A different line-guage

7 December 2006
7:30 AM

Approaching cashier to purchase item
Figure 3a. Approaching cashier to purchase item.

This is the second in a series of articles on Chilean culture.

Sharpen your No. 2 and read closely: You have selected a product to purchase in a drugstore and you approach the cashier who is behind the counter. The cashier is helping person 1. Standing five feet behind person 1 is person 2 (see figure 3a). Where do you get in line?

This is a trick question because it doesn’t give enough information for you to answer. What’s missing is the country in which the situation takes place. If it were the U.S., then the correct answer would be that you should line up somewhere behind person 2. But this is Chile and the correct answer is therefore that you stand immediately behind person 1, ignoring person 2.

The philosophy of lines in Chile is so different from the U.S. that it’s downright comical at times. In the States everyone shares the same mental framework. The person who was there first should go first. Lines are good. You ask other people if they are in line. Sure there are people who cut in line, but those people are jerks and we all know it. Here people who cut in line are not jerks because, and this is the fundamental tenet of the nihilistic Chilean line philosophy: there is no line.

Waiting for the bus
Figure 4a.

Losing the battle
Figure 4b.

This doesn’t just affect drug stores. Turn your attention to figure 4a which is me waiting at the bus stop. I have been waiting for 15 minutes (not shown in diagram) at a distance of four feet from the curb. The bus arrives and opens its door directly in front of me. I move towards the open door. Within moments I find myself in the reconfigured system illustrated in figure 4b, where every man, woman, and high school student—especially the high school students—has pushed his or her way towards the open door. Nowadays I push too, but something tell me this isn’t right. My proximity, my wait time! These are factors in the boarding function, people.

I still try to maintain some level of civility, yielding to elderly women and so on. It is an illusion. The elderly women are no different than anyone else. They are getting in front of me whether I let them or not. I play by their rules some days, pushing, moving with aggressive elbows. Other days I just stand back and chuckle as my line-formation paradigms are blown up gently on the street corners of Chile.


I ride the metro every day to work—you’re supposed to let people off the train car before you rush on. The train doesn’t stop at the same place each time, so there are no official designated places to wait (such as a bus stop sign), but people generally move out of the way of the door once the train has stopped, and let people off. Oh, and I get on at one of the 3 busiest stations in our system (multiple train lines converging at one station, with everyone transferring trains and such). Yesterday, while the rest of us normal people stood aside for people to exit the train, this old woman shoved her way on before people had gotten off, pushing them out of the way and elbowing several of them. There was really no point to this, because if she had waited for them all to get off, she still would have been the first one to get on the train, but no. She had to ignore the loudspeaker annoucements (okay, so most people don’t listen to them, but they do generally follow them) and push her way on. I may be ageist, but I think some old people have a stronger and unjustified sense of entitlement than they should have. But I’m young, so what do I know :)

Along those lines, Kate, a Chilean friend of mine here went to visit Canada on a concert tour and he was shocked at how people behaved boarding buses and metros. When the doors opened, he and his friends got their elbows ready for some pushing, and were somewhat embarrassed when everyone else stood back and let them board. Plus, he said they let people off the bus before anyone tried to get on. That’s strictly prohibited here. The Santiago Metro is running a campaign to get people to try that out, but in my experience its success has been somewhat lackluster.

I should give Chilean some credit where it is due: whether on the subway or the buses, if an elderly person ever needs a seat, someone will offer his. My only regret is that I don’t qualify as sufficiently elderly to take seats from those high school students.

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