Sunday, December 16, 2007

This Is America, When Ordering Please Speak English

The Cheesesteak Sticker

It's been making the news rounds recently that Joey Vento who has a cheesesteak joint in Philadelphia put up a sign saying "This is America. When Ordering Please Speak English". Sure, you can look at the political issues of this, but we're here to look at words and what they mean about people.

The phrasing has been getting people's dander up, and the question is not only why but what's behind it.

The sticker has two parts, and the first one isn't really necessary. Mr. Vento could have easily phrased his sticker without it: "When Ordering Please Speak English".

Or he could have put a totally different first part to the sticker, like "Be Kind, When Ordering Please Speak English", or "Be Civil, When Ordering Please Speak English". He probably would have gotten better results, and certainly not have gotten on anyone's bad side.

Which means that the phrasing is not there to get people to speak English when ordering. The phrasing is not there to get people to comply with the idea it seems to suggest. Which means that the sticker was not put there to get people to cooperate. It was put there for a different reason.

"What Is It?"

In Storytellers we try to do what actors and directors and playwrights in the theater usually do. They look at human behavior that seems obvious and ask: "What is it? What is it really?"

A while ago, we talked about "what is it really" when people in an argument say things like: "I believe in the United States of America". We came to the conclusion that people who invoke this kind of argument care more about being right than anything else. You can't say that and be wrong. No one can tell you you're wrong when you say "I believe in the United States of America!" or "I support the troops!". And of course it has the added advantage of automatically putting the person you're speaking to on the wrong side of the argument.

But the sticker says something slightly different. "This is America. When Ordering Please Speak English". What is it? What is it really?

It seems, at least to me, that only a person who needs a lot of positive feedback from anyone, even strangers, a person who needs a lot of pats on the back, a person who needs to constantly be told how right and okay he is, would put up a sticker with that phrasing. If you don't see why, think about it about it backwards. Start off imagining a person who constantly needs positive feedback, who needs to be patted on the back by strangers. Then ask yourself, would that person not put out a sticker that says this? Would the sticker not then invoke exactly that kind of response?

The reason we do things? It's rarely the principle; it's almost always personal.


Speaking of patriotism, check out our old post about the patriotic and pro-military Donald P. Bellisario. We explored the idea that patriotism, as it is usually practiced now, has both limits and borders. Honor and truth have no limits and no borders.

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