It occurred to me whilst we were driving up from Lyon to Sancerre that we really do rely a great deal on signs and signage in our lives. When one (like me) doesn’t have full command of a language, one has to rely on well-considered signage to receive relevant (and irrelevant) information, which might otherwise have been received aurally. The language I’m meaning could be just that – a language (in my case French), but it could also be anything new; anything that we are learning is just like a new language, so if we teach, we should also understand signs.
I’d been thinking of our stay in the hotel the previous night. Much of the signage around it prevented me from having to ask difficult (given my mastery of French) questions. The signs around the hotel and the restaurant had sufficient semiotic links to allow my full comprehension.
In the motorway service stations however, signage for the toilets were as obscure as ever with a great deal of thought being required before deciding which one to enter. It’s the same at home though, various places use toilet signage that beggar belief. How do we decipher these signs? What is it in our cultural make-up that determines the difference between one sign and another? No one ever taught me the difference between those male/female symbols (circle + arrow/cross) but I eventually worked it out and tested my theory against common practice. But that needed time – when you’re dying for a pee you have precious little time to decide whether the goat with horns or the goat without is Ladies/Gents!
I did however, work out the difference on the service station we’d stopped at for a coffee.
The two images were so similar that it took a short while to work out. The working out didn’t take too long but the checking my theory against practice took slightly longer as the door of my choice seemed to have women queuing outside. Still – full of confidence (not), I entered the loo and found a slightly shorter queue of women standing outside the cubicles, whilst the urinals stood empty. My theory had been proved by the sight of urinals but confused by the queue of women (and the small group: 2 men and one woman stood talking just inside the door).
The situation I found myself in reminded me that despite the short distance between our two countries, France and the French way of life is very different to our own: If the Ladies is closed for cleaning, then the Ladies will use the Gents – why not?