Signs and Hints and Signals: No Bloody Swearing!

Publicans find lots of ways to signal who they want to drink in their establishments and, of course, who they don’t.

We’ve been pondering this post on and off for months — maybe even years — but the news today that Samuel Smith of Tadcaster has banned swearing across its entire pub estate brought it into sharp focus. This is surely an attempt to nudge the estate in the direction of upmarket, isn’t it? An indirect way of saying ‘no riff raff’.

These kinds of signs and signals are one of the most powerful tools a publican has when it comes to shaping their clientele. For example, we’ve been collecting these lately:

A set of written rules is in itself a signal: this is a pub run by human beings; it has quirks and character; and bad behaviour, however it is defined, will not be tolerated. But in their detail the rules are a kind of manifesto for each pub — a challenge: ‘This is who we are. If you don’t like it, please go somewhere else.’

About a decade ago, before London had a ton of overt craft beer bars, there were a handful of (literal) signs that publicans used to attract the attention of desirable (that is, relatively wealthy) customers: Illy Coffee Served Here, free Wi-Fi, This is a No Smoking Pub, Board Games Available. There’s nothing there that’s necessarily tied to any particular social class but still it made a statement about the atmosphere you could expect to find inside.

On the flipside, we sometimes interpret a prominently displayed DRUGS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED ON THESE PREMISES poster as a form of advertising: ‘Gotcha. Say no more.’ [wink] More benignly, some aspects of decor that might be off-putting to the snooty — a bucket of sand full of fag ends, SKY SPORTS SHOWN HERE — may well read as reassuringly down-to-earth to others.

The Salutation, Mangotsfield, Bristol.

Then there’s the extravagant display of national symbols. This is a complicated issue which people have no doubt written entire theses and books about. Frankly, we’re nervous even mentioning it but, in brief, displaying any flag is always a choice — what is it intended to say, and to whom? And, more to the point, what do people think it is saying?

Sometimes, even if the message being sent isn’t one that makes you feel welcome, it can still be honest, and oddly helpful. After all, no-one wants to crash a party where they’re not welcome.

12 thoughts on “Signs and Hints and Signals: No Bloody Swearing!”

  1. In the case of Sam Smiths, it’s probably just because Humphrey has been out on his travels and heard excessive swearing from what he’s been quoted as calling the ‘taproom class’, so out comes one of his regular Führerbefehle. I remember him banning swearing once before a few years ago.

  2. I’ve always found the implied snobbery of places loudly proclaiming that they don’t sell lager a bit offputting, but this is an interesting take on it. Thanks!

    If passive-aggressive notices were recognized as the British folk-art form that they are, the Station Cafe in Grindleford in the Peak District would probably be a UNESCO World Heritage site. A particular highlight is
    “WE DON’T SELL MUSHROOMS. NEVER HAVE DONE.
    SO DON’T BOTHER ASKING.”
    but it’s the cumulative effect that’s magic.

    Meanwhile, the Three Stags Heads, up the road at Wardlow Mires bypasses “passive” and goes straight for “aggressive” with a printed out A4 sheet warning
    “PLEASE DO NOT ASK FOR DRAUGHT LAGER AS A SMACK IN THE MOUTH CAN OFTEN OFFEND” pinned up by the side of the bar, facing a similar one asking
    “IF THERE’S A TOURIST SEASON, HOW COME WE CAN’T SHOOT THEM?”

    1. The Three Stags Heads is also a pub that has enforced unwritten rules – it’s the only pub I’ve ever been in where I was forced to sing.

  3. Pub I was in two weeks back had a2 sized sign on door explaining folks on pub watch banned list shouldn’t come on. The size and wording did rather indicate this was a pub where everyone on pub watch probably used to be a regular. Large signs do feel like it’s a statement to police and licensing “look we are doing all we can to solve this”

  4. As someone who quite enjoys watching football in the pub I wish more places would have a sign outside saying which games they are showing. Preferably next to a sign with what beer is on.

    In terms of flags, I think a load of St George’s can signify any number of things. But I’ve noticed some pubs decorating themselves in many different flags when major sporting events are on, which I think probably says something far more interesting – “We like sport, but we don’t want you to misunderstand that as xenophobia!”

  5. People who like to think of themselves as a bit of a character are generally just dull or rude, IME. That “We don’t do” board is a good example.

