So, the interminable line outside comes at last to an end, the Apple Security guard walks over and counts “One, two, three, four, five,” and I am lucky Number Five, allowed access at last to the inside of the store. … I am now at the end of another line. Much shorter, certainly, but also much crueler, for now I can see others getting their phones … my feet hurt and my shoulders are aching and even now, so near the end, I’m asking myself, why did I do this? Is it all worth it? Am I the idiot, now?
I am contemplating this, sinking into a sudden round of pre-buyer’s regret or something like that, when I turn around and find a stranger standing behind me. Certain, he is nothing at all like the young Asian girl I was joking with for precious hours of my life. And the game commences.
“Are you standing in line?”
“Were you standing in line behind me outside for three and a half hours.”
“Yeah, I was.” Grin.
He stares at me. I instantly hate him. A lot. I hate everything about his self-congratulatory smart-assed grin and his cheating little heart and his idea of how life should work for him, where he can outsmart us all and get what he wants and get away with it. “No, you weren’t.”
“Yeah, I was.”
I point out to the front of the store. “She was behind me in line. You weren’t.”
“Are you gonna tell on me?” He asks this while still grinning that grin. I want nothing more than to kill him with something sharp.
“I am.” I start looking for someone to tell.
“How does it hurt you?”
I look at him like he’s insane. “I waited for hours. You didn’t. If you want one, that’s what you have to do. You don’t wander into the front of the line.”
“How does it hurt you?”
He’s trying to show that I shouldn’t care about anyone else. Like he does. “It hurts her. It hurts everyone behind her. Look at her. Turn around and look at her. She’s the one standing outside with her arms folded across her chest.”
He doesn’t turn around. He’s still grinning. I’m feeling adrenaline pumping through me. I feel shaky and hot and angrier than I have in, like, ever. She’s standing out in the line frowning as I argue with him. I start waving my arms to get someone’s attention. Where are all the blue shirts now? Why does no one see what’s happened? My God, this is important! Someone pay attention!
“So, you’re really going to tell on me.” He says it like I’m the dick. He says it like we’re in this together, him and me, like we’re suddenly pals and this is like school and he’s the cool crowd and I’m the little fat nerd all over again. God, it’s infuriating!
“You bet your ass I am.”
He shakes his head, grinning still, and turns around and leaves the line. I watch him like a hawk as he saunters across the blonde wood floors and exits the store.
I should feel victorious and redeemed, but I still feel angry. How did he do that? Make me feel like the bad guy. I think about the people outside. Did it make any difference, really? Is the line suddenly moving faster, like he was the only bowel blockage? There’s no one, now, to point all this rage at anymore. He’s gone.
“How does it hurt you?” That, my friends, is the coolly rational voice of homo economicus. While H.E. has his virtues, and can often help you think straight, sometimes you just have to tell him to fuck off.
More seriously, the emotional dynamics of a situation like this are very interesting. Norms are not easy to enforce when then target of the enforcement is insouciant or otherwise resistant to the threat of being shamed or embarrassed. Lance’s experience (suddenly feeling like he’s the jerk, anger channeling into embarrassment, etc) is likely very common.
This strong, unpleasant emotional reaction could be thought of as part of the cost of enforcing a general norm when you personally don’t have much to gain from doing it, and thus a reason to pass it by. But there seems to be more to it than that, as the emotional upset also pushes the interaction forward. The relationship between the emotional state of each participant and their self-presentation is also interesting: did Lance come across as upset as he felt, I wonder? How was the queue-jumper feeling behind his grin, once he got called out? Did he get a queasy rush of adrenalin in the pit of his stomach, too?
If I were Randy Collins, or Erving Goffman, I might say that this is one of those cases that reveals how attuned people are to the microdynamics of interactions, how predisposed we are to consensus, and how much most people want to keep things running smoothly in order to avoid or quickly repair breaches. Many norms depend on some kind of common-knowledge of commitment or an internalized aversion to being sanctioned. Failing that, you get some tangible reminder of the potential for punishment (e.g., warning signs, or a cop walking around, or whatever). The hardest cases seem to be like this one, where those things are lacking. You have two parties on an equal footing, no strong reason for the observer to act when a norm is violated, and indeed a nasty set of feelings in the process—especially when there’s no buildup or context-setting to get you ready for a confrontation.