deTocqueville at the post office

stamp When I am at the post office in my little town in the Connecticut (and I’ve been there often the last couple of weeks), I notice that when my turn comes and I step up to the counter, the person behind me in line vectors off to the side so that they can see the postal employee serving me. 

In fact, I think they are actually staring at the postal employee.  I am not sure what the motive is, but some of these people give off a tang of self righteousness.  It’s as if they are insisting on their right to see and be seen. 

They must see the transaction happening at the counter because, hey, it’s standing between them and service.  So they have to make sure it’s all going to plan.  They want to scrutinize the postal employee in case they are slow or incompetent.  And I think some people come to the post office with the assumption that things will go badly, that the place is a ship of fools, a den of incompetence. 

And post patrons need to be seen because, well, this is America and we will be eclipsed by no one.  We will not wait quietly well someone dares waste our time.  We will be counted.  We will be seen.  That’s where that self righteousness comes in especially, as if people are saying, “Don’t you know who I am?”  Because we are not just time poor, we are time proud.  No one is going to waste our time.  That would be diminishing and Americans will not be diminished.

The contract of American life is that we will be given our due, that no man or woman can make plausible and enduring claims to be greater than ourselves.  Oh, someone might flash by in an expensive car.  We might even accept this as a legitimate act of superordination with our own fleeting envy or admiration.  And certainly certain groups systematically find themselves on the short end of the bargain.  Esteem is withheld from people of certain ages, classes, genders, and ethnicities.  But by and large and in principle, every American has the right to acknowledgement and respect uneclipsed by anyone else.  You may not be serving me, the notion seems to be, but by God you will not neglect me. 

So why would anyone imagine that the Post Office was a place likely to deny this fundamental right?  Is it because it’s a big bureaucracy that provokes this suspicion?  Is it because it is a government institution?  Is it because the post office is a place that threatens someone to make us all submit to the tyranny of rules that constrain what we can or can’t send through the mails?  Is it that in an age of Etsy customization, we are obliged, with some exceptions, to use uniform stamps in uniform denominations?  Talk about being elipsed.  Why, the place feels like a conspiracy designed to drive us into eclipse and perhaps obscure our very selfhood!  The nerve.  Don’t they know who we are?

It’s lovely to see the way postal employees solve this social problem, by narrowing their focus so that it’s a tiny field occupied only by them and the person at the counter.  They have found a way to shut out the presumptuous next in line.  And sometimes, I like to prolong this delicious bond by asking time consuming questions like, “Do you have a 63 cent stamp?  What about a 64 cent stamp?  Ok, what about…”  Just kidding.  I wouldn’t dare.

15 thoughts on “deTocqueville at the post office”

  1. I am that guy, Grant, and I’m going to challenge your assumptions about my self-righteousness and insistence on being seen. I’m actually watching the current transaction to check status.

    I DO have the assumption that things will go badly and its based on experience.

    Lost packages, never-ending lines, rude employees! These things happen at the post office quite frequently, and they’ve certainly happened to me. So when I go to the Post Office, is it any surprise that I’m paying more attention than usual, that I have my attennae up for signs of a problem?

    Now the post office isn’t the only place that I have to stand in line. I have to wait in line at stores all the time. What’s the difference? Well, when I have to wait in line at the local Big Box, I am reasonably sure that I will be treated like a human being and that if someone is rude, there will be a manager (or managers’ manager) that will take care of the problem eventually. At the post office, however, problems are typically greeted by a supervisor who is even surlier and less agreeable than the clerk!

    Same thing happens at the DMV, the social security office, the zoning office…wait, is there a pattern here?

    The issue is only exacerbated by the “lovely” solution found by these employees of avoiding eye contact with the line.

  2. I counter Ben’s experience by saying I think we do this anywhere. I’m not one that’s found the post office anymore incompetent than any other service location. Maybe I’ve been blessed, but my worst experiences are definitely at the grocery store. And as anyone who has spent time on line at the grocery store knows, there’s a whole lot of on line preening and evaluating going on there: “Is that line moving faster than mine?” “Is that person paying with *checks*? Good God what year is this?” “Why are we waiting on a price check?” “Where did that manager go?” And on and on. There’s a strategy to being in a line and part of that strategy is making sure that the people in front of you as well as the employees know that YOU ARE ON THAT LINE. This is an extension of what my Japanese partner and I have dubbed the “look at me” culture. Perhaps not surprisingly, he does not at all like standing on line. It’s too hyper aware. Too much scoping and watching and being watched.

  3. Each individual human being possesses a unique, highly developed, and
    sensitive perception of variety. Thus aware, man is endowed with a natural
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    Quantitative and qualitative choice-making thus lends itself as the superior
    basis of an active intelligence.

    Human is earth’s Choicemaker. His title describes his definitive and
    typifying characteristic. Recall that his other features are but vehicles of
    experience intent on the development of perceptive awareness and the
    following acts of decision and choice. Note that the products of man cannot
    define him for they are the fruit of the discerning choicemaking process and
    include the cognition of self, the utility of experience, the development of
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    civilization.

