social etiquette filter: how do you handle someone butting in line, in front of you?
August 27, 2010 3:07 PM   Subscribe

social etiquette filter: how do you handle someone butting in line, in front of you?

How do you handle it when you're lining up for a queue, or in line, and someone else maneuvers themselves in front of you?

For example, let's say you're at the supermarket. Let's say you arrive at the cashier, and there is a line. Shortly after you arrive, someone else does. But, because there might be a small gap between you and the "official position" of you being in line, the newcomer then moves into the space in front of you, even though it ought to be obvious, that you're in line, and were there first.

What do you do? What do you say?

when this has happened to me, I've said nothing but stewed inside...
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Let them know you were in line.
posted by jejune at 3:09 PM on August 27, 2010

"Pardon me, I was in line here."
posted by nomadicink at 3:09 PM on August 27, 2010

See previously.
posted by friendlyjuan at 3:09 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sometimes I've been at the grocery store where I'm so tired and I may not notice where the official line has started. I'm not saying I would ever butt, but I think it could happen accidentally if you leave a space there.

Have you thought about making that space go away and see if anyone still butts in?
posted by fantasticninety at 3:10 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

Simply say, "excuse me, but the end of the line is here" and point to behind you. Lots of people are in their own world and may not be paying that much attention. It very rarely is done on purpose, mostly accidentally.
posted by Vaike at 3:10 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I usually just say nothing. If they didn't see me, I don't want to embarrass them and make myself look petty in the process. If they're just jerks, well... let them be jerks. It's one extra person in line. If possible, however, I do make eye contact with the cashier/server/whatever, and they'll usually notice too and say, "I think she was ahead of you, actually."
posted by katillathehun at 3:11 PM on August 27, 2010

"Pardon me, the line ends over there," pointing behind me.

If they make a fuss, just smile and repeat yourself, or some other small variation. The trick is to be both pleasant and annoying.
posted by muddgirl at 3:12 PM on August 27, 2010

This is just terrified-of-confrontation me, but I like to leave all personal pronouns (I, me, you) out of it and say something like, "The line ends back here" or "the line is over here." Something like that.
posted by peep at 3:13 PM on August 27, 2010

To add to my earlier comment: The other day I unwittingly butt into line, thinking I was just getting there before someone else, when in fact there was an overly big gap in the middle of the line (as you describe). I was glad the people behind me pointed it out. What I didn't like was that they hesitated and I could hear them mumbling to themselves, "Should we tell him?" Moral of the story: point it out directly, clearly, as soon as possible.

If there's one piece of knowledge that's universally shared in society, it's that people wait their turn in line in an orderly fashion. Everybody understands this, so there's no point in tiptoeing around it.
posted by jejune at 3:13 PM on August 27, 2010

I try to be friendly and say something along the lines of:
"Hi. There's actually a line of people waiting..." and gesture to those behind me.
posted by 2oh1 at 3:16 PM on August 27, 2010

Don't see such a big gap and if you do, when you see someone coming make sure to move forward so there isn't room for them to butt in - then you can avoid the whole conversation.
posted by missmagenta at 3:17 PM on August 27, 2010

This was asked of Miss Manners a couple years ago, and if I remember correctly, she said to say "pardon me, but the line ends there," and motion to the end of the line with a smile on your face. Her reasoning was that it is a nice thing to let them know, because surely they intended to be polite, but just didn't see you.

And then, she said, if they get snippy, you are to respond, "I'm so sorry you feel that way," with the same tone of voice you would use with a friend whose parents just died. (This is meant to shame them without being rude yourself.)

I love Miss Manners.
posted by phunniemee at 3:17 PM on August 27, 2010 [12 favorites]

I hate hate hate it when the person in front of me gets distracted and leaves a big gap. Augh! somebody might butt in! As if that would be a very very bad thing. Line dynamics are fantastic - social protocol played out in mostly silence. My first thought: don't leave a gap. It's rude to the people behind you who will for sure be getting antsy.
posted by aunt_winnifred at 3:22 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

I actually step back and make room for the line butter, sometimes. I'm not much for confrontation.

Getting better at asking for things I need, but I struggle with telling people no, especially in the grocery store line. I'm usually not in a hurry to get somewhere, I'm usually not buying anything melty, and I usually have my knitting on hand to keep me occupied.

I'm also not big on teaching adult strangers how to behave in public. If something really has an effect on me (will make me late, melt my ice cream, I'm more likely to speak up). If I know the line breaker, well, that depends.

