Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Please Don’t Die

dont_die2This is in a subway station in Toronto. It’s the pairing of signs (I don’t know whether it is intentional or not) that I find interesting.

In essence, the authorities who posted these two signs are effectively asking people not to kill themselves in either of two ways — one fast, one slow.

More seriously: it’s also interesting that the normative force behind these two signs is quite different. The lower one — No Smoking — has the force of law, and is backed by fines. The upper one — Mind the Gap — is “merely” very very good advice. Does pairing them like this have some effect on the psychological force of one or the other?


Walk Up One Floor

walk_one_floorThis one is pretty much the exact opposite of the one I posted yesterday, which mysteriously encouraged people to use the elevator. This one, posted outside a university elevator, encourages people to walk instead. (Actually, as you may be able to tell from the photo, the sign when photographed was no longer posted, but had rather fallen or been removed, and was now propped on a long-defunct ashtray.)

The sign itself is interesting in two ways.

First, there’s the oh-so-polite, “May we suggest….” It’s good to be polite, here, because after all the elevator is right there to use, and is for many the default, and besides some people aren’t able to use stairs.

Then there’s the very specific suggestion that, if you’re heading up a flight, you can probably manage that, but that if you’re going down, you could probably do two flights. It’s a nice, principled distinction, and also a moderate one: the makers of the sign aren’t just saying you should take the stairs, regardless, but recognizing that going up stairs is (for most people) more difficult than down.