san francisco's pleasant rhetoric

the notion that san francisco is an unusually friendly big city has been one of those for which i had no evidence at all until one day, on the muni ([myOO-nee]: i basically ride a trolley to work everyday--quaint, no?), i noticed this sign on the driver's cab:
Information gladly given but safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation
the first thing that struck me was, 'why is the print so small on that sign?' followed by, 'why is that sign so unnecessarily wordy?'

one can imagine a similar sign in another large city (i name no names) saying
Do not speak to driver
but not in san francisco! it is safety, not the driver herself, that objects to conversation. it is only 'unnecessary conversatoion' that should be avoided--don't hesitate to inform the driver of an emergency--though really, 'unnecessary' is unnecessary, since having a necessary statement to make to the driver would just force you to break the rules, anyway.

another highly unnecessary word merits mention: 'gladly.' information will not be given begrudgingly on the muni!

the driver isn't even 'shunning' unnecessary conversation or 'stopping' it or anything like that; just mildly avoiding it like a small, friendly child in the street, for safety's sake.

even consider the ordering of the sentence. the alternative, "safety requires avoiding unnecessary conversation, but information is gladly given," just really puts too much emphasis on the negative, doesn't it?

i'm still not sure it's exactly what i'd call 'evidence' for my friendly city theory, but it's definitely a good sign.


ch said...

I love the idea that different cities take different approaches to communicating information, and that this is expressed in transit signage. For example, there was a NY Times article the other day about a subway advertisement with a well-executed semicolon. In Philly, the home of unwritten rules, there isn't even a sign saying "Do not talk to driver"; everyone knows that it would be foolish to do so.

Cristi said...

thanks, ch!

i felt a bit silly summing up the whole character of a city based on some signage, but it feels intuitively true, doesn't it?

the semicolon debate has been interesting, too. good thought. here's a language log post about it:


of course, in nyc everything merits a sniffing comment from chomsky :)

Cristi said...


oohhhhhhh, THAT ch! :)

good to hear from you. how's philly?

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