Friday, March 20, 2009

Culture: American Feeling Language

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I had occasion to go to my local post office today. Like many post offices in urban Canada and contrary to the normal US practice of having dedicated buildings even in small towns, it wasn't a building of its own. Instead, it was a short walk away from my residence in the rear of a card shop where I found my unflappable postman smiling at the counter. I think he must work long hours six days a week, as no matter when I have visited this location, he's been there, morning and evening. I'd ask him, but except for questions about postal practices (which he can describe with great precision), he seems to find a way to duck all my questions.

The post office always reminds me of some of the differences in language usage between Canada and the United States, as the most obvious example always comes up. In Canada, there are postal codes. In the United States, there are zip codes. They serve exactly the same purpose, but the name used in Canada describes exactly what it is, whereas the name used in the United States is designed to evoke a positive emotion. A "zip" code implies that it will actually help one's letter "zip" to a destination, that it will actually get it there faster. Considering the average delivery time in Canada as compared with the United States, perhaps Canada Post ought to try renaming the code.

Taking a look around the postal section of the store, there was another good example. Canada sells "permanent" stamps that will always be good for postage, even if postal rates go up in the future. In the United States, the same kind of stamp is sold as a "forever" stamp. "Permanent" sounds very solid and reliable, but not very warm. "Forever" implies a promise or positive emotion, being more associated with romance or friendship than the post office. Clearly, the United States Postal Service has a much better marketing department than Canada Post.

The pattern goes well beyond the post office. In the realm of railroading where I often roam, one of the devices that allowed the caboose to become obsolete was the trackside detector that senses overheating wheels or dragging equipment, one of the things humans in the caboose used to do. In Canada, if the "scanner" does not find a problem, it announces on a railroad radio frequency, "no alarms." In the United States, a "detector" announces that the train has "no defects." Clearly, the mechanized device cannot possibly know if the train really has no defects at all, it just knows whether it found anything or not. "No alarms" is much more accurate, but it feels a lot better to the crew to hear that there are "no defects," so again the US practice wins out in emotion.

Oddly, the attention to emotion doesn't seem to extend to taxes. One would think that the Internal Revenue Service would use the same marketing prowess used by the post office to find a way to make people feel good about paying taxes. I haven't noticed that. In contrast, while Revenue Canada pretty much uses the same terminology as the IRS, every year it sends a letter saying "thank you for paying your taxes" and notifying of one's RRSP savings limit for the year. The IRS could try it--but then again, they might have to spend too much money on "forever" stamps.

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