A good sign

by James Somers, March 5, 2009

On my route to class every day, I walk past two copies of the following sign:

What strikes me about this sign is that you can kind of imagine someone writing it. That is of course not the case with most signage, which, if it’s telling you not to do something, is almost universally heartless about it.

So what makes this one so refreshingly human? I can think of three key features:

  1. Most instructions or warnings are written in the imperative, where the second person subject is “understood,” or left unsaid. Examples: “Avoid contact with eyes” or “Please refrain from smoking.” Using the word “Smokers” here (a) eases the tone of the request by indicating the declarative mood, which is by nature less direct, and (b) implicitly recognizes smokers as a legitimate group.

    By this second point I mean that the sentence takes for granted both the existence of smokers and the fact that they might choose to smoke nearby. Consider, as a parallel example, the difference between “Don’t pick your nose” and “Nose-pickers are asked not to pick their nose in public.”

  2. They don’t use the word “please,” which often comes across as passive-aggressive, and worse, lets you off the hook. “Please” oozes weakness. Leaving it out helps the sign-writers hold their ground. (Without sounding too stern, mind you: the trick mentioned above and the use of the passive voice — “are asked” — help deliver the message obliquely.)

  3. Smokers are asked to use common sense in determining a “reasonable” distance away from the building entrance. This is critical. The word evokes the same kind feeling one gets when adults first offer you beer or a glass of wine with dinner. It activates the “common courtesy” circuit, or that sense that “we’re all in it together”; it reminds you of a civil community, as opposed to a paternal bureaucracy (“Please stand at least ten yards away…”).

The effect of all that being that I think you would have to be a pretty evil person, or at least comfortable about your own selfishness, to smoke near the building after reading that sign.

I’m reminded of a TED talk by Barry Schwartz, where he tells the following story (@5:50):

A dad and his eleven year-old son were watching a Detroit Tigers game at the ballpark. His son asked him for some lemonade and dad went to the concession stand to buy it. All they had was “Mike’s Hard Lemonade,” which was 5% alcohol. Dad, being an academic, had no idea that Mike’s Hard Lemonade contained alcohol.

So he brought it back, and the kid was drinking it, and a security guard spotted it and called the police, who called an ambulance, who rushed to the ballpark, whisked the kid to the hospital. The emergency room ascertained that the kid had no alcohol in his blood… and they were ready to let the kid go.

But not so fast. The Wayne County Child Protective Agency said “no,” and the child was sent to a foster home for three days. At that point can the child go home? Well a judge said “Yes, but only if the dad leaves the house and checks into a motel.”

After two weeks, I’m happy to report, the family was reunited. But the welfare workers and the ambulance people and the judge all said the same thing: “We hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.”

Schwartz uses the anecdote to sell us on “practical wisdom,” or the ability to make good ad hoc decisions — in other words, to be reasonable. In its place we too often opt for procedures and policies, which (to steal his excellent phrase) insure against disaster, but guarantee mediocrity.

And any sign that reminds us of that is, in my mind at least, a good sign.