By Ron Scopelliti

Give me a sign

I only recently noticed that when they changed the exit signs on Rte. 295, one of the changes was that the Rte. 44 East exit no longer says “Centredale” – it just says “North Providence.” There are a number of cultural reasons why I’m bothered by the replacement of specific place names with more vague and general labels, but the main thing that bothered me is that the change had to be pointed out to me by someone else in the car. I’d been driving by it for months without noticing.

I’m starting to think that I’ve become overwhelmed by the amount of information constantly being thrown at me. And I’m not talking about the whole social media thing. I’m talking about all the little “mini-messages” we’re presented with every day that we hardly notice, at least on a conscious level: Enter. Exit. Stop. Yield. Insert. Delete.

I’ve gotten so accustomed to these messages that I don’t even read them anymore – I just react to the shape of a sign, or the placement of a label on a door, or I instinctively know where the keys are on my computer. I doubt that I’d notice if every stop sign in town was replaced with a sign that was the same shape and color, but said “SLOP” instead of “STOP”?

Years ago, when European countries started placing restrictions on cigarette advertising, Formula One auto racing teams that were sponsored by cigarette companies started coming up with ways to retain their cigarette brand’s identity, without actually having the brand name on the car. The Jordan F1 team had a snake as their mascot and Benson & Hedges cigarettes as their sponsor, so at tracks where tobacco advertising was banned, they simply changed the brand logo to read “Bitten & Hisses.” The McLaren team, which was sponsored by West cigarettes, took an even simpler approach by changing the logo to read “East.” Informal polls at the track showed that many fans didn’t notice the changes, and just assumed that logos said just what they had always said.

With this in mind, I’ve spent the past couple of days being especially vigilant and critical about reading signs and labels that I tend to ignore. For someone with a background as an editor, that’s a dangerous thing, because it’s easy to get hypercritical.

For instance, I noticed that one of the signs identifying the aisles in Target has labels for “Cereal” and “Hot Cereal.” I couldn’t help thinking “Wouldn’t just ‘Cereal’ suffice?” Then maybe they could list one of the other, currently unlisted articles in the aisle, like Pop Tarts. How can they not show any love for Pop Tarts?

And then there’s my shampoo bottle, which instructs me to “Lather. Rinse. Repeat.” In a way, it’s a brilliant piece of writing – concise and to the point. It’s a three-act play in three words. But the problem is, it’s an endless cycle – it never tells you when to stop. If you took the instructions literally you’d be in your shower turning into a prune until your shampoo bottle runs dry. I know that nobody’s going to take it literally, but it offends my sense of logic. Would it have killed the shampoo company to spend a little more on ink and say “repeat if necessary”?

By the same token, the aforementioned stop sign really doesn’t say everything it needs to say – it simply tells you to stop. It should say: “Stop. Wait until there’s no crossing traffic, then go again.”

Or, if it reflected reality, particularly in Rhode Island, it would say, “Slow down to a crawl, make sure the intersection is clear, then stomp on the gas quickly so you won’t have to wait for that pedestrian who’s not quite at the crosswalk yet.”

If it’s a four way stop sign, it would say, “Stop. Inch forward. Jam on your brakes when that other car inches forward. Wait until he jams on his brakes. Repeat in a clockwise pattern for each car at the intersection until someone decides they have the right-of-way, then gasses it, flipping off the other drivers as he or she leaves them behind. Upon arriving home, vent about it on FaceBook.”

There are some signs and labels that don’t need to be more specific – they just don’t need to be. If it weren’t for lawyers and insurance companies, we wouldn’t need fine-print labels to warn us that the hot coffee we just ordered may be hot, or that the almond butter we just bought may contain nuts. And drug companies wouldn’t have to warn us to not take Otezla if we’re allergic to Otezla.

My favorite label that doesn’t need to exist is the one that told me in two words just what I needed to know about my newly-purchased ice cube tray: “Freezer Safe.”