Intercultural adventures: Reading road signs in the U.K. and the U.S.

How do the British and U.S. cultures differ? Read the road signs and you can learn a lot.

Ice Badger called my attention to the issue in a comment about calling cats. I admit, the link between the two topics isn’t obvious, but it made sense at the time. So fasten your seatbelt, please, because we’re going to investigate road signs and I hate driving while someone’s bouncing around loose in the back seat.

A few weeks ago, Wild Thing and I drove past a temporary road closure sign on the slip road onto the motorway. I’ll translate that: The sign was about repairs and it was beside the freeway entrance.

Wild Thing was driving, so she asked, “What did it say?”

Damn near relevant photo, from Wikimedia. An American road sign--apparently part of a Highway Department test of dangerous signs. The speed limit isn't really 625 mph, it's 62.5.   Why would anyone bother with .5 mph in a speed limit? Never mind. Someone had fun with it, I hope.) And the edge of the sign went through the windshield in a test crash.

Damn near relevant photo, from Wikimedia. An American road sign–apparently part of a Highway Department test of dangerous signs. The edge of the sign went through the windshield in a test crash. And the speed limit isn’t really 625 mph, it’s 62.5. Why would anyone bother with .5 mph in a speed limit? Don’t ask.

Signs announcing repairs are so wordy here that we’ve stopped trying to read them while we’re driving. They say things like, “We’re terribly sorry to announce that this road will be closed between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the fifth day of March in the year of our lord 2016 for repairs. We regret the inconvenience but the work is necessary for the smooth functioning of the United Kingdom’s infrastructure.”

I exaggerate only slightly. The repair work is done county by county, so they wouldn’t say “United Kingdom,” they’d name the county. But the fine points don’t matter. If you’re going to write a 500-word essay on a movable sign, you have to use small print, and that in turn means that drivers can’t begin to read it until they’re on top of it. And then they’re past it and they’ve only gotten as far as “terribly.”

When I’m the passenger (which isn’t often; I tend to get carsick and do better when I drive), I try to pick dates or times out of a sea of letters. If I see “p.m.” after the first number, it’s overnight construction and I can toss the road closure into the mental drawer marked “Stuff I don’t need to know” unless we’re planning some late-night driving. If I can’t pick out p.m, I have to shove it into the drawer labeled “Things I don’t know much about but that worry me.” In an odd way that’s good, since it’s overstuffed and this particular worry won’t get much individual attention.

On the other hand, if the road’s going to be closed for days at a stretch, I might actually need to know that and I won’t. So it’s worth a bit of worry. Maybe I’ll lay it neatly on the top layer.

To all of that, the Highway Department (which isn’t called that, I’m sure—I’m importing an American term) says, “Tough.”

Or “We’re terribly sorry, but this is the way we do things here.”

What would an American sign say in a similar situation? “Road Closed, March 5, 7 a.m. – 4 p.m.” Or something along those lines. In large print.

It all goes to reinforce national stereotypes, I’m afraid: Americans are blunt and to the point. Or rude, if you like. Road closed. No apologies and no explanations. The British say about themselves that if someone stands on their foot, they’ll–the person whose foot is being stood on–will apologize, so their signs first apologize and then throw in a bunch of extra words to soften the blow.

66 thoughts on “Intercultural adventures: Reading road signs in the U.K. and the U.S.

  1. Ah yes … road signs. Well I do like something good to read while I’m driving. The plots are a bit thin. I mean … STOP.
    That’s a very abrupt ending, but quite punchy. I quite like ROAD CLOSED (don’t even go there!). I hate advisory road signs. One near us reads 20 IS PLENTY. Someone wrote underneath … yeah, but 50 is nifty.
    All the best. Kris

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ah, the plots of road signs. So disappointing. Especially after you’ve pulled over to read them.

      I like the wiseacre who’s been improving the road signs near you. In a neighboring village, the plot of land of what had once been the public toilet (with the building still on it) was put up for rent and when that didn’t work was later sold. The first sign said, as For Rent signs do here, “To Let.” Some wiseacre added an I so it read “ToiLet.”