Public confrontation is kinda scary for me, and the reward of saving 2 minutes in line is not large enough.
posted by bilabial at 3:22 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]

First I say, "excuse me but you need to go to the end of the line." If that doesn't work, I'll step around them and invite the others in line to cut in front of me.

I think the more difficult thing to deal with is when someone is holding a spot in line for a group of 10 friends that have no business having a free pass to the top of the queue. If I'm directly behind a group like that in some situation like Chipotle it's very frustrating. You've already been waiting 25 minutes at this point for a damn burrito bowl and you know each person that just cut into line is pushing you another few minutes back.
I had this happen a few weeks ago where I was directly behind the group and I simply walked in front of them after they invited 7 of their friends to join them.
posted by zephyr_words at 3:23 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

A friend gave me an excellent tip a few years ago: smile sweetly and ask, "Oh, are you in a hurry?"
posted by alicegoldie at 3:24 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I usually smile and say "Hello" while maintaining direct eye contact.

For whatever reason, most people suddenly wonder, "Why is this stranger talking to me?" and then do a spot check to see what is going on. About nine times out of ten, the person notices that a line already exists and asks, "Oh! Is the line back there?" to which I merely smile and nod.

"Hello," a surprisingly versatile word.
posted by adipocere at 3:25 PM on August 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

Point it out politely but firmly -- as if "I'm sure you don't realize you just cut in front of people, but you did." I've been known to accidentally do this, and if you said it to me like that, I'd die inside a bit, but only because I know you're right. If you point out somebody's rudeness by being rude, it just makes me feel like I deserved to be an ass in the first place. This isn't fair, but it's true.

On reading the other comments, I realize that Miss Manners and I are on the same page. Which happens more often than you might think.


Ask Metafilter: The trick is to be both pleasant and annoying.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 3:25 PM on August 27, 2010

"Hey, sorry to bother you ... but do you mind if I butt in front of you? I'm in a real hurry here!"

This may be said (i) sincerely, (ii) dripping with sarcasm, or (iii) anywhere in between -- the point comes across find and it avoids the accusatory tone and goes straight for the indirectly mocking tone, which everyone else in line will find delightful!
posted by astrochimp at 3:32 PM on August 27, 2010

(Or at least I would find it delightful).
posted by astrochimp at 3:37 PM on August 27, 2010

Two options. Either it's worth making a stink about, or it's not.

Probably 90% of the time, it's not worth making a fuss over. If someone cuts the line at the supermarket, ohnoes, you've just wasted Five Whole Minutes of your life you'll never get back. Get over it.

The other 10% of the time, when it actually matters? I'll usually say something like "Excuse me, but you need to go to the end of the line and wait your turn like everyone else." Chances are, if it's a really big deal, the whole rest of the line will back me up on that. And there's probably some managerial authority figure who will then get involved.

If it's not a situation where crowd psychology and queue-up authority figures are present, it's a 90% situation, and I let it go.
posted by Sara C. at 3:43 PM on August 27, 2010

I've found this line pretty effective, especially when delivered in a warm tone of voice, yet loud enough for everyone in the line to hear:

"Excuse me. If it's very important to you to go first today, you're welcome to step in front of me. Otherwise, the end of the line is over there".

I have never had anyone respond to this with anything other than a very embarassed look and an immediate move to the back of the line. People don't get snippy, because you're graciously offering them a concession they almost certainly don't deserve. Instead they're forced to consider whether they really need to go first, or whether (more likely) it was petty and childish of them to push in. This approach also leaves room for goodwill in those rare situations where the person is in a rush because of a genuine personal emergency.
posted by embrangled at 3:55 PM on August 27, 2010 [6 favorites]

Personally, I say something. I say it in a friendly, polite tone, as if to assume they have simply not realised there's a line (which may, of course, be the case). Something like, "Oh, excuse me mate, there's a line here."

Usually works. If it doesn't, and they get arsey, then so do I. But that's up to you.
posted by Decani at 4:05 PM on August 27, 2010

I usually just suck it up and stand in line for the extra thirty seconds or whatever.

I don't stew. I don't care. It doesn't matter.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:09 PM on August 27, 2010

adipocere's method would creep me out and piss me off. If I have done something wrong, let me know what it is (clearly!) so that I can correct it.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:19 PM on August 27, 2010

"Hey, pal — back of the line." But I'm a New Yorker.
posted by nicwolff at 4:19 PM on August 27, 2010 [5 favorites]

I just make a gesture as if inviting them to step in front of me. It amuses me to see the varied reactions.
posted by zadcat at 4:25 PM on August 27, 2010

""Excuse me, but you need to go to the end of the line and wait your turn like everyone else."

