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Are Spaniards really that bad at queuing?

While the British are famous for their love of forming orderly lines, the stereotype from abroad is that Spaniards are impatient and incapable of queuing properly. Here's why foreigners have it all wrong.

Are Spaniards really that bad at queuing?
Perhaps it’s not that the Spanish don’t know how to queue, just that they do it differently. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

There are many different clichés said about the Spanish. One of the most common that always seems to come up is that they don’t queue properly, and are instead accustomed to just forming disorganised clusters or even pushing in.

Some even go as far as saying that the Spanish don’t know how to queue or are allergic to it and, if there isn’t some type of indication that you need to queue, they won’t do it.

But how true is this stereotype and is queuing in Spain the nightmare that it’s portrayed to be?

It’s generally true that the Spanish don’t like queueing (who does, really?) and may try to reduce their waiting times in a country where things do tend to go slower.

It’s not uncommon to see couples or families queuing at different counters to buy tickets or tills at the supermarket to see which is the quickest, then joining up together when the first one gets their turn.

You may also notice that if someone meets a friend or someone they know in the queue, they will often push in, to queue with them.

And occasionally an abuelo or abuela (grandfather or grandmother) will sneakily jump the queue because they can get away with it.  

While this may be seen as acceptable in Spain, it makes some foreigners very annoyed.

It may be typical to see chaotic jumbles of people standing around in no specific order to catch the metro or bus (and many people still don’t know how to wait to get on before others have gotten off).

But this lack of queuing doesn’t apply to all situations in Spain.

People queue outside the famous lottery office Doña Manolita to buy the “Fat One” (el Gordo) lottery tickets in the centre of Madrid on December 18, 2012. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

The queues may not be systematically as orderly as in the UK or northern European countries, but that doesn’t mean that the Spanish don’t know how to hacer la cola (queue).

In places such as offices and banks where many people are just standing around, it may not seem like there’s any queuing system in place, but there actually is, and it’s really quite clever.

When you arrive somewhere and see a cluttered mess, simply call out “¿Quien va el último?”, translated as “Who is the last?”.

Someone will answer you and you will know that it will be your turn after that particular person.

Don’t forget that when the next person comes along after you and asks “¿Quién va el último?”, it will be your turn to answer “¡Yo!” (Me!).

This nifty way of queuing means that you don’t all have to stand in one line and wait, you could find a comfy chair to sit on, go and stand near the air-con if it’s hot or go and chat to a friend you might spot who is also waiting.

Perhaps it’s not that the Spanish don’t know how to queue, just that they do it differently. Dare we say it’s actually better than the British or northern European way of standing in an orderly line? Is what is said about Spanish queueing just another unfair stereotype catering to Spain’s image abroad of being disorderly and undisciplined?

It’s also quite common in many places in Spain to collect a number or a ticket in advance, which then flashes up on a digital screen when it’s your turn.

This method can be seen everywhere from deli counters for buying cheeses and fresh fish to local post offices for sending parcels.

People queue outside a vaccination centre on April 26, 2021 in Barcelona during a vaccination campaign to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by LLUIS GENE / AFP)

Shift during the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic took queueing to another level in a country where any form of bureaucracy already involved waiting. 

Queuing became necessary for everything from waiting outside supermarkets, hospitals, shops, restaurants as only a certain number of people were allowed in, to having specific places for each person to stand at the supermarkets.

Queuing has become so common during the pandemic that generally speaking, Spaniards have become even more adept at it and now seem to form queues everywhere (even bars!).

“¿Quien va el último?” and numbered tickets are still widely used in Spain, but the Spanish also appear to have a newfound appreciation for standing en fila india as they call it (in line), as well as doing it their own way.


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‘A long way to go’: Spain’s domestics fight to end discrimination

For years, Aracely Sánchez went to work without counting her hours, always fearful she could lose her job from one day to the next.

'A long way to go': Spain's domestics fight to end discrimination

“They would always ask me to do more and more and more, as if I were a machine,” she told AFP of her employers at a house in Madrid.

Within a collective of domestic workers, this 39-year-old Mexican has been trying to assert her basic rights to have time off every week, to be paid for working overtime and to have unemployment cover.

But given the precarious nature of this type of work in Spain, it is a challenge.

“There are employers who are very humane and who respect us, but there are many who try to take advantage of the situation,” she explained.

“They say: if the job doesn’t suit you, there are plenty more where you came from.”

According to the Workers Commission union (CCOO), nearly 600,000 women serve as domestic staff in Spain where taking them on for housework, cooking or childcare is widespread.

Of that number, nearly 200,000 are undeclared, working in the black economy without an employment contract.

“Many of them come from Latin America and they don’t have papers and find themselves in a very vulnerable situation,” said Mari Cruz Vicente, the CCOO’s head of activism and employment.

‘Exposing violations’

Following a ruling by the EU’s Court of Justice (CJEU) and pressure from the unions, the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez adopted a reform this month aiming at ending the “discrimination” suffered by these workers.

READ ALSO: The new rules for hiring a domestic worker in Spain

Under the changes, dubbed by the government as “settling a historic debt”, domestic workers are now entitled to claim unemployment benefits and cannot be dismissed without justification.

They will also be covered by healthcare “protection” and be able to access training to improve their “professional opportunities” and job conditions.

“This is a very important step forward,” said Vicente, while stressing the need to step up efforts to register those who are working without a contract and don’t benefit from the reform.

“This reform was very necessary,” said Constanza Cisneros of the Jeanneth Beltrán observatory which specialises in domestic workers’ rights.

“Spain was very behind. Every day we have people coming to us whose rights have been violated. We have to end such practices now,” she said.

“Such situations have to be exposed.”


Around 200,000 domestic workers who are working in the black economy without an employment contract will not benefit from Spain’s new labour reform. (Photo by Ezequiel BECERRA / AFP)

‘Not seen as people’

Mexican home help Sánchez has often experienced such abuses in more than two decades of employment.

In 2001, she arrived in Madrid to take up full-time employment caring for an elderly person for €350 a month.

She then spent the next 15 years working in short-term jobs, almost always without a contract, despite the fact she had a valid residency permit.

“When I said I wanted a contract, they never called me back. They didn’t want to pay contributions,” she said, describing her work as “undervalued” with domestic staff seen as “labourers” and not “as people”.

Amalia Caballero, a domestic worker from Ecuador, has had a very similar experience.

“We often finish very late, or they change our hours at the last minute assuming we’ll just fall in line. But we also have a life that we need to sort out,” said Caballero, 60.

She also talks about the “humiliations” often endured by those who live with their employers.

“One time, one of my bosses asked me why I showered every day. It was clear he thought (the hot water) was costing him too much money,” she told AFP.

But will such attitudes change with the reform?

“There’s still a long way to go,” she sighed, saying many domestic staff “have completed their studies” back home and even hold a degree.

“People need to recognise that,” she said.

Cisneros agreed.

“Our work needs to command greater respect, not least because it’s so necessary. Without staff to pick up the children, run the household and look after elderly people, what would families do?”