Queues and Kids

I know that some wonderful stores have a single queue, usually snaking back and forth a few times, and then many registers that call the next person forward by register number. WH Smith, Boots, and the bank branch near my flat all seem to follow this very fair system of queueing. (I can’t believe spell checker is not flagging those five vowels in a row, U-E-U-E-I!) However, not all stores have this sort of arrangement, including grocery stores (except the express line) and a few others. So the experience I’m about to relate has to be considered unique to stores with individual check-out lines.

I had my basket of goods and was looking at the three open check-out lanes to try and optimize my store-exit strategy. Lurking behind one of the lines was a woman with a baby in one of those car seat-carriers stuck in a cart and there was also a little girl running around her. It was actually not clear that she was in line, but I still avoided that one and got into another line. Suddenly I hear this voice behind me, “Ma’am, Excuse me but I was already waiting for the next available cashier.” I turned around, I’m guessing that my jaw was dropped in shock and that I gave her one of those “You’ve got to be kidding me!” looks. She said, “Give me a break, I have an infant and a two-year old here.”

I let her go. I was not really in the mood for a fight, but now I’m sorta peeved with myself for allowing this obnoxious woman to redefine the queue structure from individual lanes into she-moves-around-and-gets-whatever-comes-up-next. I might have felt differently had she said, in a polite tone of voice, “I’m sorry but is there any way possible I could take the next lane?” but she did not actually ask me. And her tone of voice was neither sweet nor polite, and it only got worse with the comment about the kids, as though she was somehow entitled to special treatment by virtue of being a mother.

I admit it, I do not have children (nor do I intend to, but that’s a different story). So I don’t know if I’m somehow violating a universally-acknowledged right of motherhood by feeling ornery about this particular altercation. But admittedly I do get a bit stroppy when someone tries to get special treatment. I kinda feel like most of us have difficult lives, and are tired, and overworked, and so I don’t see some sort of totally non-level playing field based on to be or not to be a mother. Of course, my cashier in the queue in which I landed was very speedy and I was actually out of the store before the Holy Mother, so I did not have to look at her again, which was probably a good thing. But I’m interested in opinions here, was this particularly brash or am I being sensitive? Should this type of attitude be justifiable solely on the grounds of being out in public with small children?


16 responses to “Queues and Kids

  1. Sometimes the queueing thing is a bit complicated, and places develop their own local rules, which you couldn’t possibly know. But I’m assuming you’ve been to this store before, and that’s not the case.

    I’m with you. If you have kids, you don’t have special rights. There are plenty of people out there with invisible health issues, invisible pressing deadlines, bad days for random reasons, etc. On the other hand, that woman also might have her hidden story. Perhaps she knew she had just a few precious moments before her baby would go into “it’s my bottle time” meltdown. Perhaps she needed to whisk the toddler past those cleverly-situated candy bars as quickly as possible. Perhaps she’d had zero sleep the night before. Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps her husband had just died, her mother had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and her house had burnt down.

    I think your point that it’s all about politeness and tone of voice is true. That goes a long way, for sure.

    Did she really say “Ma’am”, by the way? I’m guessing not…

  2. On the subject of special rights, my husband and I were amused to see that there was a parking space “for expectant mothers” outside a Gap store near here – but it wasn’t the nearest one to the door. We parked nearer! We wondered if perhaps the Gap management felt that expectant mothers needed a little exercise – not too much, just enough to keep healthy – and had tried to work out exactly the optimum distance to provide that.

    (And we thought it should have been for expectant women, not expectant mothers – but I suppose you can’t really be one without also being the other.)

  3. I think the Holy Mother was out of line. Queueing is queueing and she wasn’t following the custom for that store. Kids don’t entitle you to special queueing treatment, according to me, in any country!

  4. Iota, yes she did say “Ma’am” and totally if she had asked nicely and even thrown in a “so sorry, baby’s feeding time is coming up and we got delayed… ” or something I would probably not have continued to be mad after the event. I also found her use of the term “infant” a bit strange instead of “baby” — it was all strangely rude and formal at the same time!

  5. Was she american? I’m with Iota on finding this strange – in forty years, I’ve never heard a Brit say ‘Ma’am’ – unless addressing the Queen, in which case it would be pronounced ‘Marm’.

  6. This isn’t really that odd, is it? Lots of people think that their particular situation gives them special rights or privileges. I suppose the problem is that we’re too tolerant of them when they demand those rights. Still, I would have done the same thing you did. After a long day, all you want to do is leave the supermarket as quickly as possible and you just don’t feel like putting someone in their place.