      Which may help explain why it remained unrented.


  2. In Connecticut, the first sign that goes up is a legal explanation that explains the State’s limited liability for damage while you are traveling over a road that is technically unfit for travel due to construction.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The signs on the underground are novellas. At least then you are walking and can read them. I think efficiency is favorable over manners when it comes to road signs. I will accept some abrupt rudeness if it means I stand a chance of comprehending the message.

    The road sign that always amused me most was one on the side of Loch Lomond reminding drivers to drive in the left. If you’ve made it that far from Glasgow airport in your rental car and are still in one piece then I think it’s safe to say you’ve figured that out before that juncture.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Maybe I’ll lay it neatly on the top layer.”

    Is that an American tendency or a British tendency? :)

    I admit I prefer bluntness – I am just horrible at reading subtext, reading between the lines, reading body language, etc. In other words, everything that the average female is supposed to be proficient in. Especially at work!

    A few years ago, I had the following exchange with a soft-spoken male manager:

    Him: What do you think about X procedure?

    Me: I’m not going to do that because Y.

    Him: Well but do you want to talk about X? What do you think about it?

    Me: Well, like i mentioned, I don’t think it makes sense here because Y.

    Him: Well, I think the partner might be expecting to see X.

    Me: No problem – I’ll talk to him and explain Y to him.

    The poor guy actually had to work with me a LOT and looking back I feel bad for him. He couldn’t bring himself to just say, “Do X. That’s an order” or the equivalent. If he had, I would have just done it. But because the conversation seemed geared around what I thought, I just did what I thought and didn’t think anything of it.

    I should probably work on that tendency before visiting England. So thank you for the education!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yeah, subtlety usually leaves me wondering what happened too. In Minnesota, Wild Thing sometimes had to translate for me when people were being indirect. On the other hand, if your colleague couldn’t bring himself to say “just do it” and it actually mattered that X not get done, maybe it was for the best.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I work in a job that with very few exceptions, professional judgment (as long as it’s documented properly!) remains supreme. In that case X wouldn’t have hurt anything, but it would have cost us time we didn’t need to spend.

        The guy was a sweetheart but he just could not be direct to save his life!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Athena, I think it is both, depending on where you live. If you are a direct communicator and live among direct communicators, there are certain places that will drive you crazy.

        I came from a family of indirect communicators while living in Pennsylvania, so I can function in either environment. Ellen is right about Minnesota, and I am sure she has more to say about “Minnesota nice”. There is a lot of that in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago too, which leaves you reading between the lines a lot when you just want people to say what they are thinking directly.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! This is me! When I was running a dog rescue organisation, I would say to a volunteer, “Can you do x?” and if they said, “Well, the problem is y” and I’d then solve the problem … and I could never figure out why they then went off and complained that it was “impossible to say no” to me. No one here EVER says no!

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Then there’s the directional signage . . . Several years ago, my husband and I spent a wonderful week or so touring Cornwall. I truly don’t know which of us had the more difficult task–him, doing all the driving, trying to find the proper gear with his left hand when entering and exiting roundabouts, or me–trying to read the listed names of towns as we flashed past the signs in the hope of finding a direct route to our destination. Needless to say, we found ourselves “detouring” quite often, resulting in the opportunity to visit sites and areas not on our intended itinerary. But I’m guessing this could be a topic for a whole ‘nuther discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m wondering whatever happened to the Traffic Cones Helpline – when we could report rows of cones blocking the roads BUT NO WORK HAPPENING!

    And I believe it’s the Highways Agency but could just as well be sponsored by some multinational company by now :-(

    Liked by 2 people

  7. It absolutely fascinates me that you consider Americans “blunt and to the point”. Maybe that’s true over on the East Coast … but here in the Pacific Northwest? Oh dear … hmmm … I think perhaps it may be a little different. (Note: Everything in the preceding sentence after “Oh dear” is Pacific Northwestese for “Oh hell no”. And it’s pronounced in a lilting smiley voice, so I should probably insert lots of smiley faces. Only stuff it, I won’t, because I’m from Johannesburg.)

