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Are you over 21?

I had walked up to the cash register at the store with a 1500mm fluorescent fixture, a tube of epoxy glue, and a screwdriver. I really wasn't expecting the question, because it's been a while since I was twenty-one. I have a bit of a bald patch, a few grey hairs, and while I like to think I keep myself fairly well, anyone can see I'm old enough to buy a bottle of wine.

I was stumped for a moment before I realized that I had a screwdriver. Here in England, they are considered dangerous weapons, not to be given to children. Presumably, if I were under 21, I would be vaguely under suspicion of planning to threaten or injure someone with the screwdriver.

I stood there a moment longer, giving her a funny look, and thinking about whether the fluorescent fixture was actually more dangerous than a screwdriver. It's five feet long, has a bulb in it, and weighs a couple of kilos - you could get a good swing with that thing. But, she didn't show any inclination to acknowledge the absurdity of the question, and repeated it after a few seconds: "Are you over twenty-one?"

"Oh, yes, certainly," I say, and she scans the screwdriver. Even weirder. Why should she take my word for it?

Now, personally, I think that the world will come to regret that a generation of children are growing up mechanically and electrically incompetent, because they are (at least theoretically) denied the opportunity to use a screwdriver. Quite a bit of stuff gets thrown away that merely needed a screwdriver and a little attention. Quite a lot of lives are frittered away, waiting for the builders to come, because people don't dare to do something small themselves. Quite a few people are unreasonably afraid of technology because they never did any of it themselves. And, I'd expect that if anyone counted the amount of extra carbon dioxide we produce so that millions of us can offer cups of tea to electricians who come to replace a light switch, it would be substantial. I just hope civilization doesn't fall apart because no one can tighten a loose screw.

You can also look at this from a social or linguistic viewpoint, rather than technological. What if she actually meant the question? Well, if she meant the question, she presumably thought that I might have been less than 21 years old. Since anyone could see that I looked older than 21, she must have assumed that I had disguised myself. I suppose it was faintly possible that I might have been a disguised 17-year old, a hair-remover enthusiast who did a cinema-quality make-up job. But, if so, why would she believe my answer? If I went to so much trouble to hide my age, why would she think I would answer honestly?

Of course, I don't really think the woman behind the Wickes cash register is stupid enough, on her own, to ask that question and then trust my answer. We all know she was just asking it because she was told to. It's not natural stupidity that causes such things, but rather artificial stupidity, imposed from outside.

This kind of thing happens so often that we don't pay much attention to it. It's easy to dismiss this by shrugging and saying "Well, that's just part of her job." It is, of course. But that doesn't erase the absurdity, it just points the finger somewhere else: perhaps at some manager or some corporate lawyer. Or, maybe even farther afield. Could it have been some judge who ruled that shop-keepers were criminally liable for under-age sales unless they asked the shopper? Could it have been written into the law? Perhaps it was ultimately the fault of some minister, or some senior civil servant? Or, maybe little bits of stupidity from many people converged in front of me today. All I know is that some combination of law, culture, and a store policy caused her to be paid to act stupid. I wonder where it came from and how to keep it from happening again.

[ Papers | | Phonetics Lab | Oxford ] Last Modified Fri Dec 31 17:27:47 2010 Greg Kochanski: [ ]