    The arts and the sciences of man, as with his habits, customs, and
    traditions, are the creative harvest of his perceptive and selective powers.
    Creativity, the creative process, is a choice-making process. His articles,
    constructs, and commodities, however marvelous to behold, deserve neither
    awe nor idolatry, for man, not his contrivance, is earth’s own highest
    expression of the creative process.

    Human is earth’s Choicemaker. The sublime and significant act of choosing
    is, itself, the Archimedean fulcrum upon which man levers and redirects the
    forces of cause and effect to an elected level of quality and diversity.
    Further, it orients him toward a natural environmental opportunity, freedom,
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    No one is smarter than their criteria. selah

  4. Human is earth’s Choicemaker. Psalm 25:12 He is by nature and nature’s God a
    creature of Choice – and of Criteria. Psalm 119:30,173 His unique and
    definitive characteristic is, and of Right ought to be, the natural
    foundation of his environments, institutions, and respectful relations to
    his fellow-man. Thus, he is oriented to a Freedom whose roots are in the
    Order of the universe. selah

    That human institution which is structured on the principle, “…all men are
    endowed by their Creator with…Liberty…,” is a system with its roots in
    the natural Order of the universe. The opponents of such a system are
    necessarily engaged in a losing contest with nature and nature’s God.
    Biblical principles are still today the foundation under Western
    Civilization and the American way of life. To the advent of a new season we
    commend the present generation and the “multitudes in the valley of
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    “Freedom is the Right to Choose, the Right to create for oneself the
    alternatives of Choice. Without the possibility of Choice, and the exercise
    of Choice, a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.” Thomas
    Jefferson

    The message is this: Trust Freedom. Remember, tyrants never learn. The
    restriction of Freedom is the limitation of human choice, and choice is the
    fulcrum-point of the creative process in human affairs. As earth’s
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    the natural premise of man’s free institutions, environments, and respectful
    relations with one another. Made in the image of our Creator, free men
    choose, create, and progress – or die.

    Free men should not fear the moon-god-crowd oppressor nor choose any of his
    ways. Recall with a confident Job and a victorious David, “Know ye not you
    are in league with the stones of the field?”

    Semper Fidelis
    Jim Baxter
    Sgt. USMC
    WW II and Korean War
    pointman/follower of The Lion of Judah + + +

    Consider:
    The missing element in every human ‘solution’ is an accurate
    definition of the creature.

  5. When I’m in line (or a queue, if you prefer) – post office, passport control, checking baggage, bank (it’s been a while for that one but still…), I watch the transaction status in front of me actively because there’s no bigger way to fail the community social contract that to be gazing thoughtfully out into the middle distance when the space in front of you opens up. God forbid I hear the strident beckoning of “Next customer in LINE! Sir! Can I help you please sir?! Sir!” and the grumbling of patrons who might shout “GO!” at me. It’s my duty to them to be a good first-person-in-the-queue and avoid the verbal discipline for failure to attend.

  6. I must agree with Steve, it’s the pressure from behind that causes the extra movement and attention to the transactions ahead. For proof, I’ll cite the fact that when I’m first in line, and no one is behind me, I don’t pay nearly as much attention to what’s ahead. In fact, I think I give the people finishing their transactions more time to walk away and more physical space on their way out, before I move up. Perhaps there’s a book in all of this? “Postal Phenomenology”?

  7. Staring at the post-office transaction seems to stem from a couple of things. There are no trashy magazines to read. We are inherently nosy. The aforementioned idea of not wanting to be the guy not paying attention (sorry for the double negative). For me I also watch to see if the person in front of me has made any mistakes that delay the line so I can avoid being the jerk who didn’t do what he was supposed to do.

    Oh, and the post office experiences I’ve had have always been great. And, frankly, for the cost, the service they provide is rather incredible.

  8. I do the same thing in a traffic jam. If I’m stuck on the freeway I desperately want to know what the hold up is several cars ahead, and to that end I may jockey in the lane or even stick my head out of the window. Call it curiosity or a vain belief that knowing the cause will enable me to adjust better.

  9. Steve, yes, I do this in traffic too.  I want to see ahead so that i can identify the idiot who is holding things up.  Because for me in traffic, and I get this from driving with my Dad, delays do not come from high volume or bad conditions.  No, they are always deliberately inflicted on my by people who should never have got a license in the first place.  Ever.  I look ahead to confirm this certainty.  Thx, Grant 

  10. post by Grant McCracken for Simon Leader:

    Try going to the post office in Greece. Often the person behind you is so close to your shoulder – such is their impatience – that the metaphorical “breathing down your neck” becomes actual. This is a cultural thing I can’t fully explain (yet).
    I find that if you need to be seen before you are served, bring your child(ren). People waiting will physically distance themselves from you or even let you go ahead of them just to stop the noise from my 2 year old. The focus of our postal employees actually widens to include my 5 year old son violently shaking a display and suddenly I am magically invited to be served next. In exchange for this privilege – to play my part in the community social contract – I try to make my transaction as swift as possible so as not to suffer the wrath of those behind me. I don’t want to give parents of young kids a bad rep.
    Greeks genuinely like kids and will tolerate a lot of (mis)behavior that would not be socially acceptable in other countries. This means you can take them anywhere. That is true freedom.

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