    Thoughts on culture shock: I had lived here two years before it finally dawned on me that when smiling women remarked, “You’re very direct, aren’t you?” they weren’t actually complimenting me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Y’know what? You’re right about a large part of the country. I’m from New York, and I am blunt. Or tactless. Take your pick. It would take me longer than two years to figure out that those smiling women weren’t complimenting me. More like twenty. In Minnesota, though? God, did I ever not fit in. The phrase people use there is Minnesota nice, which is basically a refusal to say anything directly. Garrison Keillor had a riff about someone working on a car’s gas tank with a welding torch and the correct Minnesota response being something like, “Y’know, most fellas wouldn’t want to do that.” Because Wild Thing’s a southerner, she grew up with that kind of indirectness and occasionally would translate for me.

      So apparently the British stereotype of Americans has merged with my own background and colonized my mind, shoving aside the contradictory reality. Thanks for calling me back to earth.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Here in Indiana the roads are never done, the roads are always closed, and with any luck there are corresponding DETOUR signs that lead us out of it properly.
    No one apologizes. Everyone complains. Best we can do is warn the others. “Post Road is one lane from at least 30th to 16th. It took me 25 minutes to get through.”
    “Orange Barrels” is a popular song here.
    Oh, but once the pavement is laid…soooo niiiiice!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Ellen, I totally enjoyed reading your post. You’re right you really can get an impression of the culture just by reading those road signs. In Switzerland they are extremely short, almost to the extent to not give any more information than “Roadwork” :) Have a nice day!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. The ones that crack me up out here are the “Your Tax Dollars at Work” signs. (Not part of the construction or repair warnings.) I suspect that some politician thought it would be a great idea to brag about what he’s doing for us, yet I tend to cuss the guy for holding me up or for how slow the work is going. It doesn’t seem to provide the warm, fuzzy feelings he may have intended.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not a great strategy, I agree. I’m not anti-tax–I don’t like paying them anymore than anyone else does, but I do consider them a necessary evil–but even so, the phrase your tax dollars isn’t calculated to put anyone in the best possible mood.


    • No promises. I thought about going sign-hunting for this post but good sense got the better of me. The signs tend to be set up where someone’s likely to plow into you if you pull over to take a picture. So I took the coward’s way out and used the closest thing I could find on the internet, which turned out to be from the U.S. All told, living through it seemed like a better idea than getting the perfect picture.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. UK road signs to national standards are generally pretty good – the signage standards were devised in the late 1950s/early 1960s and they’ve stood the test of time. The lists of place names on some signs are a result of the complicated road networks in the UK, not the signage standards themselves – the roads were there long before the cars, so no one designed the network with cars in mind, least of all in rural areas like Cornwall. Ditto city street layouts. I think the road repair signs are often are because local authorities are often responsible for them and nobody’s yet thought to devise a sensible national standard for how they should look and what they should say. So the job of putting them together is probably given to the most junior engineer in the county/city highways department, who of course knows diddly squat (very little) about how to lay out signage for maximum comprehension by vehicle users. It drives me mad too!! (And I’m British)


    • I know what that’s like. When my partner and I started driving in the U.K., one of the passenger’s jobs was to yell “Yield!” whenever she saw those broken lines across the road, because we were used to looking for a sign beside the road.


  12. Pingback: British stereotypes of Americans–and my own | Notes from the U.K.

    • Yeah, someone else suggested that, and I did want to. The problem is the road closure signs hang out in places where I’d stand a good chance of being road kill if I stopped to take a picture, so I took the coward’s / smart person’s way out and grabbed the only road closure sign I could find on the internet–which happened to be a test sign from the U.S.


  13. The 62.5 MPH sign may have been near, either the northern, Canadian border, or the southern, Mexican border, where speed limits are in Kilometres/Hour. It equals the standard metric 100 KmH. Great article! :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • 62.5 mph? Damn, that’s specific. It reminds me of a comment I saw in the newspaper, ages ago. A judge was marveling at the way drivers defended themselves against speeding tickets: “I was only driving 27 miles an hour, your honor.” And who, he asked, actually knows that when they’re driving?


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