ETIQUETTE: Good order.
Dear Ms Tikanga,
A recent awkward episode at the local bakery deserves your attention and wisdom.
I entered the empty shop just behind another customer, grabbing the door as she went through, who then went down the counter and looked at the cake section. In a matter of a second or two the shop assistant emerged after we both came in. Being in a hurry and seeing that the other customer was seemingly browsing I made eye contact with the shop assistant first as soon as he was in sight and asked if he would give cash out with an eftpos transaction. He replied, "yes" and I ordered something.
At that point the woman who was engrossed with the cake section interjected, "I think I was first!" and glared at me with her narrow eyes through her horn-rimmed type pointy glasses. Her thin, pursed lips twitched with indignation. Startled, I smiled and yielded the attention of the shop assistant who was similarly taken aback.
In an alternative and ultra-violent movie reality my Joe Pesci/Falling Down inclination would have seen me slap the fucking bitch back to the 1960's or force feed her the entire tray of lamingtons. Whatever. I was in a hurry and let her come to the serving counter and I moved down, in state of flabberghastmentation to the cake counter. And then when she had been dealt to, that is to say served, a customer who had come in after me - and had gone straight to the serving counter - began making her order to the shop assistant. We looked at each other and grinned as I assumed the deportment of the previous women and mimicked her retort sarcasticly. The same scenario had just played out before me. Maybe I was wrong?
So my question is, who has precedence in these situations?
Ms Tikanga replies:
These are issues for all shops, delicatessens, bars etc. where there is a long counter or series of counters behind which shop assistant(s) may serve customers at any point and there is no natural line in which to form a linear queue.
Let some general rules be stated first. It is always the customers who set the queue and who are responsible for determining amongst themselves who is next. If a shop assistant asks to take an order from someone who is out of order then they ought to yield to the proper person immediately. Younger customers should always give those of an elderly disposition the courtesy of yielding their place - and here I believe the correspondent may have come across an elderly woman accustomed to demanding it rather than it being offered. Since she entered first she was quite right in assuming priority, but she may not have seen you.
To the shop assistant who may not have seen who enters first they are right to serve the first person who makes contact with them regardless of where the other customers are or what they are doing. But they are also right to assume that the customer closest to the cash register is in a position to order before anyone else and therefore would naturally ask them first. It gets more complicated with more people but most customers will keep an order based on the order they came to the counter or came into the shop (if a small shop).
I believe in this instance she was in the wrong to demand preference as she had legitimately lost that right to another customer standing at the serving counter. You cannot be expected to wait until the other customer has stopped browsing to make a decision. Indeed it would not have mattered if she had been in an hour earlier rather than a second - if she was at the other end of the counter browsing she should not have interrupted - she should have waited her turn in silence. Given that you both entered at almost the same time it was also unnecessary to ask her to go first if she was browsing unless she was elderly and you were not.
Needless to say, Awkward of Ponsonby, you did the right thing by not slapping her or forcing her to eat all the lamingtons - a true gentleman. Ms Tikanga believes that an appropriate rebuke to people who transgress is often useful. The interjection, "I think I was first!" should always be preceeded with a "sorry" or "excuse me." To use it without that (in the manner you report that she did) is to assert that the infringer is being grossly offensive. I recommend telling them, "If you were first I would be interrupting you - not the other way around, now as I was saying..." or more septically: "Well I think you're ugly - as well as slow. That doesn't change the fact that I'm right in the middle of making my order..." or less combatively: "That's right - you're first after me".