Let’s have a debate about rules today. I’ve touched on the issue before and it usually draws a number of comments, most of them negative, stating that rules are on the book for a reason, we all should follow them, and I have to no right to seek exemptions. I beg to differ.
I start with the following premise: rules serve a vital function in our society, promoting order and equality. Nevertheless, rules ultimately are merely points at which deviation is measured from. The human race is far from perfect and treating every rule as an indefatigable commandment is strikingly unappealing to me if we cannot justify through logic, reason, or faith the purpose for and intent in enforcing the rule.
I am going to Kazakhstan next month and need a visa to visit. The Washington, DC embassy visa office is open from 9:00a to noon, Monday through Friday. I had an appointment on the Hill that concluded about 12:00p. I hopped on the Metro Red Line from Union Station to Farragut North and made it to the office at 12:20p, hoping it would still be open.
I figured I was too late, but made the stop anyway—and found the gate was open, door unlocked, visa window open, and a man sitting at a desk literally staring into space.
Excited, I pulled out my application package (passport, copy of itinerary, visa application, photo, money order to pay for the visa, and a stamped return envelope) and asked the gentleman if I could drop off my visa materials. He looked up, halfway got out of his chair, then looked up at the clock on the wall, and sat down, stating, “It’s too late. Come back tomorrow.”
I responded, “I just want to drop this off—everything is filled out.” The man responded, “No. You have to come between 9-12.” We went back and forth for a bit, but he refused to budge. I figured that if I pushed the issue further, I might never get a visa, so I left.
That’s simply amazing—I challenge anyone to justify the refusal to take my envelope. I mean, if I had a postal uniform on and walked in and handed over the envelope, he would have taken it without question.
When examining whether a rule is valid or not, we first should look to the aim it sets to accomplish. Why would the Kazakhstan embassy only accept visas from 9:00a-12:00p? Perhaps to concentrate traffic so they don’t get a couple people coming in each hour, all day. Perhaps to allow them to focus on other matters in the afternoon. Why enforce the rule strictly? Perhaps so people do not get complacent and assume that they can come in after noon and still submit their visa request.
That’s all fine and good—I concede the rule may have valid reasoning behind it. But if it is to concentrate traffic or because the visa folks are busy with other matters after 12:00p, why was there a man sitting at a desk staring into space and why couldn't he accept my visa package? Would bending the rule for me or any other straggler really have been a bad thing or encouraged perpetual tardiness? And what if it did?
The embassy is not obligated to take any visa application, but every potential justification for enforcing the rule in my instance melts when I think about the man sitting in the room twirling his thumbs. Taking my application would not have obliged the embassy to take late applications everyday, but when your office is still open, why not just accept the package? It seemed to me, in such a Soviet-esque style, the rule was simply was enforced because it was the rule.
I believe in mercy. For example (and above all else), mercy is what keeps me loyal to United Airlines. Unlike other airlines (or embassies), United has always taken a pragmatic approach to enforcing rules. Rules serve as a guide that should be adhered to when possible, but when an incongruent outcome will result by enforcing the rules, the rules will be overlooked. Say I’m booked into Baltimore and United moves my flight time up by three hours. Even though my ticket explicitly says “to Baltimore only”, United will rebook me into a nearby airport like Washington Dulles or even Philadelphia. That’s because they have the right priority in mind—their schedule change caused me inconvenience and they’d rather make me happy, at a minimal cost to them, then have me cancel my ticket.
Then take bmi (British Midland International), another problem I am contending with. I had a schedule change on an upcoming flight that moved my departure up three hours. Ideally, I would have changed my departure to a nearby airport that had a more palatable departure time, closer to my originally scheduled time. Nope. No chance said bmi—the fares rules state that would be a voluntary change and I’d have to pay a change fee plus the difference in fare. Their solution to the schedule change? Accept it or cancel the ticket. I don’t like either option.
Of course the bmi and Kazakhstan embassy situations are not analogous, but both instances show that when we enforce a rule without considering the outcome, we act unjustly.
So I don’t meant to rant, but I hope you can appreciate my thoughts on rules and would love to hear your thoughts on them as well. In a nutshell, rules can become counterproductive when they are enforced without discretion. Mercy is a valuable trait that should be encouraged when a situation warrants, like my embassy experience. When there is nothing to back up a rule other than a declaration that “it’s the rule” something is very wrong.