Why Most Mexicans Don’t Read Signs – A Theory

While I don’t profess to be an expert on anything except neurotic ramblings on this particularly blog anyway, I did want to throw out there my theory on the troubled relationship between Mexicans and signage in general.

From my observations, I have noticed that Mexicans pay little or only cursory attention to signs of any kind, be it in a restaurant (no smoking sign), a store (closed sign) or on the highway (construction zone signs) and little by little have come to understand why, or at least to develop a theory on the subject.

My theory is this: Mexicans have become so accustomed reading misleading, incorrect or just plain wrong information, that on a sub-conscious level, they dismiss written indications outright. Signs have no authority – they carry no weight. I know because I have lived here for 20 years now and it’s happening to me.

  • On The Road Again

    Take the SCT. Secretaria de Comunicaciones y Transportes. An important-sounding name that means the (federal) Secretary of Communication and Transportation. These are the experts on communication and transportation, right? As they build and rebuild Mexico’s highways, siphoning off large portions of the budget allotted to the project for injection into personal bank accounts, they use signage to indicate to the motorist what is happening on a particular stretch of highway.

    How many times have I slowed down when seeing an orange (warning color, right?) sign that says “Workers Ahead – Slow Down” or “Construction Zone – 500 m.)” followed by more orange and red signs indicating some sort of slowdown ahead. But they mean NOTHING. There may or MAY NOT be workers ahead, the road might be fixed, the road might have a hole in it the size of the Chicxulub crater. They may be working now or they may have gone home last week and left the signs there because it wasn’t their job to remove them. Everything from Men Working to Loose Gravel to Narrow Road signs, all red or orange, are used to indicate that something, anything, is going on up ahead. No need to pay attention to what the signs actually say, because it’s probably not really true anyway. It’s kind of an ambiguous, haphazardly flashing warning light, that something is different about the next stretch of road.

    So no wonder you start to ignore the signs and play it by ear using your own judgment and relying on your own quick reflexes if indeed there is a crater awaiting you around the next bend. I mean, look carefully at the photo above (clicking on it will open it up so you can have a closer look) and notice how the sign says Retorno while the retarded (no offense to the legitimately mentally challenged) powers-that-be have decided that they no longer want people to retornar at that point, and have applied a low-tech solution to people actually using this exit in the form of… rocks. They have no ladders at the Secretaria de COMUNICACIONES to take down the sign or cover it up? Sporting a typical gray color, they blend in nicely with the highway itself. Imagine you are new to town, driving along at night and want to turn here, at the last minute you see the rocks – they are not lit up at night, being the low-tech barrier they are – you apply the brakes and come to a screeching, sweating stop.

    The tragedy is that this is the Secretaria de COMUNICACIONES y Transportes we are talking about, on federal highways. If they can’t communicate, what chance in hell do the rest of us mortals have.

  • No Smoking (Yeah Right)

    In a sushi restaurant a while ago, I watched incredulously as a client waiting for his to-go sushi order (what a loser proposition by the way, sitting in a sushi resaurant, waiting for a to-go order that you could be eating there… what, is the person at home so goddamn lazy they can’t get dressed?) lit a cigarette right at the sushi bar, directly in front of the admittedly discrete NO SMOKING sign. The waiter approached him and, while the smoking client was distracted by something else, quietly and quickly removed the No Smoking sign. This was either an extreme example of empathetic customer service, or an overwhelming desire to avoid confrontation. You decide. In either case, the sign served absolutely no purpose whatsoever.

  • No Parking – Handicapped Only (Hey My Leg Hurts so it’s OK)

    No parking areas, particularly those reserved for the handicapped are easy picking for the driver in a hurry whose needs are infinitely more important than anyone else’s and so he or she will park there, “only for a moment”. The sign or yellow paint on the curb means nothing at all to him or her.

    Now examine certain areas of the city like streets around the Gran Plaza mall or Paseo de Montejo in front of Tequila on a Saturday night and you will see hundreds of cars parked along the yellow curb, which supposedly means No Parking.

    So, what is the message? Park if you can get away with it! Again, signs have little or no authority. This all changes around Christmas, when the local police must fill their cuotas for everyone’s Christmas bonuses and fines are handed out liberally; the law is a little stricter during the month of Peace and Love.

  • Signage Overload on the Highways

    Highways have so many signs, that reading them all would literally bring you to a standstill in many areas! Leaving the City. Maximum Speed 60 kph. Hacienda Whatever. Keep our Highways Clean, Amigo Visitante (like we locals are so concerned about keeping our state spotless). No Left Turn. Glorieta Ahead. Etc. Etc.

  • It’s Closed!

    How many times have I seen people approach a store, its door closed and a CLOSED sign hanging in plain sight, rattle the door or tap on the glass and asking, with hand signals “Are you closed?” The same sign will remain hanging on the door throughout the day, when the store is actually OPEN, thereby generating confusion and the general feeling that the sign again, means nothing.

I state again that I am not a student of anthropology or human sciences or urban development even so I really don’t know what I am talking about when I speculate on what goes on in someone else’s mind, but my observations have led me to the conclusion that we Mexicans (and I include myself here) have no respect for signs in Mexico.

We do when we travel elsewhere because we know that they are there for a reason and will be enforced and are reliable sources of information.

But not in Mexico. We have been conditioned to believe that signs are meaningless, carry no authority, contain outdated or useless or untrue information and are no more than landscape-polluting visual distractions that serve no purpose whatsoever.

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