Anthropology of Food, Fieldnotes

Standing in line

This morning I read an article in the New York Times entitled “Table for 2? Get Ready to Wait in Line” and it got me thinking about the social aspects of waiting for food (something this article missed entirely).

Sure, I can understand the inconvenience of having to wait to be fed but I can also see a positive side–the social side of the ordeal. It seems to me that Americans have forgotten how to socialize in public spaces and why spontaneous sociability is important. Hey, it can even be pleasant! Waiting in line is an opportunity to meet new people, exchange a few words and maybe even some ideas. Have we forgotten that it can be a good thing to check in with the world around us? This mundane activity can also build solidarity!

On my first shopping trip to Eataly in Turin, Italy, I was fascinated by two very socially different worlds of the deli counter and the refrigerated self-serve cases. One goes to the deli counter partially out of a desire to socialize and communicate. First there is the waiting in line that necessitates cooperation and a certain ability to follow unspoken social rules and codes. One mustn’t jump the line. One must speak politely to the counter person and others waiting. One must state clearly what they would like and ask for help when they are unsure of this. Then there is the exchange with the counter person. We have the opportunity to ask questions, learn and exchange ideas. In contrast, those who prefer anonymity choose the self-serve case. To me this is an expression of independence and a desire for speed. Who has time anymore to wait to be served? Why would I waste my time talking to other people I don’t know from Adam? Spending a few moments observing the shopping behaviour at the deli case and the counter taught me a great deal about the changing social habits of Italians. Increasing social ineptitude is not unique to North America.

Well, whether waiting in line at a restaurant in New York or a deli counter in Italy, we come in contact with our fellow eaters. A priori we have something in common–our humanness.