Normative Signs: The Poetry of "Ought"

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

Month: August, 2014

Normative Forfeiture

IMG_4058This sign is posted by the lineup for a small roller-coaster at the Canadian National Exhibition, in Toronto. It says “No Saving Space in Line. Leaving the line forfeits your spot. Thank you.”

A couple of interesting things, here. First, “No Saving Space.” It rings odd, because in most circumstances, “Saving Space” is a good thing. When packing for vacation, you leave bulky items out of your suitcase to “save space.” Etc.

Note also the use of the word “forfeits.” Is that a widely-understood word? (I’m a professor, and I would be cautious using that word with, say, junior students. It seems like an upper-level bit of vocabulary.) I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that word on a public sign in North America.

Note finally that this is not a rule that anyone of the workers at the roller coaster is liable to enforce. It’s just a statement of…well, it’s an assertion of not just a rule, but a kind of moral truth. By doing X (leaving line) you cause something to happen (namely, you have caused yourself to lose a certain status, that of the legitimate owner of that place in line).

Something Must Be Worn On This Site

construction copy

Normativity: you’re doing it wrong.

This sign suggests that something — something — absolutely MUST be worn on this construction site. But it won’t reveal just what. Agonizingly, it provides hints. Hard hats? Safety boots? Gloves? Vest? Hearing protection? But none of the check-boxes is actually checked off, so we’re left to wonder.

Should a visitor wear all of them (just to be safe…literally!) Or none of them, because after all none of the boxes is checked?

(This was posted at a residential construction site near Ossington Ave., in Toronto.)

Please See Hostess

see_hostessIs this South Carolina restaurant not an equal opportunity employer?

OK, so fine. Casual observation (over several visits) does confirm that the people who have hired to seat customers do all happen to be women. So the sign is accurate in the directions it gives. But is that the sort of thing you really want to entrench in your normative signage? Is this place denying the possibility that it might ever hire a dude for such a job?

I’m not whining about reverse sexism, here. I just find the wording odd.

Is the use of the word “hostess” really necessary? What about “maitre d'”? For that matter, isn’t “host” pretty close to gender neutral (the way some say “actor” is)? Or would that just prompt me to post the sign and register the opposite worry?

The food is delicious, by the way.

Turning vehicles must attempt awkward game of charades

Yield-2-pedestriansThis one is a hot mess. It’s practically a goddam brain-teaser.

Look at that thing!

It’s got a bent arrow (a very literal way of referring to turning vehicles, I guess) and then some English words (turning vehicles), (but why? for emphasis?) and then a yield sign (a well-known traffic sign), then another small bit of English (“to”) and then a pictogram of a pedestrian.

Presumably it is supposed to read “Turning vehicles [must] yield to pedestrians.” But actually reading it requires the reader to use 3 different coding systems. Reading this sign is like interpreting someone doing a very awkward bit of charades, or someone making up their own very literal version of American Sign Language.

The sign is posted on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia.

Hybrid Parking

hybrid_parkingThis sign suggests that only hybrid automobiles may park here.

I like the way the word “hybrid” is visually integrated with the giant letter “P” (universally recognized, in the English-speaking world, anyway, as meaning “Parking”).

What’s normatively interesting about this sign? A sign like this is part of an implicit ranking of priorities. Many parking lots reserve spaces for persons in various categories: the disabled, pregnant women, etc. This sign is part of a scheme that prioritizes drivers of hybrid cars over at least some of those categories, and in fact over at least some vehicles (electric cars?) that might be more environmentally friendly than hybrids. I wonder how often the people who decide to designate parking spots for particular groups think of it this way.

IMPORTANT (no hats) (thank you)

IMG_4057This sign, posted at the lineup for a small roller-coaster, is beautiful and slightly ridiculous. It is ridiculous in just how emphatic it is about removing hats. (For comparison, signs at other rides warning patrons to keep their hands and feet inside the cart, or not to ride if they have a heart condition, are much much smaller.)

It is also beautiful in its rhythm. Almost like a very short haiku.

It was taken at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto.

Grrrr, bark, woof

1610_657314499891_1940_nThe premise of this blog is that I find normative signs poetic. It’s not all good poetry, but still.

And apparently, some of this normative poetry is aimed at non-humans. Or at humans with a sense of humour.

Thanks to Samantha for submitting this photo, which was taken at a dog park in North Vancouver, BC.

YOU Are Responsible for Your Wake

your_wakeThis lovely sign is clearly intended to do more than express a truism. Of course it’s true that you, dear boater, are responsible for physically causing the wake your boat leaves. After all, who else could be?

The emphasis, it seems to me, is on the notion of personal moral responsibility. It’s a reminder with the tone of advice from a kindly uncle. “Look, kid. Take it from me. There’s no getting around it. YOU are responsible for what you do. No one else can be!” (It also reminds me of the old Smokey The Bear line: “Only YOU can stop forest fires.”

your_wake_2The sign is posted on a dock in Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina.

Norms vs Nature (or “Vines fought the law, and the law won!”)

norms_v_natureAlthough I’m primarily fascinated by the language of normative signs, sometimes the beauty of a normative sign has nothing to do with the way it’s worded.

This picture was taken at the parking lot of a small commercial building in Santa Monica. It shows a sign fighting an uphill battle against an invasive vine. I love how this little sign — in some regards, the very essence of modern civilization — is beset on all sides by aggressive foliage. It’s downright goddam poetic.

Or, to flip the metaphor, the vines fought the ‘law,’ and for now the ‘law’ has won.

Enter Only (Even if that’s what you’re already doing)

This one would be unremarkable, were it not for its placement — or rather, its orientation.

It’s an “Enter Only” sign, placed at the driveway/entrance to a small housing complex in South Carolina. The problem is, it’s facing outward. So only the people who are already doing the right thing — entering — can see it.

Of course, having seen it upon entry, one can of course make a mental note not to try to exit that way, later. But as far as I could see, there was no inward-facing sign warning people not to exit here.