  6. There’s been a lot of tosh written about the Sam Smith’s swearing ban and I see it rather differently. It’s not about trying to take a pub “upmarket” or appeal to “relatively wealthy” customers. I see it as saying that _everyone_ in the community is welcome in the pub – as long as you respect other people. The pub is a public space, that everyone should be able to enjoy without the behaviour of others intruding on that enjoyment. So I’d say that expecting swearers not to intrude on others’ enjoyment is in the same league as welcoming dogs and children as long as they are well-behaved. Sure, a dog-lover may welcome their pint being drooled in by someone else’s labrador, and a parent may be fine with screaming kids – but you can’t rely on everyone being like that unless you’re in a “specialist” pub. In a pub that welcomes all-comers, one has to behave with respect to others.

    It’s not a question of outright offence at the language, it’s more about the effect on the vibe of the place. Tolerance of vocal swearing suggests a pub run not by the landlord but by a clique of customers. And it’s that vibe that can put off other people rather than the swearing itself. I understand how it happens – it can be tough for a landlord to kick out three people spending £100 a week in his pub. But if they’re putting off thirty people spending £15 a week – you can do the maths. The trouble is that there’s no guarantee of it, and there’s always a spell before word gets round and you have zero people in the pub. But if you don’t have that broad base of customers the pub closes as soon as one of those three regulars ends up in hospital/jail/dead. So I’d view a swearing ban as part of what you have been saying about encouraging “casual” pub goers into a pub, because swearing reinforces the cliques that create a vibe that discourages the casual pubgoer.

    I’d put swearing in the same box as sexist pumpclips, which are also acceptable within some cliques. I don’t know many people who would take so much offence that they would walk out of a pub because of a sexist pumpclip. But I know quite a lot of people who would drink up their pint of Titzout Blonde and never go back because the pub felt like it was pandering to a different crowd. These days there’s plenty of places to get decent beer, and vibe becomes a deciding factor in which pub gets the customer’s £3.30 on a regular basis. So it’s not about snobbery or moving upmarket – Humph wants his pubs to be welcoming to everyone in the community. It’s the right thing to do, as well as being good for the long term of the business.

    1. If someone is clearly upsetting other customers, shohting, acting aggressively etc, then just ask them to leave.

      Putting a hard and fast rule in place that prevents even the odd f-bomb is just ridoculous. As you say, pu s are a public space; they dont need to be a shelter from the realities of the world.

      Went to the Maltings in York for the first time last year as I’d heard it had a rep for a good beer selection. It did have a good lineup, but the pass-ag signs all over the place put me off, so we supped up and left after one

      1. @Bailey That’s kind, and I have thought about it, but I’m not sure it’s really for me. I have one good thought a quarter, and time to write it up a month later – reacting in comments suits me better.

        @David
        You’re missing the point. There will still be swearing in Sam’s pubs. There will not be a seismograph in Tadcaster hooked up to voice recognition software, monitoring every pub for violations. Any swearing that isn’t heard by the staff, won’t lead to ejection. This is about two things. Mostly it’s advertising to the casual pubgoer that a Sam’s sign means a pub isn’t too leery. Secondly it’s a bit of backup to staff in the pubs “I’m sorry mate – it’s not me, it’s the boss that’s made the rule”. But they can still be selectively deaf if appropriate. It diffuses tension if the swearer can’t blame the staff on the bar – and when people have had a few beers, that tension can rack up.

        There’s a place where consenting adults can do anything they like – it’s called the privacy of your own home.

        In public you have to respect the right of other people to have a quiet pint – you don’t have free reign to act as you please. And that stops way short of “clearly upsetting other customers” – one has a duty to avoid interfering with their quiet enjoyment. Call it the morality of the lounge bar rather than the public bar but that’s where we are these days _in pubs that welcome “allcomers”_. Too many people think that their spending £30 in a pub gives them the right to discomfort twenty people spending £10 – well that’s not so.

      2. The Maltings – I was trying to remember the name of that pub! I wrote about it back in 2011, and it doesn’t sound like it’s changed.

        I found my way to the Maltings, which might as well have had a sign saying “tickers, CAMRA members and visiting Twissups this way”. In fact, larky signage is a feature of the pub, mostly featuring what you could call Pub Landlord Humour – a combination of hearty welcome, assertive jokiness and veiled menace. (“Be warned: our CHILLI will cure your CONSTIPATION!” “We don’t serve children, so DON’T ASK FOR ONE!”) If you like that kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you’ll like.

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