Saturday, February 3, 2018

DO NOT OCCUPY and other Absurdities

My wife and I recently visited Portugal and one of the most distinct things I noticed was a lack of signs. Of course, there were speed limit signs and no parking signs, but advertising, business signs, and informational signs were really scarce or understated. Looking for a restroom in the restaurant? Don’t expect six-inch letters RESTROOMS->. No, there will be a small W.C.  in two in letters on a door or just small indistinct silhouettes of a man and woman. The business signs are generally not big billboards but just simple plaques beside the door of entry. Of course, the Pharmacies have their green neon crosses but those were about the most visual I see. 
Not only are business signs understated, the country also lacks instructional signs telling people what to do or what not to do. I got a parking ticket because I didn’t know that the parking area I parked in was a Paid Parking area. The ticket writer showed me the little kiosk where I was supposed to pay, but there was no help for an ignorant tourist like me to find it and obvious American-style Paid Parking sign at each stall. I figured out the system after that and didn’t need a sign to know if I was in Paid Parking or not.
“Oh crap, I was going to climb up in that dumpster and take a nap,
but this dumpster doesn’t allow that. I Guess I’ll move along
and find one that allows occupants.”
It was when I came home, however that I really saw how sign crazy we American’s are. Everywhere we go it seems we are getting derections. No need to reason or problem solve just follow the signs. THIS FIRE MAY BE HOT type signs really drive me crazy. This reached it’s zenith with me at the Seward Boat Harbor when I saw a dumpster with clear blue letters: DO NOT OCCUPY. Now this is a five foot high metal box with a plastic lid of a shape that most people would recognize as a dumpster and no one would confuse with a hotel room, cabin, or campervan. Who needs to be told not to occupy a dumpster? AND, do we really think anyone who would want to “occupy” a dumpster would be deterred by a warning sign?

The ubiquitous Use Other Door sign is useful except that I won’t read it until I’ve tried to open a locked door. Then I look down and see, Use other Door! These signs should be positioned on a post to be read before reaching the door.  But then I would probably just push it aside while complaining about someone leaving this post in front of the doorway.  
I think we have so many signs in our culture because we are at once, bossy and helpful. We all seem to enjoy correcting people’s behavior, and we love to help by giving direction to others who may need guidance. But signs often don’t communicate accurately, effectively, or without conflicts of logic. Unfortunately, this easily goes from pushy to silly like the pole in an Anchorage neighborhood that has one sign that reads Visitor Parking and below it another sign that reads No parking, Fire Lane. Did no one installing those signs think for just a minute? I hope he/she loved the irony and walked away laughing.

Unfortunately, we seem to be sign dependent, and in Portugal, I was constantly seeking sign guidance. “Why don’t the have a sign here that says . . .?” so I don’t have to guess. But even signs posted were often ignored. We walked an extra hundred yards to a monument in Sagres, Portugal because the road in front of the monument was clearly marked (a rare thing) with no parking signs. When we came out two hours later, that clearly marked road was lined with parked cars. It occurs to me then that the Portuguese aren’t so different from us after all. The culture has merely adapted to the fact that most people will ignore signs that ask them to do what they don’t want to whether it’s to park where they don’t want to occupy a dumpster. I think the Portuguese just quit putting us signs that people will ignore or don’t need, and that does make the world a lot easier to look at.