Ouch. Seems aggressive and accusatory to me. Not sure that is warranted unless the line-cutting is blatant. And even if it appears blatant, it's always hard to tell what someone's true intentions are. How does the adage go? "We want to be judged by our intentions, but we judge others by their actions." I remember reading about a man being incredibly rude by letting his children create a ruckus on the subway, when confronted it was revealed that the man had just come from the hospital where his wife had died. In a moment, the author's perspective had changed.

I worked as a grocery bagger all through high school high school and I saw the situation a lot . you'd be surprised how absent-minded and unobservant people are, especially if they are stressed out, hurried or sick. and yes, situations like the above happened. stressed out people forced themselves through the routine of the day for some reason or had to keep feeding the kids despite losing their job, getting in a car accident, being notified of a parent's cancer, or their own! the first time I can remember quite vividly: a woman had just been back from her doctor a cancer prognosis. When confronted, she apologized profusely and rambled on ("I'm so sorry, it's just that today I..."). she was coming to terms with what the doctor told her but still had to buy Campbell's soup for her two kids. It was quite obvious she was in a state of shock and there's no way she could have been faking it.

And then there was the one who lived in the nearest apartment complex who we knew was being abused. Her respite from her world was a chocolate bar and something. she would stagger in, head hung low, bangs covering her (sometimes bruised) face and makes a beeline for chocolate. She cut so blatantly that sometimes we thought someone else would end up hitting her because they were so enraged. They had no way of knowing. and she was in her own little world. We learned to wave off the other customers in a "don't go there, something's wrong" kind of way. it was one of the saddest things I've ever seen.

Hope these stories illustrates the point. most people that cut in line are just oblivious. And oblivious doesn't equal rude all the time.

it's not necessary to put anyone on the spot or embarrass them until we really know what their intentions are. Therefore, I think it's best just to stick to something factual - like "I've been waiting here, sorry." I add the "sorry" at the end because most likely they aren't disappointed a tad bit embarrassed.
posted by chinabound at 6:01 PM on August 27, 2010 [8 favorites]

I tell them I was there before them and don't back down. A couple of weeks ago, some woman triedto cut in line saying she had just gotten off the line and gone to get the soda she had in her hand. I had been waiting a few minutes at that point and there had been no sign of her until she walked up and obnoxiously tried to go ahead, so I told her that and I had my proper place.

I'm not generally confrontational, and I'm usually very easygoing....until you attempt to cut in line.
posted by cmgonzalez at 6:03 PM on August 27, 2010

This is one area where the wholesale removal of cigarette smoking from the public sphere has hurt us. Way back when, you'd just sort of let your red hot butt rub up against their ass or shoulder and, "Oh, sorry, where did you come from?"
posted by philip-random at 9:04 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

I tend to flash a mildly embarrassed/confused/gee-isn't-this-place-a-zoo-today look, and say "I'm sorry, but I think I was here first?". But, you know, with bit of a period on that question mark—so I what I'm really saying is "I was definitely here first, and I'm giving you a chance to save face".

Seems to work pretty well. If they didn't realize that I was in line, they're usually a bit embarrassed themselves, and will graciously cede the spot to me. If they did realize that I was in line, and were deliberately trying to steal my spot, they'll be embarrassed to have been called out, and will wander toward the end of the line muttering.

Hmm. We have the interrobang for "?!"; should we have the interroperiod for "?."?
posted by ixohoxi at 10:12 PM on August 27, 2010

Seems aggressive and accusatory to me. Not sure that is warranted unless the line-cutting is blatant.

As I said, I would only ever say anything if it were actually important that someone were skipping the line. If it's a situation where things are a little wonky in the express lane at Trader Joes and someone accidentally wanders into the wrong spot in line, whatever, it's 30 extra seconds and not worth speaking up about, even to be passive aggressively polite.

But if it's the line for rush tickets to a show that closes tomorrow? A two hour DMV slog? A 20-person bathroom line? That person knows full well they are supposed to wait, and if they have a problem with someone speaking up about it, fuck 'em. I'm not going to be all mincing and conciliatory just on the off chance that it might hurt their fee fees.
posted by Sara C. at 10:41 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]

If there's one piece of knowledge that's universally shared in society, it's that people wait their turn in line in an orderly fashion. Everybody understands this, so there's no point in tiptoeing around it.

Not in Italy.

