Published in Aktuelt (Copenhagen, DK)


Safety in America

by Bill Chaisson

Recently an Italian friend of mine was complaining about safety in America; she thinks that there is far too much attention paid to it.  She is not interested in crime.  Crime she is familiar with.   She is upset about signs.  In that inimitable Mediterranean way that perfectly combines annoyance and amusement she shrieked: ìYou Americans!  You treat each other as if you were all a bunch of clumsy, ignorant children!î  I wasnít sure what she was talking about and made the mistake of asking her to elaborate.  She had a list:  ìI go into a store to buy some coffee.  There is a line of people waiting next to a sign that says ìLine forms here.î  Where would I go without that sign?  I buy my coffee and on the cup it says ëCareful!  The contents are very hot!í  This is coffee.  I need to be told that it is hot?  I sit at the table.  There is a sign: ëDo not put paper in the ashtray.  It may start a fire.í  Paper burns!  How have I survived without that information?  I finish my coffee and on the trash can it says ëPut trash hereí.  So that is what a trash can looks like.  Thank you.î  

She went on like this for a while, describing the signs she saw between this very safe restaurant and her laboratory (also very safe).  I then tried to explain about the American tendency to blame someone (anyone) for your accidental injury (or 

death) and cited the successful suing of tobacco companies in spite of 30 years of warning labels that suggest that smoking could quite possibly not be so good for you.  In Italy there is a strong tendency to place blame on God or the Evil Eye, neither of whom, should you seek recompense, is likely to show up in court.

But she had changed the way I looked at my own country.  What was once apparently beneath my notice, now seemed mortifying.  Last week, as I sat on an American train the ìsafety superintendentî (named Merica, of all things) told us to use caution when moving about ìbecause the train is in motion at all timesî.  She continued: ìShould you begin to fall, reach up and grab the safety rail of the luggage rack for your protection.î  Reaching upward to prevent yourself from falling down only works in cartoons and among Olympic gymnasts.

But all is not lost.  Occasionally you encounter a safety official who is in on the joke.  Unfortunately our culture did not inherit the sense of the absurd that is so commonplace in British culture, but we do have our moments. To understand the following, it is useful to know that the nautical term for the bathroom on a ship is ìthe headî.  Yesterday I went into a shipís toilet and sat down. To my right, next to the bog roll, was a neatly printed sign:  ìDo not put anything into head that is not toilet paper or what you have eaten.î

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Last revised:  May 11, 2005