For or Against: Alphabetical order

Remember when Rory Gilmore was assigned to write a longform article about waiting in line? She went about it the wrong way, but it could have been a fun story. She could have interviewed me. I would have told her that waiting around comes quite naturally to me, though that doesn’t mean I enjoy it. I had a lot of practice in childhood.

When I was growing up, teachers were obsessed with doing things in alphabetical order. The kids with last names like Alpeza and Brown were first for textbooks and classroom cupcakes and any other limited resource. Our names were rattled off in alphabetical order at the beginning and end of every school field trip. The school nurse called us outside class in alphabetical order for eye exams; many teachers arranged our desks by alphabetical order too. Then, of course, there was the daily ritual of taking attendance. The early-alphabet kids seemed sharp and snappy to me, confident that the world would take note of them and always ready with a quick response. With a last name like Todd, you never expect for anything to happen to you first.

As it turns out, researchers have investigated the childhood tyranny of alphabetical order and its consequences. One study suggests people with early-alphabet last names may have an edge in getting into selective schools, since admission procedures review candidates by alphabetical order, too. Another study about the “last name effect” found that people with names toward the end of the alphabet are quicker to pull the trigger on buying items and more responsive to while-supplies-last promotions, while early-name types take their time. "For years, simply because of your name, you've received inequitable treatment," the marketing professor who co-authored the paper told Time, perhaps rather melodramatically. "So when you get to exercise control, you seize on opportunity.”

Perhaps things are different in schools today. Maybe teachers alternate with reverse-alphabetical order (but then what of the kids with names in the middle?), or try to mix things up by organizing students by birth date or shoe size or which birds they most closely resemble. For my own part, as an adult, I’ve rebelled against alphabetical order any chance I get.

I try to organize my bookshelves by whether I think the authors would appreciate each other’s work, a byzantine system that almost always devolves into random assortments instead. (I don’t know where particular books are, really, but it’s no big issue to spend a little time scanning the shelves.) The spice bottles I use most often get to skip ahead to the front of the line. In general I’m suspicious of adhering to any particular system of order too closely, which is part of the reason I have more than 10,000 unread emails.

I often think fondly of the teacher who introduced me to the idea that it wasn’t actually necessary to always have someone come first and someone come last, that there were other, more joyful ways of moving through the world. “Other classes walk around the hallways in perfect little lines,” Mr. Sekarak told us as third-graders, standing by the door while we buzzed around one another, a swarm of honey bees who couldn’t quite believe their luck. “I prefer that you walk as a blob.”