Sign, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs


There was one summer when I was in college that I worked as a painter for the university. For the most part this meant repainting and patching over a bajillion thumbtack holes in dorm rooms, but occasionally we would also paint a common area like a hallway or stairwell. When that happened there was one guy on our crew who always liked to be the one to write and hang up the “Wet Paint” signs—and the rest of us would let him, because his “Wet Paint” signs were always way more successful than ours. This was probably due to the fact that our signs simply said “Wet Paint,” whereas his signs said, “Tell a man that there are billions of stars in the Universe and he will believe you without question. Tell the same man there is wet paint and he has to touch it and find out for himself. WET PAINT.” Yeah, our paint got touched a lot less with the wordier sign.

Of course, I don’t know if those longer signs really worked better just because they were long. I’d like to think that was the reason, though, because if long signs really can cause someone to stop and think then I’m going to start plastering my house with them. Or at least every part of my house that contains a teenager. (The washing machine and dishwasher are safe, obviously.) My signs will say things along the lines of, “Why would you believe, unquestioningly, that GMOs are bad for you, but will not accept the notion that milk left out on the counter overnight will go bad?”

Or better yet: “Why do you believe there is a worldwide conspiracy afoot to control the internet, but cannot understand that you can go online and check your grades at any time?” Also, “So Bigfoot and Slenderman are real, but skunks (the kind that come into the house and eat the cat food when you leave the back door open), are not?”

Who knows? Perhaps we are all just hard-wired to make things more complicated than they need to be, and like with every other emotion, teenagers are just the same as us, but more so. Or perhaps belief in the things we can’t change (the government is watching our every move) is easier to accept than belief in the things we can (if you keep smoking it will kill you.) Whatever the reason is, I wish there was a way to harness a teenager’s complete and unquestioning belief in absolute utter nonsense into a similar belief in things that are actually true. Things like, “doing your homework will improve your grades” and “the best way to find something that is lost is to get out of bed and look for it.”

Maybe, though, it’s not the message that is the problem—it’s the delivery. A wise man once said, “A lie will travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its pants on;” a more modern retelling would be, “A lie will have three different subreddits while the truth still has a myspace.” Maybe I just need to find a way give “Wet towels will mildew under your bed” the same following as “Drinking Mountain Dew Red will turn you into an alpha male.”

Of course, there is always the possibility that if I train myself to start thinking like a teenager—if I train myself to communicate only in memes, for instance—that I will then become the thing I’m trying to study, and no longer remember (or believe) whatever wisdom I originally wanted to impart. (Maybe memes are like a really slow version of The Ring: watch enough of them and you acquire the curse. Only, instead of dying, you become incredibly gullible.)

In the end I’m sure that what will actually happen is that I’ll just do it the same way my parents did when I was a teenager—and as I’m sure their parents did as well: give it time. After all, adolescence isn’t a permanent condition. And, to tell the truth, sometimes it’s kind of fun watching people touching the wet paint.

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