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

I think to understand this we'd have to understand why people take shopping carts off the premises in the first place. People who drive cars and park in the parking lot do not take carts from the lot. There is no need to. Some people taking the bus or walking do. I find carts by the bus stop down at the corner frequently. It's a convenience thing for the cart users I think. Maybe asking nicely doesn't work, because it's hard work carrying a couple of heavy bags to the bus stop. My guess is that most people taking the carts to the bus stop didn't know it is illegal with a stiff fine, especially if they weren't really stealing it, but just using it and leaving it. So what they are saying on these signs in such strong language is "Don't take these carts for convenience!" They just don't want to deal with the hassle of going down to the corner and fetching their carts.
What I think is a real crime is that no-one is redesigning our culture to be convenient to people without cars. Of course it might be too much to ask Store owners, the city and the transportation organizations to get together and find a good solution. It's easier to make it a crime and not have to deal with it.

Posted by: John at November 27, 2005 10:22 PM

Don't American shopping trolleys have the coin-operated thingummyjigs? (Where you have to put a 1 coin in the slot on the trolley to extract it from the row of trolleys and you get the coin back when you return it.) Or does this tactic not work as well with Americans as with Brits? Supermarkets wouldn't worry about us temporarily taking trolleys out of the car park, because they know that nearly all of them will come back again. We want our 1 back, dammit!

(This may be a reflection of the meanness of British shoppers, of course. I worked a few months in a supermarket a few years back. There was a system whereby shoppers in the supermarket could get their 30p parking fee refunded if they handed over the required bit of paper. And you would get people who had spent 100 or more on groceries fumbling around desperately to find the ticket so they could get their 30p.)

Apart from that, and risking a generalisation that might or might not work, the differences may also reflect the relative status of local authorities in the UK and the US. The difference between a British county council and a US state in terms of authority, respect and power is huge.

Posted by: Sharon at November 28, 2005 7:05 AM

In my limited experience S Africa has the politest signs - in multiple languages, pehaps a reaction Apartheid-era horrors. As far as the USA is concerned, when I visit I'm always surprised by the number of signs telling you NOT to do something - eg walk down the street without a shirt on - and yes they are legalistic too.

Posted by: Justin at November 29, 2005 8:10 AM