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Jerry Lewis: Living God

Social Combat chez La Poste

I visited a French post office yesterday to send off a letter to Germany.  Since it was a real letter, not a postcard, I figured I'd better get in line and talk to a human.  The line had about 15 people in it, and it took me about 40 minutes to finally go through it.  40 minutes well-spent, observing the social microcosm of the post office. 

Counter service at the French postal service is defined by four facts:

  1. Every potential transaction is governed by a complex web of precise rules (the simple stuff, after all, you can do yourself, or at a computer terminal);
  2. Because most citizens have never dedicated a few days to reading and memorizing these rules, most of then enter the post office without knowing what they have to do to successfully carry the transaction through;
  3. Although the employees know more about the rules than the customers, there are still large gaps in their knowledge;
  4. Unless you are a friend or family member of the employee (and, in Germany, even if you are a friend or family member), you will probably be expected to comply with every single rule.

The primary objective of the person behind the counter is to ensure that the rules governing the particular transaction are applied correctly.  If that objective is consistent with the citizen achieving his goal, the clerk will be happy to help. 

If that objective is not consistent with the citizen achieving his goal -- or if the clerk doesn't like the citizen for some reason -- then the citizen will not achieve his goal.  The notion that the "customer is always right," or the idea that postal clerks should bend rules to serve their customers, is foreign to European bureacracies.

Thus, the citizen should approach a complicated postal task not as an efficient, impersonal transaction, but as an opportunity to engage in a complex game.  Whether you will win the game (by getting your package sent), is by no means clear.

anPhase One: the Ascertainment of the Infraction.  The postal clerk eyes your hand-packed package, or your crudely-filled-out customs form, with a mixture of pity and suspicion.  Then comes Phase Two: Explanation of the Rules.  With the assistance of charts, graphs, and brochures, the postal clerk explains what you did wrong.  Phase Three -- and this is where it gets sensitive -- Negotiation Concerning the Level of Compliance.  Perhaps you did not bring the proper receipts with you, or perhaps you do not see the point of paying 10 Euros for a special, postal-service 'approved' shipping box, when the one you used is perfectly adequate. 

While I waited in line, I saw many Phase 3s taking place.  The postal clerks -- all attractive, self-possessed, heavily unionized women in their mid-40s -- shook their heads, shrugged, or pointed at text in a brochure and read it slowly aloud, to emphasize the binding nature of the regulation.  The clients slammed their fists gently on the table, threw their hands up in the air in exasperation, or pointed at their watches. 

Two customers asked for the manager.  He was a plump, olive-skinned man in his early 40s, with brush-cut black hair, dressed in a matching ensemble of dark-brown suit, tie, and silk shirt.  (Uniforms are not required).  He raised his black rectilinear glasses, examined the offending package or form, and supported his clerk.  At this point, the customers had lost, and knew it. She picked up their package or letter and stalked proudly out of the post office, loudly muttering about how insupportable it all was.

One phase 2 -- the Explanation of the Rules -- lasted the entire 40 minutes I waited in line.  A giant, hulking retired factory worker and his tiny, bent mother received an in-depth seminar in postal compliance from one of the clerks.  Apparently, the postal-service-approved envelopes and boxes are stored not directly under the counter, but in the back of some massive warehouse.  The clerk disappeared and return five full minutes later with some green box.  The worker and mother would look at it for 20 or 30 seconds, turn it around carefully, and finally and shake their heads, sending the clerk back on another mention to retrieve a larger one.  These long absences were, of course, interspersed with 10-minute lectures on the intricacies of French package-shipping regulations.

Finally I arrived at my counter.  Turns out my letter was perfectly routine, and I could have posted it myself with one 55-cent stamp.  But where's the fun in that?