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
    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

    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.

        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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