Baaa! Baaa! We long to behave like sheep

From The Times
August 11, 2007

Baaa! Baaa! We long to behave like sheep

The British love to be bossed around

Carol Midgley

Here is the news: nearly half of motorists cannot read a basic road map and prefer to be told where to go by sat-navs, new research revealed this week. Oh, please – tell us something we don’t know. Hearing that people would rather use robots than their own initiative is about as surprising as being told that Anthea Turner’s TV career has peaked.

Because people are becoming incapable of doing anything for themselves. If you don’t believe me go, like I just have done, on a package holiday. Then you will see how bad things have become – and I don’t just mean the holiday reps’ nylon clothing.

There we were, after a lovely week in Croatia, being driven on a 52-seater coach from our hotel to the airport, when the rep started up in the usual, singsongy way. “As we wind our way down to the airport, ladies and gentlemen, can I ask that you relax and take in your final sights of Croatia,” at which point 46 heads obediently turned sideways to look out of the window at a dual carriageway. “And could everyone double check that they have their tickets AND passports with them,” (a mass delving into handbags and moneybelts, some people clasping their documentation tightly in their palms for the rest of the journey). “I’ll be telling you more as we get nearer the airport.”

And, my goodness, did she tell us. In a voice one might reserve for the mentally impaired, she told us the flight number, the check-in desk number and that once inside the airport we “should join the back of the queue and wait to check in our suitcases” as if we were a bunch of single-celled organisms who might otherwise have demanded boarding passes from the toilet attendant. She led the way into the terminal with a pliant crocodile of leisure-suited adults following. Few thought to glance up at the departure board themselves. Why bother? This is what we pay for. To clock off, regress and follow orders, which I am increasingly convinced is our favourite pastime.

There is a school of thought which says that people resent being told what to do. Don’t smoke, don’t eat too much salt, no right turn, keep your dog on a lead, correct change only, hold the handrail, don’t eat a sandwich while driving your car – it is absolutely true that one can spend an entire day feeling scolded. Alight from a train and the driver’s voice is nagging over the loudspeakers: “Remember to take all personal belongings with you.” My car chides me – a nagging, irritating alarm – if I don’t fasten my seatbelt the second that I have switched on the engine. And, as Ellen DeGeneres once said, do we really still need directions and a help number on a shampoo bottle?

The number of instructional signs on our streets has also mushroomed in recent years. Low Street in South Milford, North Yorkshire, was recently named as having the most cluttered road in rural England with 45 signs within half a mile warning drivers of speed restrictions, low bridges, sharp bends. Local councils are coming under pressure to scrap pointless and confusing signage because, goes the theory, rather than guiding drivers the signs distract and annoy them.

I disagree. We enjoy the abnegation of responsibility that comes with a terse command. Why do you think Nike’s imperative “Just Do It” is one of the most successful advertising slogans of modern times? As Hans Monderman, a Dutch traffic expert who is conducting a European study into the efficacy of signs, says: “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.” It feels better to blame a sat-nav than your own woeful mapreading skills when you end up in Kidderminster having intended to go to Cardiff.

We turn to help manuals to tell us how to perform the most basic human tasks: how to parent our children, what food to put in our mouths, how to have sex with our own husbands. We find it a relief to live within rules and would rather that an “expert” guided us through the obvious with charts, checklists and bullet points because we are losing confidence in our natural instinct.

On one day in Croatia we took a boat trip to Venice. The boat’s tour guide spent much of the two-hour voyage grimly warning us that Venice was “very expensive and very hot”. But help was at hand. He could sell us tickets for a delightful restaurant he knew that would get us lunch (without drinks) for only €18. Luckily he could also sell us bottles of water to save us from dehydration. Like infants on a school trip, people immediately formed a lengthy queue for 40 minutes to buy these items, the idea of successfully locating a restaurant or indeed a drink of water for themselves in Venice evidently too complex.

If you needed a prototype of how willingly, given half a chance, people will turn into sheep then you could find no finer specimen than the Brit abroad – a breed that, as they say up North, increasingly could not find its own backside with both hands.

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