Politeness is often the veneer that disguises our most barbaric instincts—as a look to the past reminds usby Freya Johnston / June 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
“Never park here,” thunders a sign attached to the railings of one Oxford college. As such communications go, this one has plenty to recommend it—but alas its brevity is far from typical. In recent years there has been a surge in the number of English signs identifying themselves as a “Polite Notice.” These two six-letter words often herald a long message that errs in every other respect on the side of impoliteness: “Stop pissing all over the lavatory like a fucking animal,” to take one recently spotted example. That is, admittedly, an unusual instance of the genre. The majority of polite notices have to do with cars and where not to put them, rather than with toilets and how not to treat them.
“Stop pissing…” adopts a very different tone from that I remember noticing in pub conveniences in the 1970s and 80s: “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, be a sweetie and wipe the seatie.” Could that twee little poem be called a truly polite notice? Well yes, in the sense that it doesn’t unleash a torrent of expletives, nor does it assume that you’re at fault; it tries to flatter you into good behaviour rather than abuse you for your crimes or beastliness. But the chief reason for its superior politeness is that it doesn’t tell you it is being polite in the first place.