Expat Magazine

Bureaucracy Versus Bureaucratie

By Sedulia @Sedulia


The word "bureaucracy" literally means "desk power" and is supposed to have been invented in France. But lately I find that it's the U.S.A. that is being ruled by desks, and not by humans. At least in France, people in a large bureaucracy will break a rule for you, if they think it's dumb. In the U.S., they will explain to you in great detail exactly why they can't possibly help you. And that it's for your protection!

D broke his wrist his first day back in his native land, and had to change his flight to a week later. But his cheap airline booking on an American airline was listed in cold print as non-changeable and non-refundable. I warned him that it might not be possible to avoid a new, expensive ticket. Then I called up the office of the travel agency in Paris where he had made the booking and they gave me the number of the airline to call. My spirits rose when I realized it was a French number.

"Pas de problème," said the young woman on the other end of the line when I explained the situation. "Let me just go check with my superior. I am sure we can work something out in this case." 

When she came back, she had a new booking for D for the date he needed. "Merci beaucoup," I said, and then waited, expecting her to ask me to fax the medical documents to prove D's injury was real.

"You're welcome," she said, and hung up.


A few days later I changed my American cell phone plan from Verizon, where I had been for not even two months, back to AT&T, just because Verizon could not seem to get it together to give me international service. Although I had been with AT&T for many, many years, until mid-June of this year, and wasn't changing my telephone number, email address, snail-mail address, or credit card from what it had always been, the AT&T bureaucrat was not going to let me get away with simply saying that I was who I was. Oh no! I had to prove my identity with multiple faxed documents and days later have still not heard back. "It's to protect you," I was told several times by various operators. "We just have to be sure it's really you." As if some fraudulent person pretending to be me was using my email, physical address, credit card and phone number to cheat them.... I resent being treated like a thief.

Americans are urged throughout their school years to be "creative," while French students are ususally required to regurgitate exactly what the teachers tell them for all their exams. Yet the French seem to be more capable of independent thought and more able to assess what is behind the rule than Americans are. Of course, one reason it's easier for them to think for themselves on the job is that it's much, much harder for them to get fired. 

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