Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Death By Red Tape

I know that we all have our own horror stories of bureaucratic asphyxiation...but recently in my life, I have found myself increasingly strangled by red tape. I suspect that it may be a particularly pronounced struggle in academia--maybe politics is as bad, but it can't be much worse--and I've found my patience (and diplomacy) wearing very, VERY thin. Is it my imagination, or is it actually the case, that the more simple a task or decision is, the more maddeningly complicated it becomes when peppered with a little paperwork? I have found otherwise intelligent and humane people completely transform into automatons when they have to traverse the maze of bureaucracy. And it doesn't even require some huge monstrosity of an institution to effect this, which brings me to the following story...

A few years ago, when I was still living in Memphis, I drove through McDonald's one day to grab some lunch on a break and had one of the most absurd conversations of my life with the disembodied drive-thru voicebox. Here is a more-or-less accurate transcript:

VOICEBOX: "Welcome to McDonald's. Can I take your order?"
ME: "I'd like a number 2 meal, supersized please."
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "Excuse me?"
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "Uh... okay...well, can I get a number 2 meal with a large coke and a large fries?"
VB: "Okay. Anything else?"

[NOTE: You may remember that, when McD's still had the "supersize" option, that all it meant was that you were getting a large drink and fries with your meal instead of medium size. At this point in the conversation, I was, naturally, perplexed... and made the mistake of trying to clarify]

ME: "So you got that order? A number 2 with a large drink and fries?"
VB: "Yeah. Pull around."
ME: "So why can't I get it supersized?"
VB: "We can't supersize tonight."
ME: "But why not?"
VB: "Because we don't have any large lids."
ME: "But that's okay, I don't need a lid."
VB: "Well you didn't say you wanted it supersized without the lid."


My first thought was: yes, of course, she's right. I *didn't* say I wanted it supersized-without-the-lid. Nevermind that it never would have occurred to me that such an option was available, or that one should avail oneself of this option when confronted with the problem of there-being-no-supersizing-tonight. And nevermind that this didn't even begin to explain why it was that the voicebox had no problem at all with serving me a large drink (not ordered without-the-lid) on its own. No, in my mind, I realized that I had clearly made the mistake. The voicebox was right. There was an impeccable logic to it and I was defenseless, hungry, and wrong.

Maybe this is not a perfect example of bureaucracy or red tape... but the point is that every time I run into red tape, this is the conversation that I remember. It seems so eminently illustrative of the kind of logic one has to battle, the kind of frustration that is engendered by it, and the manner in which--no matter how much you may protest to the contrary--you will ALWAYS be wrong.

Thank you, and please drive around to the first window.


kgrady said...

Ha! This story, for some reason, reminds me of the time I tried to convince the people at the Del Taco drive-thru that they should serve me even though I was on a bike, rather than in a car. I know exactly what you mean about how you'll always be wrong in these situations. Although in this case, I might have actually been wrong. Oh, and just for the record, the inside was closed. That's why I went to the drive-thru on a bike that was way too small for me.

Anonymous said...

haaaaaaaaaa! i remember this story...was i with you when this happened? as an asside....did you ever attempt to order a milkshake at that one? the machines were ALWAYS "broken". do you remember that?