Monday, October 29, 2012

Safety warnings (4) – Halloween masks

A convenience store posted a Halloween-related safety warning on the front door:
“For the safety of our customers and employees, please remove your masks before entering store.”
The sentence suggests that if a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a Halloween mask, he may harm customers or employees. But the sentence doesn’t say how; it is vague.

Let’s attempt a rewrite.

Our first task is to guess what the writer meant but did not say. Which of the following did he mean?

1.    If a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a mask, a customer or employee may be frightened by the mask and have a heart attack.

2.    If a trick-or-treater enters the store wearing a mask, a customer or employee may fear that the person behind the mask is really an armed robber, and the customer or employee may have a heart attack or may be injured while running or diving for cover.

3.    A customer or employee may be carrying a concealed pistol, may see the masked trick-or-treater enter the store, may think he is an armed robber, may hastily draw his pistol to shoot him, but may shoot a customer or employee standing near the “armed robber.” (Remember, the writer mentioned “the safety of our customers and employees,” not the safety of the visiting trick-or-treater.)

Those are all unlikely occurrences, but #3 is probably the least unlikely of them.

But if the writer meant something like #3, he has made a weak appeal to the trick-or-treater. Most people are more afraid to be shot than to see someone shot. Therefore the writer really meant:
“For your safety, please remove your mask before entering the store. If you wear your mask in the store, someone may think you’re a robber and shoot you.”
I suspect that the writer was unconsciously afraid to be that specific. He may have been afraid to upset hoplophobic customers. Or perhaps there are statutes that prohibit specificity (I am not a lawyer and I do not know).

There is also a question about height: certainly a six-year old trick-or-treater in a mask would not look like a potential armed robber. Was the sign intended for him, too?

And there are more questions, but we need not waste time on them. The point is made: the writer did not think at all, in the sense of conscious, rational thought. Careless writers usually snatch at the first words that come to mind (often clichés). Then, without editing or proofreading, they publish what they have written. And force their readers to guess.

The Takeaway: If you are ever responsible for writing or editing a safety warning, give it your most careful attention. Unless there are prohibitions against specificity, make your warning specific. Here’s a good example of a specific warning.

See disclaimer.

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