Why Doesn’t the Take-a-Number System Work in Italy?

When I go to the post office, as I did today, I know that I’m sure to get into a discussion with someone about an absurd practice that seems to be common here in Italy. A practice made even more annoying because it’s disguised (and shown off) as an act of kindness, when it’s actually disrespectful as well as plain stupid.

Of course, I understand that, after many hours in an Italian post office, only the bravest and fittest survive (see video above), and it’s tough to resist the temptation to get as many numbers as possible by pressing all the flashy buttons on the dispenser. It’s obviously difficult to throw these worthless pieces of paper in a bin, so people seem to think it is  much better to just find the last person that has entered the post office and give him or her your numeretto (“little number”, as Italian call the piece of paper elicited from the dispenser). You can then walk out of the place knowing you have done a good deed for the day and walk out of the post office with your head high knowing that, thanks to you, a person has skipped a line.

Unfortunately a queue at the post office is what economists call a “zero sum game”: in a queue, each participant’s gain or loss is exactly balanced by the losses or gains of other participants; the benefits of somebody skipping the queue equal the losses of the ones who have to wait longer.


The take-a-number system would otherwise be an oasis of order, efficiency and fairness in a country where things are often excessively complex and shady. It’s a system inspired by the ethical axiom “first-come, first served” which ensures that people are served according to their arrival time, regardless of connections or social status. It involves two simple steps:

1) get a number from the machine

2) wait for your number to be called

It’s as simple as that. You can then just sit down and read a book, or listen to the verbose old lady outlining every detail of her medical record to every potential listener.

By “donating” your numeretto to a random person you curtail the fairness and simplicity of the system: a woman who has just arrived may suddenly find herself at the top of the queue merely because she’s wearing a tight-fitting skirt; the verbose old lady who has nothing to do all day can get a numeretto to skip the queue, depriving her of hours with a captive audience. People are no longer served anymore according to heir time of arrival; meritocracy is curtailed and favoritism becomes the norm, as in the rest of the peninsula.

As happens when expressing a dislike towards the the pagamento alla romana (going Dutch) at the restaurant, or complain to cashiers about their lack of change, if you criticise these hypocritical gifts you are often seen as pedantic and insensitive. After all, these pseudo-philanthropist  believe that they are doing a selfless favour to a stranger, who is then able to skip a queue thanks to their gift. However, I hope that I am not the only one being pedantic and insensitive just because I can’t ignore the other side of the coin, given by the unfairness of these donations to the people already in the queue, as well as the creation of useless interferences to a perfectly simple system.

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