  7. Hi,
    this is a very nice blog and I enjoy reading it a lot (especially since we *just* moved to UK, albeit from another “continental” AKA European country).
    I have been surprised at the amount of politeness directed towards mothers in this country, every time I enter the bus with my children, I get offered a seat. ?? I am neither old nor sick, – I am healthy and can stand. It’s nice, though. But that holy mother did go a too far, I think. I rarely bring up the courage to tell somebody when I get jumped in a queue, but this is really bold and you should have told her. Having kids doesn’t mean one cannot criticize her.
    Re: Iota: pregnant mothers and people with small children don’t need parking spaces close to the shop, but one with enough space at the sides to open doors widely to get large belly/kids out of the car. I am so thankful for these “family parking” spaces here, they didn’t have them where we come from and it’s hell trying to wiggle out a belly and a two year old from the back seat through a 10cm gap.

  8. Like Iota and foodlover I never hear Ma’am from a Brit, only Americans–perhaps she was an expat who was feeling homesick and frustrated and… yes, I am extrapolating wildly now, making up excuses for her!

    I too have been a frustrated mother of small child but I have never expected special treatment (hoped, yes, never expected!).

    I think if anyone asks me if they can go in front of me, it is so unusual that I say yes (it has only happened a few times in my life) because I assume that if their need is strong enough to ask, then I can cope with waiting another minute myself. Who knows what’s going on in their world, and a small kindness of a stranger may make it that much easier.

  9. Fia

    That was the other thing that amused us about the parking space. It was indeed at the end of the line of cars, but that meant you had to get out (on the driver’s side) into a flowerbed full of large shrubs!

    It wasn’t ‘family parking’, which I’ve come across before. It was ‘for expectant mothers’ which was a first for me.

  10. I’ve seen the expectant mothers parking quite a bit in the US, some large parking lots had special stork signs to mark these spaces, and they were uniform across different stores and towns.

    I can’t believe this newly developed theme about “no Brit would say Ma’am” — it is true, the person was not British (although I did not think it directly relevant to the story, at least not at the time that I wrote this) but I had no idea that this was such a dead giveaway. What would a British person have said to attract my attention if Ma’am is not it???

  11. The woman may have had a bad day or a particular issue, but she was still badly behaved. The universal rule for lines is that you pick one and live with it, except driving on the highway. When I was in college, and doing queueing theory in Ops Research class, we got into some detail on the probability of picking the right line. In the long run, you just grab something annd take your chances.

    Where there is a problem is in stores where they have multiple long lines, and finally the moronic store management figures out that it is not good policy to make customers wait a half hour to pay them- so they open up new casier lanes, and just let the new arrivlas dash over to the just-opened line. This should be done by leaving the “Open” light off, and the new cashier going to another lane and recruiting the next person in line to come to her or his checkout.

    All of this, of course, says that groceries are the only place where you shouldd do this. For most other needs in the US….. Amazon, E-bay, etc.

  12. > What would a British person have said to attract my attention if Ma’am is not it???

    Almost certainly she’d’ve have left it at “Excuse me, but …” ‘Ma’am’ is not used in situations like this (up north you might be addressed as ‘Love’!), and ‘Madam’ is only used by people serving you in shops and eateries, or by the police.

    Also she almost certainly wouldn’t have said “Give me a break”. It’s not that we Brits don’t understand it, it’s just we don’t use it much.

  13. Howard–And apparently Big Issue salespeople. I was called Madam out and about this afternoon.

    The interesting thing about her “Give me a break” was that the expression is most often heard as standing for “Oh you’ve got to be kidding” in a sarcastic sense, while this was literal. I had not heard it in that sense for years.

  14. > And apparently Big Issue salespeople.

    Ah yes indeed, NFAH! I had completely forgotten about them, and you are quite right. The ones in my town seem mainly to be from eastern Europe, and have a strangely courtly way of talking to one. Not that it encourages me to buy their wares, but it is pleasant to be addressed politely, and it cheers me up.

  15. I am shocked that anyone would queue jump in Britain! Having just been in France where it seems EVERYONE was queue jumping, I longed to be back here in the UK where the queues are strictly followed….
    Sounds like a bad grocery store experience none the less….

  16. “The universal rule for lines is that you pick one and live with it, except driving on the highway.”

    Around here in NYC a lot of places have the set-up that you join one big line and then move to the individual cashiers as they finish up instead of picking an individual line.

    But there’s really not enough space in a lot of stores for individual lines.

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