Standing in Line or Waiting Your Turn (in Azerbaijan)
You mozy on into a crowded bank and the hordes of people are all waiting their turn for the cashier window. You nonchalantly, and without whispering a peep to any of the other patrons, align yourself with the person nearest you - facing perpendicular to the back of their head. This faceless individual is doing likewise to the person in front of them - and on and on until the person nearest the window scoots to the free cashier. The human centipede moves like an assembly line toward its ultimate conclusion.
We call it "standing in line."
From kindergarten on, we are instructed to remain in a "single file" line, by our drill-sergeant-teachers, lest we be rent of our chocolate milk privileges (the facists!) Of course, this is not just in the States, many "line" related jokes are made at the expense of the poor British. Which they deserve as I'm almost certain they invented the term "queuing" (making "Q" look - unnecessarily - like a three syllable word). There is even a "science" of queuing as a branch of management studies, which I'm assuming, was started by a British dude or dudette.
As seemingly "logical" as some may feel "standing in line" to be, people must still learn the rules, and more importantly, the exceptions to those rules. We know when someone can "hold someone's spot in line" and when someone is "out of line." If we are unclear of someone's status, we can ask them "are you in line?" And, of course, if someone commits the transgression of "cutting in line" we will find some way of reprimanding them - perhaps, speaking loudly about our disdain for low-life-line-cutters, or resorting to full-blown fist-a-cuffs if need be.
All our assumptions about waiting for our turn revolves around the line. Even our language reflects this point - but we must be taught this language, and we practice our entire lives, honing our queuing skills. Lines are cultural and driven by social forces, not some all-consuming, logic of the universe. We are not born to fall in line (except for ants, they are born to fall in line).
While waiting in line for the Revenge of the Sith midnight showing (in the Star-Wars-Jerusalem of Missoula, MT) people ran back and forth between various "spots" in line and routed the nearest gas station for sugar and caffeine; all showing little fear of "losing their place." At several points in the night, frantic lightsaber battles erupted causing the line to hemorrhage and jedies (is that the correct plural for jedi?), bounty hunters and the like to disperse into the parking lot - only to return to their "spots in line" to catch their breath. The line remained bloated and disfigured until the first hint of opening, then the wookies, jawas and Darth Vaders rushed to uphold their claimed place in the line. Despite these deviations from the rules of line-standing - everyone still ordered themselves according to some presumed logic without any noticeable negotiation.
In Azerbaijan, it is a bit different. It is far too over-generalizing to say that people simply do not stand in line, but very often it takes a different form. You will still find the occasional blue, waste-high webbing forming queues at banks, and in some places you must "take a number," but sometimes it takes on an alternative logic. From my Stateside-socialized eyes, it feels unanticipated, and very interesting when I walk into a situation where I expect a line and there isn't one. It also makes me anxious. We were warned the first time we scuttled over to the ATM - pack animals at the watering hole - that people in Azerbaijan often did not "stand in line."
Several months later, I encountered a small crowd waiting for a window at the post office. I sauntered to where I thought the end of the line should be and then someone murmured something to which I replied my automatic "Bilmirəm" (I don't know) and then they "cut in line," right in front of me! Or, so I thought.
Later, I was told that the equivalent Azerbaijani phrase for the English "standing in line" is "waiting your turn" (növbeyim gözləyirəm). When you arrive at a post office, for instance, and there doesn't appear to be a line leading up to a window, you ask: "who is last" (Sonuncu kimdir?) or "who is next?" (Növbəti kimdir?) If you know who you're after, you just watch for them to take their turn, and follow. Pretty simple, all around. Granted, people still "cut" every now and again, but that's not so much different from back home!
It's also common for people to ask "How long have you been here?" (Saat nəcədir buradasan?) or "I am in a hurry, may I have your place?" (Mən tələsirəm öz yerini mənə vərə bilərsən?) Others will sometimes let people go ahead in this situation, and it is respectful to let the elderly, ill or disabled take your turn. In one instance, I let an older man ahead of me, who then let a young women ahead of him - luckily this cycle stopped or I would've been there for a long time.
Despite these differences, knowing the logic of "waiting your turn," alleviated some of my discomfort with these settings (but, without years of practice, I still feel - and look - awkward). Appreciating this small difference, has brought greater awareness of the amazing capacity human societies have for solving problems using a multitude of logics. To know that "the line" is not the only way, gives my inner-kindergartener hope that there are many "ways of doing" yet to be discovered.
If you are ever traveling to Azerbaijan, remember you may not stand in line when you wait your turn. And, be sure to ask "who's last?" As a compliment to this post, I will follow-up with something about the ATM-situation. As I was writing this I realized that going to the ATM in Azerbaijan deserved a brief note all it's own. Cheers. (And I'm sorry if any British are offended by my blatant stereotype, but Google made me do it.)