One of the things I love about Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm is their critical analysis of social norms: Is it OK to dip a chip after one bite? Can you break up with a friend? How many tasting spoons can you request at an ice cream parlor?
Today at Kroger, I was in the Express lane. I remember the epistemological conversations my brother and I used to have trying to rationalize its use: 4 cans of beans is one item (Beans). Bananas and oranges are fruit--1 thing, right? But we never had the nerve to push too far beyond the posted limit.
The lane I was in today was for shoppers with orders of "About 20 items or less." I noticed the insertion of the weasel word "about," trying to indicate some flexibility for shoppers pressed for time. But the woman in front of me had between 40-60 items, by any count. I wondered if she was considering splitting them into two orders, a move my brother and I have used in the past, though never alone. But she could claim that she was doing her mom's shopping as well, or something like that.
I was in no hurry, but I raised an eyebrow nonetheless, and considered making a joke about her counting problems, but I couldn't think of a way to do it, without the possibility of looking like a jerk; so I kept mum, telling myself that if she wrote a cheque, that would go far enough beyond the pale to allow me to comment. But she didn't, so after she left I asked the cashier, a woman who looked like she could hold her own with anybody, if she ever refused to check someone out because they had too many items. "Sometimes." she said. "I don't have a bagger here, so it can get backed up real quick. But it can get ugly, and it takes time for someone to put their groceries back in the cart, so we usually let you slide."
Sounds like something that should be automated, so that the employees could avoid confrontation and mandate the normative behavior that makes everyone's life a little easier.