Reading Between the Caution Sign Lines

Posted warnings may be a nice courtesy, or simply someone trying to cover their butt in case of an incident. With limited room for words on such signage, one might consider what text has been left out.

“Watch Your Step” is common. Presumably, we are already responsible to watch our steps. But this cautionary post suggests that a misstep could be imminent. Perhaps it’s a shortened or lengthened drop on a stairway transition, or a protruding threshold under a doorway. Regardless, it’s probably something that wasn’t engineered correctly or maintained properly. In which case, “Watch your step” really means “We Haven’t Got Around to Getting This Quite Right.” A cost-saving, lawsuit-avoiding disclaimer.

Another pedestrian warning is “Slippery When Wet.” This might be presented wordless with a circle-headed stick-figure person slipping drastically in their yellow world. This makes sense indoors because floors aren’t supposed to be wet. (Outdoors, on roadway signs, I’d say generally one shouldn’t need this reminder.) In addition to absolving an enterprise from liability, the slippery footing sandwich-board could be a way to boast, “We just mopped. Aren’t you glad we clean our floors?!” But consider this: Have you ever tripped and fell on account of a surface that was a bit too grippy? Also a risk! If an establishment doesn’t bother to mop up its scum or sugary spills, should it not warn “Tacky When Filthy”?

A phrase one may encounter on a rules list at an airport, or possibly at a gym or swimming pool, is “Unattended or Unclaimed Items May Be Destroyed.” Aggressive threat! The honest sign would declare, “Don’t Leave Your Stuff Unattended for Even One Second. If You Do, It Will Transfer Ownership to One of Our Employees after Some Internal Negotiation.” Shortened and put in the positive, it could just say “Leave Your Stuff. Thank You!” Nobody is taking a nice piece of luggage full of valuable items to the landfill, let alone detonating dynamite in it or chucking it into a bonfire.

Speaking of airports, there’s a phrase heard in flight attendant announcements that has always puzzled me: “In the event of unexpected rough air…” It’s a lovely euphemism for turbulence, but isn’t some rough air expected? I would hope that the seatbelt and tray-table precautions would be applicable to inevitable turbulence, anticipated or not. The happy host or hostess is really saying “We understand that you are wishing for a completely horror-free traveling experience; If the ride is bumpy, as it would be if traveling with our competitors, then, wow, that’s really unusual for us, and we apologize in advance.” To Delta’s credit, they’ve recently worded it “In case of sudden rough air” in the pre-flight video…it may be expected, maybe not, but either way it sure can come on quickly! What didn’t change in the video is the part where they remind all passengers that they are “America’s most rewarded airline.”

“Beware of Dog” is a frequent residential posting. It could mean any number of things, but I have a suspicion (from experience as a runner) that those most likely to harbor an actual canine threat do not post this at all. In truth the posting is another way to say, “No Trespassing” or “No Solicitors,” and often backed up by an eight-inch Chihuahua.

“Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear.” This is visible faintly on pretty much all automobile mirrors. I suppose it’s so you don’t back into things, or cut off someone in a lane-change maneuver. But why must objects appear farther away than they are? How about building me a normal mirror?

Okay, speaking of automobiles, what about all those dashboard warnings? Though more likely to be in icon form, they communicate “Check Engine,” “Parking Brake On,” “Tire Pressure Low,” and so on. It’s important to understand that these must be interpreted one of three ways: 1) The vehicle is legitimately new, and the warnings should be heeded (and you may have a lemon), or 2) The vehicle is in my general mileage range (180K-350K) and any alerts are now poppycock because you can’t trust that such sensors would still work, and all the lights should probably be on anyway, or 3) The vehicle is somewhere in the middle, and you’ve got some interpreting to do. Regardless, these dashboard provocations are intended to be translated as per the owner’s manual: “You should bring this vehicle into the authorized dealer immediately; it may or may not have a problem, but this is a major part of our business model.”

Some warning signs are simply threats: equal part braggadocio and caution. For example, instead of simply stating “No Trespassing,” here are some real and aggressive variants:

   “Warning: If You Can Read This, You Are in Range”
   “No Trespassing: We’re Tired of Hiding Bodies”
   “No Trespassing: I Own Firearms and a Backhoe”
   “Protected by High-Speed Wireless Device”
      [Accompanied by sketch of a gun]
   “You Are No Longer a Trespasser” / “You Are Now a Target”
   “Prayer is the Best Way to Meet the Lord” / “Trespassing is Faster”

I’ll stop there. That’s the tip of the iceberg really. When you see anything like this, you might read instead “I’m Not Someone You Want to Hang Out With.” Or “My Property Is Not That Impressive but My Threat Suggests That I Think It Should Be in High Demand Nonetheless.” Or, possibly, “I Caint Hold a Job, but Hell, I Have a Small Auto Salvage On-Site and I’ll Hang On to Mah Famly Land as Long as I [Expletive] Can.” Grandpa would be disappointed. Or proud.

I’m not saying to disregard caution signs. That wouldn’t be prudent. Just don’t let them mess with you. And feel free to mutter a “Yeah…whatever” when that applies, and continue your day unfazed.

Copyright © 2023 Richard Berndt – All Rights Reserved.

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