I flew back to the U.S. from Brussels for a too-short trip right after Christmas. It's always interesting to me what I notice—for better or worse—about the differences between Europe and the United States. Shopping in the post-Christmas sale season, I was struck by just how friendly and helpful salespeople are here. The consistent “can I help you?” and “thanks for stopping by” as I left a too-picked-over store reminded me of Americans' natural friendliness as well as the customer-service ethic that I seldom see overseas.
Yet I was also quickly reminded of one of the worst aspects of our country, and of a trend that I think threatens our long-term economic prospects as well as overall quality of life.
I stopped for a cup of coffee at a little shop connected to a grocery store near where my parents live in Virginia. It was nothing fancy, but featured comfortable couches and chairs, and free wi-fi so I could get a little work done while my folks looked after my kids. It was clear this grocery-store coffee shop was trying to create a welcoming ambiance. They even had a gas fire place on full steam as the center piece of the more lounge-y area. Yet there was a sign plastered directly above the fire screaming: “Caution! Do Not Sit on Hearth – Flammable Materials Can Catch on Fire!!!”
Why would such a sign possibly be necessary? This wasn't a roaring, wood burning fire, spitting sparks on a bear skin rug. There was hardly a hearth that someone could sit on. The doors to the fireplace were closed so one would have had to open them up to stick an arm into it in order to set oneself aflame.
It is almost impossible to imagine how one could harm themselves in this environment. I have no doubt the store manager knows that this sign is completely absurd, but has been told by someone from the legal department that it's necessary to shield the company from liability. And legal is probably right, which is the saddest thing of all.
Needless to say, I've never seen such a sign near any fireplace in Europe, which must have a relatively sane legal system that discourages suing people for your own clear stupidity. Much has been written about the high costs of frivolous lawsuits, but its cultural impact seems under-covered. Do our cafes really need to be marred with hideous signs warning of blindingly obvious non-dangers? How many beautiful, enjoyable activities are prevented by a legal system that rewards stupidity and greed? What are the costs and consequences of a culture that would lead citizens to believe that every potential danger will be clearly marked and neutered?
Our great country, founded on the concept of freedom and self-reliance, deserves better than this. Americans shouldn't just accept the encroachment of our legal system on civil society but should instead consider how we can reform our legal system so it has some relationship with common sense and justice.