Etiquette at the DMV

c1dcf20a1201757bef3e6327688b2861I just had a lovely experience signing up for IDNYC (if you live in NYC you should get one!), and it had me thinking about all our stereotypes about the DMV and customer service in general. I wasn’t actually at the DMV, the signup took place at a local community college and I made the mistake of making my appointment on ORIENTATION DAY so oh god there were all these posters and helpful looking young people and ugh I just wanna find room E116 without making eye contact and accidentally signing up for the Gay-Straight Alliance. Aside from that it was actually quite painless and the woman who processed me was a delight.

But anyway, the DMV and similar places! They sort of suck, don’t they? There’s a lot of waiting, and forms, and people taking too long, and weird smells, and they just seem to bring out the crank in everyone. My theory is that paperwork and long wait times make everyone forget some basic etiquette that could smooth things over. No, etiquette will not make your wait shorter, nor will it make anyone less crabby to you, but it can help how you end up internalizing all your experiences.

Firstly, the practical stuff. If you can do it online, DO IT ONLINE, both to save you the hassle and to make one less body taking up space at the DMV. If you must do your business in person, research what forms you need to fill out and what you need to bring, and do them before you get there if possible. You probably already know this, but I was shocked when I got my learner’s permit renewed (a thing you can do, yes) a few years ago and saw the number of people who didn’t realize that a credit card isn’t a valid form of ID, or who had filled out completely the wrong forms, and held up things for anyone else. (A pass is given to anyone who doesn’t speak English well because they do NOT make those forms easy to read).

Next, the zen stuff. If there’s one humbling thing the DMV makes you remember it’s that you are not special. There is freedom in that. Use it. I think a lot of our etiquette faux-pas come from believing we alone are suffering the fools. We believe we are right and they are wrong, or we need something more than someone else, and no one understands us. That is rarely the case. At the DMV you are not suffering alone. Everyone around you is waiting, and probably has been waiting, and probably has places they have to be, or places they’d just rather be, or other stuff on their mind so they don’t hear their number called immediately. And the people who work there, yes it’s their job but they may also be tired or zoning out, like you are at your job sometimes. And maybe you think they shouldn’t be in customer service if they’re like that, but good jobs are hard to find. Nobody is always where they want to be.

It is satisfying in the short run to yell at someone for being unhelpful or rude or ignorant. On occasion it even works, and if someone has offended you or keeps giving you the wrong directions, by all means ask to speak to a manager. But returning rudeness with rudeness won’t make you feel better, really. You’ll stay resentful that you had to be rude. If you got an apology you’ll worry about if they meant it, and if they learned their lesson. If you didn’t, you’ll be wondering what you could have done to make them change. The rest of your day will be filled with the DMV. You don’t need that.

I don’t always like telling people to be nice. I think a lot of real issues get silenced under the pillow of “nice.” I don’t think niceness should come at the cost of human dignity. But people like to think places like the DMV are an affront to that dignity, and they just aren’t. They’re governmental processing buildings and they sorta suck. It’s not the worst thing you’ve had to endure.

This turned into being about a lot more than the DMV.

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