I think it’s probably fair to say that there’s a common perception among the global community that Americans are pretty direct. And that’s no bad thing. For example, I’d say that most Americans are pretty intolerant of poor service, and aren’t afraid to make their dissatisfaction known. As a sweeping generalisation, Americans aren’t known for delivering bad news with a spoonful of sugar, either. It’s the kind of directness that allows utility companies to tell you that there’s going to be a ten day wait for your gas/electricity/phone to be restored, and then remind you in the same breath that prices are rising by 25% next week.
The British are more of a nation of shrinking violets. Clearly, the natives of India wouldn’t necessarily have agreed during the years of colonial expansionism, but the British are essentially more reserved. Or “emotionally retarded,” as some more unkind American commentators would probably describe it.
As I’ve detailed in entries before, most Americans would need an ever-present translator to understand the difference between what a Brit says and what he or she actually means. “It’s fine” generally means “I hate it but I don’t want to cause a scene”. “We should do this again” translates as “It’ll be a cold night in hell before I agree to go for dinner with you again.” And “it’s a really interesting color” is roughly equivalent to “who in the love of all that is righteous and holy would have a urine yellow sofa?”
However, one area in which Britain isn’t shy and retiring is its approach to communicating issues of public safety in and around the transport system. Having taken the train to London on Monday, I was confronted outside the station by an advertising campaign to warn people of the dangers of ignoring the barriers at level crossings. Let’s just say that this thing doesn’t pull its punches. Unsurprisingly, having read an advert demonstrating the eight points on the line where they found the person who jumped a barrier, I wasn’t quite so in the mood for my morning bacon
Over the next three days, my tube journeys to and from meetings were delayed three times by “passenger action” somewhere in the London Underground system. “Passenger action” is the oft-heard euphemism for somebody jumping into the path of a fast moving train in an attempt to kill themselves.
Except transport bosses have decided that this phrase is not – excuse the pun – hard hitting enough, as they now consistently say that there are delays on the system due to “a person under a train” at a particular station. Talk about not pulling punches. At least with “passenger action” you can naively convince yourself that it’s a result of a teenager pulling the emergency cord, but with “person under a train” all you see are the flailing arms of the ‘victim’ and the horror of the helpless driver. And with three ‘jumpers’ in three days, clearly the credit crunch is taking its toll in London.
In New York, subway suicides are almost never ever mentioned, swept under the carpet like those bits of fluff and cat hair that you can’t be bothered to vacuum. In many ways it’s the public transport equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and saying “La la la la la la” when you don’t want to hear something.
Strangely though, it seems like New York probably has the right approach. With 1.5 billion users of the subway system every year, there were only 26 subway suicides last year; London has a third less commuters every year, and twice as many suicides. If you ever needed a macabre demonstration of the power of advertising, you just found it.