Friday, May 11, 2007

Ask Etiquette Emily

My Dear Husband has been requesting a blog entry about a particular topic since last Saturday, and every day when he comes home from work and finds me playing solitaire on the computer, he asks when he's going to be able to read my entry. Apparently the book review from earlier today wasn't sufficient (it's about books, after all), he wants this particular topic. Can I help it that I'm so darn good at this version of solitaire ("Fan" is the name) that my win rate is currently 74%? That kind of skill only comes with practice, my friend, and sometimes other things have to take a back seat.

But here's the main topic, we can discuss solitaire strategy some other time. Oh, and remind me to tell you about Whack-a-mole. I pretty much rock at Whack-a-mole.

On Saturday, DH came home from a Wal-mart trip with a bag full of new clothes for Boy #1, a pair of new shoes for Boy #3, absolutely nothing for Boy #2, and a question. He asks me, "What is the etiquette for someone with a few things standing behind someone with a full cart?"

I didn't know if he was the cutter or the cuttee in line, so before I answered, I asked some follow-up questions:

"How many items did the person with a few things have?" - Two.
"Did either person have a child with them?" - We both had a 9-ish year old.
"So no crying babies or whiny kids?" - No.

I said, then, that it is the role of the person with many items to offer to let the person with a few items to cut in front. I think the only acceptable reason for someone to ask is if they have a screaming child, in which case they are actually doing the person in front a favor by getting the heck out of there quicker. But even then, I probably wouldn't ask.

Here's the story. Apparently DH was standing in line with a pile of things, and it being Wal-mart on a Saturday, he'd been in line for a long time, he estimates 10 minutes, and he's not known for exaggeration. (I am - I exaggerate like all the time. Constantly. I'm almost never accurate. According to DH, anyhow. Heaven forbid he ask what time it is and I round to the nearest 5 minutes.) So, ten minutes in line. And a woman runs up and joins the line right behind him, when DH is the next person to put his stuff on the conveyor belt.

She spends a minute doing the silent pantomime called "Shopper in a Hurry" which is basically, big, obvious movements, looking around, trying to see how long it's going to take, moving her body this way and that to try to get the person in front of her (or the cashier) to notice that she's in a hurry. I wasn't there, but I'd guess there was huffing involved, and possibly comments to her child about how rushed she is, how long is this going to take, etc. Can't say that for sure, but we all know the type.

Then she dropped the bomb. She asked DH, "I only have two things, can I get in front of you?"

Well, what are you going to say to that? If he said "No" he would have looked like the biggest jerk on the planet. Even though he had no reason whatsoever to give up his place in line just because she asks, if he refuses, he ends up being the bad guy. Not the inefficient 16 year old checker, not the 6 people that DH had waited behind all this time, but him, the person who had the bad luck to be right in front of her.

And if he said "Yes" she'd be happy because she got what she wanted, but he's put out now because that's yet another person who he's had to wait for. He waited his turn, but now someone else forces him to hand over his hard earned spot.

Where does it end, though? At a store the size of a city block, with carts that easily hold the contents of an entire house, you are always going to have someone with more and someone with less in their cart. If she had had ten things, would she have felt justified in asking for cuts? What if she had 5 things? 7? No, but 3? 4? Is it a matter of proportion? Did she need to have 10% of the items of the person in front of her in order to warrant asking? Or less? If DH had 100 things and she only had 20? Or 10?

Does motivation matter? Maybe, maybe not. I already qualified my opinion on the subject that screaming children justify asking, but anyone with ears would probably invite you to go first anyhow. It's not a guarantee, and if you have too much stuff, maybe that's still not appropriate. I've definitely stood in line at Wal-mart with a cart full of groceries and horrible children (picked those up on clearance, you know) and had both offers of cuts and deaf ears turned. I don't think less of the people who don't offer, though - they aren't sticking my kids with pins to make them cry, after all, it's not their fault and not their responsibility to end it. I do, however, say silent prayers of gratitude for the people who offer to let me go faster, and I try to return the favor when I can.

But this woman was middle aged, a daughter about #1's age with her, and two bouquets of flowers. Would it matter if she were on her way to a birthday party and was running late? What if it were a funeral? I think it does kind of matter. But seriously, is the largest store in North America really the place to go if you are in a hurry? No, of course not. (See, there's the exaggeration again. North America's -actually, the world's- largest Wal-mart is in Mississauga, Ontario, at 244,664 square feet.) No, a 7-11 is where you go when you are in a hurry. That's why Wal-mart is not considered a convenience store - there's really nothing convenient about it. It's a place where you shovel goods into your dump truck sized cart and if they were smart, they'd give you a backhoe to unload your goods, where they could be sorted like a pile of recyclables on their way to the processing plant. No, this is not the place to go with your two items and expect quick check-out times.

So when DH started unloading his cart and the woman behind him said, "Excuse me, sir, I only have two items, can I go in front of you?" DH was perfectly justified in his response, which was, "No, I'm sorry, they haven't started organizing line order by number of items, so until they do, you'll just have to wait in line behind me while I fumble with my combination of gift cards and exact change and do it all purposely slow just to annoy you." No, of course that's not what he said, it's just what he wanted to say. What he really said was, "Yes." But he made a point of not saying it happily and smacking a grumpy look on his face, in the hope that his non-aggression pact alone would cause her to realize the magnitude of her shameful behavior. Which, naturally, she was oblivious to, as are all dictators who remain not confronted about their bad behavior.

Does this constitute the chickens way out? He has left her completely comfortable to do this again to some other unsuspecting shopper, who may or may not have the guts to say, "No, I'm sorry, if you are running late you should have planned ahead. I did, and that's why I'm in line in front of you." According to "Freakonomics," one of the best books I've ever read, Americans are very unlikely to make that kind of confrontation. They will do as DH did, allow the cutting to happen and then stew over it in silence, at least until they get home and have a chance to discuss it with their wives. And then vow that they will never do the Wal-mart shopping trip again.

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