Please Touch: why using the right language matters

Lincoln Inn FieldsLooking around the Victoria and Albert museum in London I was struck by the signs on a couple of exhibits that read “Please Touch”. These were objects that visitors could best appreciate through exploration of texture and weight and not just by looking. Great for kids I thought; but the message ran far deeper than that.

By using a sign that encourages visitors to interact with their exhibits the management of the museum demonstrated an insight that is lacking in the majority of customer facing organisations in the UK (and elsewhere). It is a simple yet powerful twist on the far more common ‘do not touch’.

How many other businesses could benefit from following this philosophy? ‘No refunds, no exchanges’; ‘Do not sit on this chair’; ‘You are legally responsible for all damage’; ‘Keep out’; I could go on. All these are familiar signs that try to convey a simple message yet in doing so create an uncompromising and unfriendly perception.

Most of these signs (and the rules behind them) come from the finest brains of the legal and insurance worlds and are created without a moment’s thought to the importance of showing a little social intelligence. No doubt they tell their clients that these messages will help protect them in the case of an accident (“we did warn you that could happen and that you should be careful, it’s not our fault”); or that they will allow them to chase miscreants (“we did say that we have a zero tolerance policy on walking on the grass”).

It doesn’t have to be this way. Some places have adopted a more emotionally mature approach to their written communications. The “towels on the floor or save the earth” option is one such example – it may appear patronising but at least it offers the customer an explanation and a choice. Better still the signs that tell you what a hotel CAN do for you (‘If you have forgotten your toothbrush, razor etc. we will happily provide these for you with our compliments’). Providing such small extras is not about costs; it’s about attitude.

For those who can’t bear to be civil to their customers perhaps the best answer is to move to the other extreme and be so unpleasant to your paying customers that people actually come and frequent your establishment to find out for themselves if the legend you have built up is actually true. Few will have heard of the Grindleford Cafe in the Derbyshire Peak District but those who have been will know about the paper signs. Plastered on every wall and covered in exclamation marks they tell patrons how to stay within a very strict code of conduct and spell out the consequences of disobedience. This unfriendly appearance has won the cafe a sizeable cult following.

Grindleford Cafe

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5 Responses to “Please Touch: why using the right language matters”

  1. I also like how in many places (I think I noticed this on a East Midlands Train) where they are trying to warn about presence of CCTV camera – instead of ‘beware, you are on camera’, the signs now say ‘Please smile, you’re on camera’.

    July 29, 2011 at 1:03 pm
  2. Andy Jarosz #

    Thanks Abhijit – yes, a bit of humour never goes amiss in providing a human aspect to an otherwise sharp notice.

    July 29, 2011 at 5:40 pm
  3. Is being rude the new way to attract people?:) All kidding aside, I think it is all about the approach. People want options and they want positive messages. Negative messages like “don’t touch” kill the energy and enthusiasm so putting a positive spin on engaging others is welcomed! It’s amazing how far a positive approach can make a difference.

    With the examples you gave about “Please touch” and other signs, it just sends the message that they want you there rather than make you feel like you are intruding.

    July 29, 2011 at 8:00 pm
  4. Last week in KLM’s inflight magazine somewhere near the back i saw a small notice that said

    “Passengers are only allowed to be served one drink at a time”.

    I, along with others ordered a wine and a glass of water and the staff had no problem serving it.
    I agree that if someone is hitting the free booze hard they should be made to slow down but why put such a ridiculous sign in the magazine. One that is daft and unless they want angry passengers, one that is impossible for the staff to carry out.

    August 3, 2011 at 10:13 pm
  5. I’m reminded of the ‘meter maids’ in Taiwan. The policy there when parking, rather than paying at the beginning of your parking time, one is able to park and then walk away. The ‘meter maid’ then comes around and, rather than assessing a fine for having not paid, you get an invoice for amount owed. If the officer doesn’t come around while you’re parked, you don’t pay. If the officer returns and you’re still parked there, the officer simply replaces the original invoice with an updated one.

    Something simple yet so completely different; rather than a system based on penalty it’s just a system, one that doesn’t demonize a profession.

    August 16, 2011 at 9:25 pm