The poet, the grandad, and words on a train

Wooden train set illustrating a blog that discusses how the language used by London Underground put customers in the middle of the tube strike squabble.

Most people have a natural ability to communicate well. Businesses have forgotten how to do it.

Novelist and poet Michael Rosen reports a delightful exchange between a child and grandfather on a train:

Pre-school boy with his grandparents. Non-posh. Boy (about 4) looks up at the moving LED sign about travel info.
Boy: What are they saying, Grandad?
Grandad (reading) “Customers are reminded to take care of their bags and possessions to prevent crime, when travelling.”
Boy: What does that mean?
Grandad: Watch your bags or they might get pinched.

This, as Michael Rosen comments, is wonderful stuff. A curious child, a grandad satisfying that curiosity by translating some terrible English.

But what is so terrible about it? What’s going on that makes it contrast so much to the grandad’s version?

One reason is that the grandad’s version speaks to you, instead of about you. ‘Your bags’, instead of ‘their bags’. I have to translate this to understand that when the sign says ‘customers’, it means me.

Another reason is the wooliness of what we’re being asked to think about – customers, possessions and crime. I think this wooliness takes us to the heart of the sign’s terribleness. While the grandad’s translation is concrete and direct, the original is too vague, too disconnected from real people and what they care about.

If the original had said ‘Watch your bags’, it would have been tethered to particular people, at a time, in a place: you, here, now, on a train. But instead it proclaims a soaring statement about Customers – from Hampstead to Hanoi. Not ‘you’, not ‘our customers’, not ‘customers in Britain’. Just ‘Customers’, everywhere, anywhere, for all time. Anyone who has ever been a customer. Anyone who has ever purchased anything from a ticket to a toga. The sign applies to the lot of them.

And what are these billions of people being asked to do? ‘Prevent crime’. We aren’t told what crime, who might commit it, when or where. Just that taking care of your stuff stops crime. Maybe it’s saying when a customer clutches their bag, a Mexican drug lord gets arthritis. Or perhaps when someone glances at their belonging, a Yakuza gang is struck blind. Taking care of your stuff might even prevent all crime ever. It’s an encouraging thought.

Of course, no one looking at the sign will really think it’s making these claims. The point is, these abstract concepts of ‘customers’ and ‘crime’ are not connected to how people think and what they care about. No one has ever watched their bag to prevent crime. And no one thinks of themselves as a ‘travelling customer’.

If you talk in such general terms, you make it harder for  people to bother with what you have to say.

The solution is simple: if you want people to do something, if you want grandads and kids to keep an eye on their stuff, just say it straight.

A guest post by Rob Silverstone