutch are great at “taking a number” at the butcher, baker, or hospital. They just need some order in their hectic lives. Forget the politeness! Linda@Wetcreek Blog

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  2. They did this in Hamburg, too! (but possibly with more pushing? I swear those old ladies must have been sharpening their elbows!) We could always tell which gate our flight back to Hamburg was, as there would be a quasi-queue forming: there would be the start of a line, and then it would split into two lines across the place where people walk, and at least one of those would split again. Not to mention all the people who'd just jump in line willy-nilly. People queue in the US like the UK, and the lack of a line was one of the big surprises I got upon moving.

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  3. If you remember the movie 2012: the end of the world…. while lots of people trying to get a place on the Arch, the negative character on the movie pushed his way to be first in the line. But the Arch was not there yet and while “waiting”, the crowd behind was pushing him and his off the cliff. In the movie they were Russians but as you describe them could be the dutch or many other civilizations :))
    I believe there should be a peaceful, intellectual and educated mixture for organizing ourselves in the community. Maybe also English way or Japan way is too much but you have to agree that it works all ways 😀

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  4. It's brought me great joy to come across your blog!!! I started studying Dutch after living in French Guiana and spending most days in Suriname. The book, 'Watching the English' was brought on a trip by my Russian best-friend when we traveled to England – we had so much fun discussing subtleties we picked up on and would check the book to see if we were right. Fascinating insights you have, I must say!

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  5. I don't know that movie bit it is starting to sound like being somewhere in the middle of a queue makes sense…. if there is a queue in the first place……. Every culture has there own way of working it out – but adapting takes a smidgeon longer sometimes 🙂

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