In the course of civilization, numerous social conventions have developed for the sake of efficiency, safety or courtesy. One example is the handshake. Another is driving on one side of the road. My favorite is the line (known as a “queue” in some cultures), in which people line up to take their turn receiving a service.
Over time, lines have been abstracted by “take a number” systems, so the line doesn’t have to physically exist. Express lines have been created to speed checkout in the supermarket so the guy who only has a six-pack of beer doesn’t have to wait for Octomom to buy her weekly groceries. But the concept of the line still exists: First come, first served.
Regardless of the form it takes, the most essential component of line formation is trust. Members of the line trust that other members of the line won’t attempt to change position, and that the service provider will respect the order of the line.
However, last night my trust was betrayed. I was waiting in line at Federal Express to pick up a package. The clerk called me forward and took the package claim slip from me. Normally, the clerk would leave to go into the back room, pick up the package and return to have me sign for it. But this time, another clerk happened to be walking by on his way to the back room, and offered to pick up the package. My clerk handed my claim slip to him, turned around, and said, “Can I help the next person in line?”
Some guy with a huge, heavy box that had been poorly taped together came forward and heaved the box on the counter. He was sending it to Africa. He wanted insurance. He hadn’t filled out a shipping label. He didn’t speak English very well. When she asked what was in the box to establish a value, all he would tell her was “Aluminum.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had been bumped from the line! While the clerk was dealing with Big Box Guy, the second clerk returned from the back room and dropped my package on the counter. It sat there for twenty minutes until the clerk finally wrapped up with Big Box Guy. During that time, every other customer in the office completed their business with the other clerk, who disappeared into the back room after the last one left.
I understand that the clerk was attempting to use what would otherwise be considered “down time” to improve service for the other customers. But she accepted a task that ruined the service for me. I’m not a violent man, but I wanted to hit her over the head with a big box of aluminum.