Moving here from over-regulated Germany 40 years ago, I was astonished at how people don't form a line at the bank, the post office, the grocery shop, but formed a scrum instead. I would start being very rude and pushy myself, since it was the only way to get served - but hating myself for it, and feeling guilty.

Then one day one of those "Welcome neighbour!" pamphlets for newcomers to our office drifted across my desk, explaining how things work in Italy, and my world changed in a flash. In it was the advice that in an Italian non-queue situation, one needs to be "assertive". Suddenly it was all solved. I went on doing exactly what I had been doing before, but instead of feeling guilty over being rude and pushy, I felt virtuous for being assertive.

To be fair, things are getting better. The post office and many supermarket service counters have introduced a numbers dispenser, banks often have ropes indicating the queuing area (and set out in corridors only one person wide). Increased mobility has allowed more people to travel abroad and see how much better it works in other countries. But in the sticks, there are still scrums at the bakers. I usually let the pushy person get just to the point of opening their mouth to order, and then say, "Excuse me, I haven't finished yet." They are usually so surprised I even have time to add, "In fact, I hadn't even started."

And to be even fairer, when I (rarely) return to the UK where I was born, I can't believe how the once exemplary bus queue system has been totally subverted and negated by queue-jumpers - probably tourists.
posted by aqsakal at 1:43 AM on August 28, 2010

And then, she said, if they get snippy, you are to respond, "I'm so sorry you feel that way," with the same tone of voice you would use with a friend whose parents just died. (This is meant to shame them without being rude yourself.)

Trying to shame someone is just passive-aggressive rude. There is no virtue in it. So is the advice to be sweet and warm- unless you actually are a sweet an warm person, affecting that tone and saying something like "I'm not sure if you are aware of it because I *know* you are a nice person, but..." is way ruder than just saying, "line's back there, chief". Why? Because you are adding condescension to it. Etiquette is about doing things in a way to NOT make others feel bad or uncomfortable. It is not a competition.

The way to handle it is to read the situation. If you don't care, then let it slide. Especially if you left a gap. If you do care, simply say what you need to say in exactly the same manner you would say it to a respected colleague.

If you DO want to be a prick about it, move a step to the side and then a step back and say "no, no, you were next." Or "am I in the wrong line?"

Or just ignore them. When the person in front of you is done, begin your business before the line jumper gets a chance to start. That's bound to start an uncomfortable situation, but it definitely sends a message. Especially if the clerk saw them do the line-jump.
posted by gjc at 3:55 AM on August 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

I just let it go. The way I see it, it balances out the Universe for those times I cut someone off in traffic because I was in a hurry.
posted by 4ster at 10:16 AM on August 28, 2010

I'm all for the bright and chirpy and innocently pointed "Oh! I believe I was next." or "Oh! Did you know that the line ends there?."

And I always thank cashiers profusely when they open a new checkout and say "I'll take the next person in line" instead of just letting the back half of the line move over there - and I'll usually offer that spot to the person behind me. Wasn't there a comedian who had a bit once about how great it is to be next in line? I love being next.
posted by peagood at 10:40 AM on August 28, 2010

don't leave a gap. It's rude to the people behind you who will for sure be getting antsy.

And likewise, the "just let 'em in" approach is a bit unfair to the people behind you. The line isn't just you, it's the whole group. In most cases I'd assume it was accidental and point out the line. In those rare cases when someone is intentionally trying to cut, it's still worth a couple words in case that gets them to reconsider and at least pretend it was an accident.

You may have to let it go, and it's not the end of the world or anything, but just think of it like letting someone know they dropped something. It's not confrontation, just information. People should notice when they drop something - but sometimes they (we) don't.
posted by mdn at 7:55 AM on August 29, 2010

On review, a couple of other points:

1. I agree of course that one shouldn't be snippy when the cutting in was clearly unintentional. My snippiness is reserved for the jerks.

2. The "Who was last in line here?" method is also widely used in Italy, especially in situations (such as the doctor's waiting room) where forming a cleear, stand-up line is impracticable.
posted by aqsakal at 2:43 AM on August 30, 2010

If it's just me behind them, I may or may not decide whether I care enough to say anything on a given day. It's much easier to end up in an argument when it's a question of which of the two of you belongs at the end of the line than when there's a whole big, clear, line-up that's obviously behind both of you.

If there are more people behind me, then I consider it sort of my duty to point out where the line ends. "Sorry, but the line ends back there" with a vague gesture behind me generally does the trick. Protecting the queue is everybody's responsibility.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:53 PM on August 30, 2010

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