Not long after arriving in Morocco, I walked into a shop in Rabat near the old medina to buy a Maroc Telecom recharge. There was a family in front of me at the counter, so I patiently waited my turn. Just as the family finished their transaction, a Moroccan man walked into the shop and right past me, straight to the counter. The shop owner helped him, seemingly oblivious to what had just happened, not even making eye contact with me.
Inner outrage. My mind immediately started jumping to conclusions.
This happened because he’s a man and I’m a woman.
This happened because he’s Moroccan and I’m a foreigner.
Now that I’ve been here longer, I know that this happened because waiting in line works differently here.
We Americans love our personal space. When we’re standing in line, we give the people ahead and behind us some room. But we still know exactly who’s in line and who’s next. A line is more or less, well, a line. A straight line with a clear front and back. Even if there’s a few feet of space between yourself and the person in front of you, you know they’re before you and you know better than to cut in front of them. You know this because it has been ingrained in you since your elementary school days, when seven-year-old lunch line trespassers would get a shove and a “No butting!” from their classmates.
Here in Morocco, a line does not have to be a line. It often looks more like a blob. People push their way up toward the counter. It’s not rude. It’s just how it’s done here. You don’t cut in front of someone who is clearly waiting to be served and was here before you, but at the same time, you have to be assertive and make it very clear that you are here and that you are waiting your turn. (Picture a bar, not a grocery store checkout line.) That day in the shop in Rabat, I’d left a generous four or so feet of space between myself and the family in front of me. That man did not cut in front of me because I’m a woman or because I’m not Moroccan. He did it because he and the shop owner did not realize I was in line. They assumed I was waiting for someone or making up my mind about what to buy.
When I think back to my initial assumptions about why that man pushed past me in line, I am reminded that while there are certainly issues on which we can make definitive statements about what is right or wrong, there are some things that only seem rude because of one’s particular cultural background. I remember a speaker at my program’s pre-departure orientation, way back in June, reminding us, “The British don’t drive on the wrong side of the road. They drive on the left side of the road.”
(He added, tongue in cheek, “But Americans drive on the right side of the road.”)