November 27, 2005

Please don't do bad things. They are against ordinance

The English-speaking countries—to use that quaint phrase that glosses over the Celts, various and sundry indigenous people in North America and Australasia, and some French-Canadians—are united and divided by their common language. What's less appreciated is the odd similarities and differences in other aspects of their cultures.

Take public warning signs, for example. Those metal laminated things telling you to pick up dog poop, not to drink alcohol here, and other useful edicts for better living, have a markedly different form in the different countries.

In New Zealand, and as best I can tell from personal observation and report, Great Britain, Ireland, and Canada, these signs are generally polite and relatively informal. "Please pick up after your dog," "Please do not remove the trolleys from the supermarket carpark," etc ...

In Australia and the United States, by contrast, these types of signs are excessively legalistic. Like this one, for example.

It's not immediately clear to me why potential cart thieves need to know that it is a specific violation of Article 11, Section 841 to remove carts from the premises. I suppose that would make the difference. Perhaps if stealing carts was punishable under the more lenient Article 12, Section 359 more people would do it. But I think not. The information about the penalties may give a thief pause, but the section of the law. Why is it relevant? Why are so many warning signs in America and Australia like this?

In America, at least, it seems especially odd because the majority of people are so preternaturally polite that the excessive legalism of these public appeals seems against the temperament of the country. But Americans also love system, formality, and authority which these signs have in spades. You might appeal to the federal system as an explanation, but then those nice Canadians have simple "please do this" type signs and a federal system. In Australia you might explain these legalistic signs with the notion that the people are the criminal descendents of petty thieves and convicts. And in so doing, forsake any attempt at serious explanation.

Sometimes these signs are tragi-comic. I have seen (and have the film photographs somewhere to prove it) signs in America that inform you that committing suicide by leaping from a particular bridge is against some municipal ordinance. An effective mental health intervention? I think not. In a similar vein, I've seen signs in Australia that say that leaping into a tempting-looking swimming hole in a river is against the municipal ordinances, and only lastly mention that there are submerged rocks in the hole that might hurt you if you lept.

I should say, to forestall some comments, that I generaliz(s)e here. You can find both types of signs in all these countries, but you find many of the very legalistic signs in America and Australia.

It would be nice to end with some conclusive insight into why this is so. But I have none. I just offer this as a long-held observation that I've never put on the internet, and invite your comments on examples, explanations or contradictions.

Posted by robe0419 at November 27, 2005 6:22 PM