We live in an age of petty dictators. Local government apparatchiks chastise us for putting the wrong litter in the wrong bin. The politically correct police dissect our language for crimes against a multiplying collection of dogmas. And the real police give us tickets for doing 33 miles an hour in a 30mph zone. Back in 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that the future would be ruled by a “soft despotism” of rules and regulations. The despotism is getting harder by the day, and the rules and regulations more noxious.
It is difficult to decide who is the most vexatious of these petty tyrants. But I have my own candidates: people who were once known as doormen and are now called doorpersons, security professionals or entry facilitation personnel.
One of the basic demands of a career in journalism is that you visit a lot of people in a lot of different places. This used to be simple: you showed up, asked the person at the door for directions, and duly enlightened, made your way to your appointment. Today it is a time-consuming palaver. Over the past couple of decades doormen have redefined their jobs. Instead of helping visitors get to where they’re going, they make them jump through a lengthy series of hoops instead. They ask for official identification. They make you fill out a long form including all of your own information and that of the person you’re seeing. They take photographs and issue you with a badge on which your name is grotesquely misspelt. Yet if, once you’ve been through all this, you then dare to ask for directions to your destination, they feign profound ignorance of the very building that they’re guarding.
Frustrating potential visitors has been taken to a high art in America – that great engine of Tocquevillian modernity – and particularly in New York City. The person on the door sits on a vast chair to accommodate his or her extraordinary bulk. They curl their lips with contempt as you struggle to find your identification – and look with puzzled amazement if you happen to have a British rather than American driving licence. And don’t bother asking them which elevator you should take.
Asia is determined to keep up. I was once cutting it fine for an interview with a chemicals giant in Mumbai. A doorman took my passport and, ever so slowly, started transcribing every personal detail. Only after he’d completed this laborious task did he look up the name of the official I had come to see and discovered that he was based in another office.
On a visit to Singapore, a colleague tried to visit a building where a doorman would store your identification in a tiny pigeon hole. His British passport was too large for the slot. The doorman refused to admit him.
Tick-the-box officiousness goes hand in hand with jobs-worthery. Once upon a time doormen were jacks of all trades – some of them even helped you get a taxi when you had finished your meeting. Now they refuse to budge beyond their defined task, citing “building rules”, “health-and-safety considerations” or “city regulations” to justify why they can’t venture from behind their desk to open a door for a delivery person who is struggling with a huge package, or why they can’t be expected to provide information about where someone’s office might be located.
There are many reasons why doormen have mutated into monsters. The threat of terrorist attacks means that even the sweetest-natured folk must treat their fellow citizens as potential evil-doers. An odious combination of health-and-safety rules and litigation culture ensures that even generous souls are trapped behind their desks.
Yet it’s hard not to see the populist revolution that has given us Brexit and Trump at work here as well: as the meritocratic elite becomes more obnoxious, whizzing from meeting to meeting with fellow members of their tribe, regular people have to take any opportunity they can to derail them. What better way than to humiliate them as they go to one of their precious meetings, treating them like criminals, forcing them to disclose pointless information and letting them know what you think of them and their kind? If I guarded a door all day, I’m sure I’d do exactly the same.