Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

In which the author finds beauty in how people tell other people what to do.

Don’t Feed the Gators

dont_feed_alligators 2This sign is posted by a pond in Florida. A couple of things are interesting about it. First, most will find odd the idea of being tempted to harass a dangerous animal. “Harassing” a gator seems as obviously foolish as poking a lion. (And the word “harass” might itself seem off-base. Doesn’t harassment usually imply some sort of power imbalance in favour of the harasser? Can you harass someone or something that could eat you? Or are you merely antagonizing it? Dunno.)

Second, and more substantially, this is an example of a sign that is incomplete in an important, but perhaps unavoidable, way. The sign says not to feed the gators. But the sign doesn’t say not to feed the fish, which in turn might attract gators. I’m told that when this photo was taken, a father and son were merrily throwing bread to the fish in the pond, not realizing that a) the bread itself might attract the alligators’ attention, and that b) alligators eat fish (among other things), so that if you attract fish you’re pretty likely to thereby attract gators. But then a sign that said, “don’t feed or harass the alligators, or do anything else that is reasonably likely to attract their attention” would probably lose its impact.

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Thanks to Rahul Dhanda for the photo.

No Nukes in Church

no_nukesThis sign was posted on a church (obviously) in Buffalo, NY. Not unique, certainly, but interesting. It’s an example of a normative sign that isn’t really a normative sign, at least not in the usual sense. It’s not actually telling anyone what to do. No one is expecting to bring nuclear weapons into a church, ergo no one is being directed not to.

So, the sign is clearly symbolic. It’s a political slogan, masquerading as a normative sign.

Thanks to Ralph Walton for submitting the picture.

Reserved (But No Parking!)

Reserved (no parking)This one was sent to me by a friend of a friend. These signs are posted at an IBM facility in Poughkeepsie, NY. The backstory, apparently, has to do with fire codes (there’s a hydrant nearby) that resulted in the need to designate this area “No Parking,” but apparently no one thought it necessary to remove the RESERVED sign.

Mixed messages? Sure. And another example of my mantra that “every sign — and every regulatory circumstance — has a story.”

No Trespassing… After Hours

no trespass after hoursSo, may we infer that trespassing during normal business hours is OK? (This sign is posted at the edge of a somewhat dishevelled parking lot, near a train station in Durham, North Carolina.)

Don’t Lift This Bus

bus_ do not lift 2Here’s an example of a normative sign that looks utterly silly to 99.9% of people who read it, but which is incredibly important to the people to whom it is actually addressed. In this case, the “do not lift by bumper” is addressed to tow-truck drivers, who could damage the bus by doing it wrong. The rest of us can just relax, and be assured that we are in no way to expected embarrass ourselves bus_ do not lift 3by trying to lift a bus by its bumper.

(Thanks to Tara Ceranic Salinas for sending me the photo.)

Passengers Only

This sign is from the bathroom aboard the Eurostar train from Paris to London.WC

One wonders who else other than passengers might be tempted to use it. Given that this particular bathroom generally travels at about 300 kilometres per hour (186 mph), it’s hard for non-passengers to casually slip in.

This photo was contributed by Wayne Norman, who points out that the decor of this bathroom is probably “a helluva lot more effective than imploring patrons to be tidy and not abuse or deface the facilities….” Not all signs, in other words, are signs.

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Sharp Employee?

PleaseNoNeedles-resizedThis sign was spotted posted on a wall-mounted (built-in) trash receptacle in a restroom at CMH (Columbus, OH airport).

The pic was submitted by Phil Smith III, who wonders whether CMH really has just one employee (as implied by the grammar of the sign). Phil also noted that this sign might usefully have directed readers to the “sharps” receptacle located at the other end of the room. Surely the injunction against putting needles in the trash would be more effective if users were told that they had another, safer, alternative.

No Parking at All

no_parking_at_allThis one seems to be from the Dr Seuss school of normative signs. “I DO NOT LIKE THEM IN A HOUSE. I DO NOT LIKE THEM WITH A MOUSE.”


Thanks to Jonathan Newman, for this photo taken at University of Guelph.

Close the Gate (Who me?)

close_gateI spotted this sign, while I was walking through my ‘hood. I have no idea whose house it is.

OK, so the instruction is clear, and to the point.

But who is it addressed to?
close gate 3

So, naturally…I closed the gate. I have no idea whether the homeowner would thank me.
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Dissertation on Emergency Plumbing

harvard_bathroom 3
This rather thorough how-to, aimed at amateur plumbers apparently, is posted in the men’s room at the Faculty Club at Harvard.
harvard_bathroom 2
Thanks to Jacob Levy for the photo.