Signs of the Times

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Who decided that humans need constantly to be instructed in how to do things as we go about our everyday business? The volume of ‘helpful’ signs, announcements and scrolling digital messages – in the shopping centre, on the escalator, in the station, on the train itself, at the checkout – is getting quite out of hand, and would suggest that it’s no longer physically possible to function as a person without receiving audio-visual guidance in what to do, every step of the way.

“Please take your bags with you when you leave the train,” announces a gently parental voice as the train rolls into a station, as though it were the default human behaviour to casually forget one’s possessions. “Please place the item in the bagging area,” says the infuriating voice inside the self-service checkout machine, as though you might have intended just to pile all your shopping into the crook of your arm and then drop it all over the floor on the way out. “Due to today’s inclement weather, the platforms may be slippery; please take extra care,” says the announcer at London Bridge Station, suggesting that the civilians shuffling along platform 6 possess neither basic observational skills nor the instinct to avoid falling over. I wonder when exactly humans became quite such incapable, dribbling puppets who require signs and voices to guide them about.

The answer is, of course, that we never have become incapable, and we don’t require any of this, not a single bit of it. All of this ‘help’ is foisted upon us – and in increasingly clumsy fashion. By other humans. It’s not as though the people who compose these signs are of some higher life form. They might work for a public service or an authority, but they are just other people. You need only look at the idiotic language used in the signs and announcements to see that. The ‘bagging area’? For goodness’ sake, why not simply ‘the bag’? “Put your celery in the bag, Maddie” would be a little impertinent, I grant you, and still unnecessary, but I’d rather that than this tiresome, euphemistic non-language about ‘items’ and ‘bagging’.

“It is safer to stay on the train than attempting to get off,” advises one of Transport for London’s printed signs designed to help Underground passengers work out how to behave should disaster strike. The problem here? Well, the first option, the one we’re advised is the safer of the two, “to stay on the train”, is given as a verb in the infinitive form, while the second, the reckless, dangerous (how dare you even consider it?) “attempting to get off”, uses a gerund. This clunky sentence puts two actions in direct comparison without bothering to use the verbs in the same way. I can’t understand why nobody thought to put, correctly, “staying on the train is safer than attempting to get off” or “it is safer to stay on the train than to attempt to get off” or even, if clarity is what we’re after – and isn’t it always? – “in an emergency, stay on the train”.

There are several ways to correctly express that advice, if we really needed it. Presumably the specific circumstances of an emergency would dictate the safest action, and we would use our initiative in context. Finding myself on a burning train, I’d be ‘attempting to get off’, I imagine. Wouldn’t you? If we really do require such stark reminder that the train might break down or catch fire, why not put the emphasis on the hypothetical emergency, easily done by rearranging the sentence: “Attempting to get off the train is much more dangerous than staying on it.” You can bet there is a TfL Style Guide advising that the word ‘dangerous’ never be used on a printed sign. Too shocking. We poor, vulnerable underlings can only stomach positive, cutesy words, of course.

Talking of which, it’s all over the place, this patronising, saccharine language. On the way out of a shop this week, I noticed a huge sign above the door, printed in a particularly round, babyish typeface, saying this: “thanks for shopping with us see you soon”. Just like that, all in lower case, and without so much as a cursory comma to separate the two sentences. Would it really have been more expensive to include a full stop, and maybe some upper case letters? It is absurd, in any case (lower or upper), for an inanimate sign to say “see you soon”, as though representing the friendly voice of the shop. This shop is not my friend. I’m its customer, not its pal.

I left that shop not feeling thanked and invited back for future shopping experiences, but patronised and irritated. I turned the corner and made for the exit to the shopping centre. I walked towards a big door that was obviously an exit. I worked this out by using, amazingly, my eyes to see it and my brain to interpret it as the way out; but, just in case, I was also ‘helped’ and ‘informed’ by a big sign above the door saying ‘WAY OUT’. Just before I left the building, I noticed one of those wall-mounted phones that you can ring to hear unnecessary information about the shopping centre, its opening times, etc. A sign above the phone, again all in lower case, said “ask me point”. I studied it. “Ask me point” is neither a sentence nor a title. I decided it was trying to say “this is the place at which you can ask me for information”. But who was ‘me’ in this situation? The phone itself? Just like the shop sign saying “see you soon”, this sign had been designed to be jolly and familiar but, in the process of being endowed with sensibility, had lost all sense.

And how about the baffling road sign that reads “No entry – access only”? I’m told this sign means that general drivers mustn’t enter a road but residents and roadworks vehicles may access it for parking. But it’s verging on surreal. Logically, of course, given that ‘entry’ and ‘access’ are synonymous nouns, what the sign actually says is this: “Find another way; come this way, please.” I understand that the sign is using language that makes perfect sense within its own context. ‘Access’ here is roadworks jargon. But that’s no earthly good, is it? The sign is there only to inform the general driver – me and thee – so it needs to speak normal English, or it’s completely redundant.

It seems to me that people make signs because that’s the done thing, whether or not there is anything that particularly needs saying. And there generally isn’t. I don’t need to tell you that people are more capable than signs give us credit for. You know you’d realise it was the ‘WAY OUT’ without those words being printed above the door, and I’m convinced that you’d “place the item in the bagging area” of your own accord, and probably in a less flustered manner if you could do so without that irritating stream of instruction from her inside the machine. People who run businesses and services have an inflated idea of their own expertise and imagine that we, the user of their service, require some sort of advice to help us use it correctly.

The question of whether this is all to do with a fear of being sued is an interesting one, of course. If, on a rainy day, we have heard an announcement telling us to “take extra care on the platform”, we can’t sue the station if we slip over and injure ourselves: they warned us. But this is not as interesting, to me at least, as the idea that the volume of signs in modern life could be explained by a human craving for power. Making an advisory or cautionary sign gives you the sensation of being uniquely placed to sniff out potential danger: you have some sort of inside information and hold the key to how it all works. “I’m the king of the castle,” says the writer of the advisory sign.

But there is no king of the castle. We are all just dirty rascals, scuttling about, largely with sufficient wits about us not to tumble down the escalator because we forgot to hold onto the hand rail, not to fall over in the rain and not to leave our bags on the train. And if we do any of those things, it’s not because we didn’t see or hear an instruction telling us how to maintain our “personal comfort and safety”; it’s because we have free will, are fallible, and can be stupid sometimes. But only sometimes, far less often than the volume of pernicious signs in modern life would suggest. Generally we rascals will function just fine on our own.

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3 Comments

  1. Hooray for this article. About midway during a visit to old Angleterre, the mawkish babbling of Cashier #4 starts to grate on my very last nerve.

    Mary Poppins advised us to free ourselves from the bonds of banal societal norms. In these neo-liberal times, her evil twin, the unrelenting Cashier #4 makes even a simple journey by tube or to the grocery store feel like an experiment in social control gone terribly wrong.

    If the omni-present CCTV camera had a voice, it would sound like Cashier #4.

    Cashier #4, please procure a a light frame with thin material stretched over it and set it aloft.

  2. My favourite nutty sign,for many years on the road to Portishead, N Somerset from Avonmouth. “Low Flying Owls!” What is one supposed to do about it, Duck?

  3. Great piece, love it! My personal favourites (can you have more than
    one?), a sign in an office building that states ” Do not use the lift
    in case of fire” does this mean the use of the lift is itself the incendiary
    device? The other being “Heavy Plant Crossing” I always imagine a
    rather chubby turnip waddling across!

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