Is Humorous Communication A Lost Art?

You don’t have to be a trained observer, Life-Saver, to notice that people aren’t very good readers today. Newspapers have been going broke for years, as more and more readers opt for the immediacy of the Internet over the value of just about every other source of information.

I’ve thought maybe it’s about broken trust. Fifty years ago, young reporters had a model named Walter Cronkite. (I wonder how many of today’s readers even remember that name.) Don Henley’s staccato “Dirty Laundry,” a song that came out in the ’80s, employed all the nuance of a trip-hammer to suggest his sentiments about the major-market news media:

We can do the innuendo, we can dance and sing;

When it’s said and done, we haven’t told you a thing.

We all know that crap is king;

Give us dirty laundry.

You can’t help noticing that people’s literacy is declining. Whatever it is, something has dumbed them down. I’ve talked in this column before about blogs and the fact that lots of people can’t seem to express themselves intelligently in writing. Nor can they do arithmetic. Next time you pay cash for a cup of coffee, watch your server’s eyes and listen to their words. Instead of counting out your change for you, they’re much more likely to dispense it by the handful and recite the total amount while their eyes consult their side of the digital display.

We have an old ambulance station in our nice little town. Our garage is nestled in the back of a parking lot we share with a preschool. We only use that station to store a few of our ambulances. We’ve done everything but handstands in clown suits to persuade the parents of those kids to please refrain from parking in front of the big doors with the signs that say “ambulance” on them. We’ve given them polite lectures, and they seem to grasp our linguistics.

We tried making new signs, printed in some color other than red. We designed them ourselves, thinking maybe people just get used to seeing the same old colors and the same old templates. We used a computer to do the layout and took the file to a sign-maker. We didn’t want to come across as too harsh or condescending, so we added what we thought was a little firm humor.

The signs say “NO PARKING” and “violators will be used as CPR dummies.” We installed them between each of the garage bay doors right at the eye level of a minivan driver. Each sign was 16 inches high; that seemed big enough. The text seemed big enough, too. And the message seemed clear.

We were pretty proud of ourselves. The signs looked professional. They clearly got the message across (to us), and they were fun to make. We proudly mounted them on the front of the building with a masonry drill and some Redheads.

I’m guessing it wasn’t a month before somebody brought their kid to school one day and left their shiny Beemer nosed right up to one of those bay doors. This made us cranky! We parked a vehicle behind the car, and we were there waiting when the driver casually ambled out of the building. We pointed to the sign and told him we hoped someone hadn’t needed the ambulance behind that door while he parked his car in front of it and just walked away.

At first, he seemed apologetic. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

When we pointed to the sign and asked him if he could read, he said he could. Then, it was like somebody flipped a switch. He shrugged, and we got it. “If you don’t mind,” he said, “I need to get somewhere.”

So it wasn’t about broken trust. It wasn’t just about lost literacy. It was something no sign, no matter how well designed, can fix. Any of us who has ever had their warning equipment deliberately ignored or has seen someone drive through a perfectly good safety barricade should recognize what it was about.

It was about the fact that, no matter how important your mission, there are some people who simply don’t care. We can’t fix that. And God help us, some of them are raising kids.

Maybe our next batch of signs should say, “Your license plate has been photographed, and we know who you are. If you leave your car parked in front of this freakin’ ambulance bay, we will ignore your 9-1-1 calls.”

Nah. Freakin’s unprofessional. JEMS

This article originally appeared in December 2011 JEMS as “If They Please: Nicely communicating with people who don’t care.”

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