Two Years in London: The Ugly

I hope to write the other two parts to my review of my two years in London: the good, and the bad. But I’m still “recovering” and I think it only fair to our English brothers and sisters that I save those two for when I can more properly assess my feelings.

But I can easily report on the Ugly. At least in one simple regard: the British use of our shared language.

There’s no need to nitpick over differences between our two variants, such as the difference between truck and lorry. Nobody really cares or suffers from it.

Even I found myself using the British term “buggy” instead of “stroller” after being there a few months. It just rolled off the tongue a bit easier, and if you know anything about Americans, we like efficiency.

Which is why, in cases of signage, I was routinely surprised, even shocked, to see what I could only consider a completely thoughtless approach to communication. So much so that I would stop and photograph them.

To me, a sign is the essential bare bones form of communication. Drawings on a cave wall, smoke signals, morse code, and signs in our modern-day life all require they absolute briefest notation available. Unlike a blog post, no one has time to hear excuses, exceptions, reasoning, or even to devour a few extra words.

There’s no question the British are polite. They certainly outwardly display politeness more than Americans do. How much of it is authentic is difficult to tell. Like their colleagues in Canada, you may not be able to tell they are insulting you, even as they smile and speak pleasantly. At least, not initially.

A colleague of mine (Billy – you know who you are!) was particularly adept at this skill. I would realize about halfway into a business discussion that he was, in his mind, mildly mocking me (perhaps deservedly, but that’s another discussion). It took months before I began to take the time after each of our short conversations for me to realize that I needed to analyze his statements from both sides of the pool cue. Then, I began to see that when he appeared to be agreeing with me, he was actually winning by holding his own position and not changing at all, yet making me feel politely admired for my own views.

This “tactic”, for lack of a better word, is well-described in British anthropologist Kate Fox’s excellent book Watching the English. I read portions of it while living there; it may have saved me from pulling all my hair out.

Some may find this post to be assaulting. To be fair, however, for two years, I had to endure front page assaults about everything American, mostly from The Guardian, who especially seem to relish picking on small towns in America and how “backwards” they were. And I actually prefer reading the Guardian in contrast to the tabloid-esque other “news”papers available in London.

I was never a “rah rah” cheerleader for all-things America, but it doesn’t take too many months of reading such rubbish that you start realizing some of the fundamental cultural differences that will forever be a separation between us and England.

I hold, however, that we more aligned than we are distinct, but as Scott Alexander explains so well in his 2014 essay I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup, the very fact that England and the United States are so closely aligned on much of our worldview is the very reason we so quickly point at each other on many trite matters.

Such as I am doing here, Guardian.

Here below are some of the signs I photographed in my two years there. Let’s start with my favorite:

Pretty sure they meant “or”. Else, this bathroom would almost never be in use. I will refrain from comment on the horrific graphic. Oh wait, I just did.
Just in case you were thinking of tossing your glasses or a fish into the toilet, don’t.
Sigh.. here we go with the excuses and reasoning. This is only “due to an increase in complaints”, because the prior complaint level wasn’t sufficient to warrant this monitoring. And because drug “usage” (not “use”) needs recording just as much as littering. It’s nice that the police are using both “covert and overt” filming. So, basically just filming. By which I think they mean, in 2018, “recording”. Remember the empty veiled threats your parents would sometimes launch into when they were unable to control your teenage behavior? Exactly.
For everyone not searched randomly, you’ll need to read this sign, and of course remember how much your cooperation will be appreciated once your vehicle is later searched. “I mean, there was a sign back there. Didn’t you read it? Don’t you remember how appreciated you’ll be when you cooperate? Don’t you want to be appreciated? Well then, give us your keys”.
An office building where the mail “sacks” (bags) are in the lobby. If it’s getting full, please bring a fisherman’s scale with you so you don’t go over 11 kilos. That’s 11, okay? Not 12, not 10. 11. Get it right.
Yet, the gates are not in use most of the time. So “regular” use, maybe. English is supposedly their language, but one wonders. I would have even accepted “consistent”, but even that’s a stretch.
This was approved and paid for by taxpayer dollars. Truly amazing. Of all the audiences who won’t read it, they chose the one who most certainly will not. I think I laughed for a good three minutes after reading this. “Hey mate, we can’t skateboard here. Why? Because skateboarding causes damage and public money is spent repairing street furniture and railings. Sign says so. Let’s go to Hackney Wick instead. By the way, what is street furniture?”
Wait, what? So when it’s red, I wait? Or I go?
You can bet that when you are quoted policies or procedures, the British will always start with “unfortunately”. They literally don’t know another way to start the sentence. While it’s always bad practice to quote policy to customers, how about not convincing them it’s bad news before you’ve even begun? Alternate: “Not responsible for vehicles and their contents”.
Those still reading near the end will be found crispy and charred. Yes, fire doors that don’t close automatically are common still in England. But that’s because they don’t need them. Because they have these signs and responsible citizens who follow rules, even during building fires. Why waste money on automatic fire doors?
If there’s one thing the English love obsessively, it’s over-accuracy. Never mind the extra time required of customers to digest and interpret such things. Why not say a half kilometer? Because it’s wrong. Dead wrong. You’d send people a whopping 18 meters right past their destination. That’s almost 60 feet. They aren’t savages, you know.
Gone… where? To heaven? Forever? What? How long has this sign even been here? Alternate: “No more eastbound trains until ____”. But because that might actually be helpful, we’d rather just leave it a mystery for missing train sleuths. More fun that way.
Like most such attempts, this recycling bin was filled with pretty much everything. Apparently, after a dozen bullet points, people stop reading, or even caring. I do admire DHL’s attempt to grab a little marketing space out of it though. Why not?
People going up should avoid elevators with a warm gentle breeze wafting off to the east. Or is the building management merely stating a political position about elevator fires? They’re against them.
But great commas don’t get through Costa’s sign.
I, uh, have no words. The possessive of “call” is an interesting use. But the rest of the sign outdoes that error. I so badly wanted to set my phone to a loud traditional ring and then answer it “Yes, Mr. President?… Iraq again?… This war… when will it end?…. I know, sir… you have my word… I won’t alert the press until 6pm tonight”. I’d be they would want to hear that “chat”.
Because snails and slugs are attacking with a vengeance! Who can stop them in their (slow) tracks? Eraza can! I love how it is “tough” on snails and slugs, yet it is called a “killer”. I’m no advocate for snails and slugs, but I’m pretty sure they consider this “killer” product to be a few degrees above “tough”. Previously, this was only one-fifth as effective, so lots of snails and slugs were flaunting their freedom, but Eraza is turning the tables now. This goes into an American category called “things we would never buy or care about”.
Liam is full of it. We know he’s out back smoking and texting his girlfriend. Too many lies here to get caught in, Liam. Next time just say “Store Reopens at 6:30pm”.
When I finally start a rock band, I’m going to call it “Fouling of Footways”. Alternate 1: “Footway Fouling Penalties Apply”. Alternate 2: Give up. No one cares. Dog owners do whatever they want when no one is looking.
Sometimes the British seem hell-bent on fighting impossible battles, like dog fouling. This stubbornness worked great in WWII. Here, it might not turn out so well. Love all 90,000 minutes of work each year?
Let’s not design a better bed. Let’s put a wordy sign. In every hospital room. So comforting for parents of children.
If you’ve ever tried to “contact a team member” in England, you know two things: they don’t care and you will wait forever. So, I think better would be a sign that says “In the event of the security alarm being activated, run”. Which is what people will do anyway, so why bother with the sign?
Passive writing is common in England. “We are informed by”, rather than “The police told us”. I like how Waitrose (a major grocery chain) tries to absolve themselves, as if they are merely unwitting victims of this situation. They do “urge” you to watch your stuff. This store is in a “normal” area of London, but never mind how you now feel after reading it.
More excuses. One of my faves. In America: “Bathroom closes at 7pm”. In Britain, this. And for my American friends, “Unsociable behavior” is a thing in England, much ballyhooed and talked about. It basically means anything that two or more young men might do in public. Such as peeing in an elevator because they are drunk, and the bathrooms are all closed. But keep drinking London!
But they can’t rely on you to avoid run-on sentences.
“School kids”. Whatever that means. Only four. Number five is pretty much trespassing. These signs are so common it’s embarrassing. Says a lot about the wayward youth of London. But hey, at least these “kids” are in school. Shouldn’t we applaud that at least? Truants can flood this store all day long.
Signs abound in London about what to when things break down. Which is frequent. And they are always prominently displayed. This one is in a health club (gym). People wants snacks so badly they’ll call some understaffed customer service department and report this? And the building staff is not equipped so they’ll just let the machine sit broken until a fitness member stands around on their mobile reporting it? Does no one think things like this through?
These are also common. Warnings about exactly how and why shops can take what kinds of your money. And they wonder why America makes so much money. To start, we find every way possible to always take a customer’s money. Especially in a bar when they are drunk. We aren’t idiots.
If only England was obsessed about quality customer service as much as they are about dog “poo”. These types of signs are everywhere. Between the weather and dog “fouling”, it’s hard to know what Brits are more passionate about.
True. It is a bad font.
Alternate: “Patio for Real China customers only”. Space saved: 3 vertical feet. Time saved for passersby: 2 seconds each. But I took their advice and did “note” it, by way of taking a photo and laughing at it each time I see it again.
This is what I mean about the British use of “polite”. They claim it’s polite, but it sounds kind of preachy and ranty to me. Once I got past the poor punctuation and sentence structure.
Only the comments will be treated confidentially. The complaints and the compliments are public. Seriously, I love how they toss in the word “compliments” here. Talk about a case of wishful thinking mixed with subtle pyschological hints. I also love how there is an entire “leaflet” (the British equivalent of pamphlet) on the process. I have no doubt there is. Nothing can be done in one step in England. Nothing. They could have printed the relevant portion of the leaflet on the sign, but no. That leaflet probably contains important information such as the history of the complaint department, warnings not to be rude to staff, a myriad of websites, emails, telephone numbers, and even snail mail addresses. And probably some pre-excuses about weather impacts, broken machines, and absentee staff. Sigh…
Finally. Now we’re talking. Blast ’em to hell if they try to breach the hull! I actually like this sign. Had to end on a good note.