Thursday, October 10, 2013


Oh, dear Lord, how I love bureaucracies! 

Yesterday, I mailed a book to a friend. I carefully put on more postage than I knew it needed, and dropped it in my corner mailbox. I found it in my own mailbox today, covered with important looking stickers totally obscuring the address of the person I sent it to. A large blue label ("Important Customer Information") informed me that since the book weighed a gnat's eyelash more than 13 ounces, it was obviously a bomb, and to prove it was not, I must hand-deliver to my nearest (6 blocks away) friendly post office for a careful inspection. That getting to the post office and standing in an endless line for more than half an hour in order to see the one working clerk might be something of an inconvenience of course matters not one whit to the U.S. Postal Service or its mighty minions. (Paraphrasing Lily Tomlin's character Ernestine yet again: "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the Post Office!") 

I know the Post Office has fallen on hard times, partly due to their own actions or lack thereof. And I sincerely hope that charging me again in order to remail my package helps them get over their financial slump. I am here but to serve.

If you will allow a very slight digression, although those who know me know I never digress, I have long held the belief that one reason why postal rates continue to go up, other than the fact that no one can stop them, is that they need the extra money to buy "This Window Closed" signs for those few post offices which still remain open. 

Well, let's make that two digressions: there is a huge, ornate old post office a mile or so away from my apartment. You enter through giant double metal doors to find yourself in a crudely partitioned-off room the size of a bedroom closet. You cannot buy stamps there. You cannot mail a package or a letter there. You can cram yourself into the claustrophobic space for the requisite half hour wait for the single clerk who takes every possible opportunity to disappear behind a swinging door supposedly to pick up something, but is in reality an excuse for another coffee break and a couple of rounds of whist. You can hear people laughing and singing behind the door, but you of course never see them.

Okay. Where was I? Oh, yes, bureaucracies. It's not just the U.S. Postal Service (whoever added the word "Service" had a marvelous sense of irony); it is any city, county, state, or federal agency charged with dealing with the public. I am convinced bureaucracies must carefully screen every applicant for employment and select only those with a demonstrable streak of megalomania. For the minute a person becomes an employee of such an agency and is placed in a position of actually talking to us common folk, they cease being Joe or Josephine Schmeltzman and become the physical incarnation of the bureaucracy by which they are employed.

Though I have not seen the Employees' Handbook by which rules they are required to adhere, I am quite sure a few of the more basic points include: 1) Never hurry. Never! Who cares if anyone in line is in a hurry? If you show weakness, they will attack! 2) Anyone caught smiling or wearing an expression of anything other than regal disdain during working hours will face six months unpaid suspension. 3) Demonstrating even the slightest bit of interest in the customer's problems is subject to immediate dismissal. 4) Any opportunity to step away from your counter is encouraged, and weekly prizes will be awarded to those who manage to stay away longest. 

This bureaucratic attitude extends into the field of commerce. Sales clerks employed by any large retail institution automatically assume the mantle of the institution itself, and since the institution has no interest whatever in the people shopping there (other than in deigning to take their money), sales clerks are encouraged to adopt the same attitude ("I'm on the phone!"). Attending to a customer's needs is far less important than socialization with other clerks.

But, look: bureaucracies are serious business, and don't you ever forget it. Civility, courtesy, smiling, "thank you," or any indication that the customer is an actual human being whose life has any value or meaning is routinely discouraged.

As Walt Kelly, creator of Pogo, so aptly put it, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Dorien's blogs are posted by 10 a.m. Central time every Monday and Thursday. Please take a moment to visit his website ( and, if you enjoy these blogs, you might want to check out Short Circuits: a Life in Blogs (, which is also available as an audiobook (

1 comment:

Kage Alan said...

Our post offices would seem to be better staffed here, but the finishing with one customer and walking away from a huge line when there's only one or two other clerks who are busy helping a customer with passport paperwork (which takes upwards of 15 minutes to complete) does induce irritation.

Also, I'm not above walking out of a store when I cannot find help or when the clerks are busy blah blah blahing with each other. My preference, of course, is when one finally looks up as I'm in the process of leaving and asks "Can we help you with something?" My response is always "You could have, but I could tell how important your conversation was instead of helping me, which is fine. I don't have to shop here."

It's even better when I get to say it in front of their manager and other customers.