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It’s never easy coming back from a holiday abroad but I have an added problem with returning to the UK. I wonder if you’ve noticed it too. You’ll have spent a fortnight away from mass media and in a part of a country that probably doesn’t lean too much towards the thrusting or metropolitan. You’ve probably been lying next to a pool where the only person asking you to do anything is someone inviting you to put aside your drink long enough for a cooling plunge. This is what makes arriving at a British airport such a shock: you’re suddenly forced to acknowledge that we as a nation are addicted to notices.

Let’s just discount, for a moment, the huge illuminated signs suggesting that we might want to acquire a wrist chronometer of such outstanding beauty that unborn generations will daily thank us for their inheritance. This is more about the signs that tell us to do things, not to do things, what is permitted and what’s forbidden. They coat every flat surface and demonstrate the joy the British clearly take in regulation – which, incidentally, seems to far outweigh that of any of the European neighbours we glibly stereotype as rule-bound conformists.

What’s this got to do with food, you ask? Well, I’ve realised recently that “polite notices” are a bellwether – or, perhaps more accurately, a portent; a sure sign of approaching death in a restaurant or café.

illustration of a waiter pointing to a set of notices on the wall

Last week I queued for a pot of tea in a popular outdoor dining spot not far from home. I parked the car where indicated, paid a small fee for doing so, ensured that my vehicle was locked and that valuables had been concealed, entered through the entrance, took my pot of tea from the designated counter, helped myself to sugar and complimentary tap water, and approached the till. I did all these things at the behest of laminated sheets of A4 in urgent and absurd fonts, punctuated in a way that would make an FT subeditor want to jerk out their own eyeballs with a teaspoon.

The girl at the till looked at the card I proffered as if someone had just used it to scoop up cat sick. She made no comment but pointed instead to another notice on the wall behind her: “No Card Transaxions Under £10.”

Notices are a peculiarly English thing. A good Spanish or French waiter will delight in telling you to your face that your wine selection is jejune or that your choice of tie is a criminal affront to your shirtmaker but we Brits prefer our aggression passive. We love the cloak of cod-official verbiage: “Patrons are advised that only food purchased here may be consumed on the premises.” Who talks like that?

Back in the glory days of Silicon Valley, when some bright light invented “desktop publishing”, they must have assumed they were empowering ordinary people by putting the tools of print media into their hands. How could they have anticipated that, allied with the awesome effect of the laminator to embalm their words in a convenient, wipe-clean capsule, they were also providing passive-aggressive English hospitality workers with their ultimate weapon?

It has often been said that we Brits lack a “service ethos”. I’m not sure that’s true. We don’t do servility well but we’re not as downright rude as, for example, French waiters. We have too much innate irony for the “Hi-I’m-Brad-and-I’ll-be-your-server” bonhomie that the Americans do so convincingly. In general we do pretty well but we are, it seems, easily seduced by petty authority. We are a nation of shopkeepers but also bus ticket inspectors, wheel clampers, park keepers and petty officials. Give any of us a hi-vis jacket and a bit of authority and we take to it with indecent enthusiasm.

Restaurant service, though, is intensely personal. Front-of-house staff are involved in an exchange about food and personal comfort that’s frankly, for want of a better term, “intimate”. The quality of service you receive in a restaurant correlates precisely with how well the individual serving you can meet your needs. That requires skill and conversation. If you have to tell half-a-dozen people a day that there’s a limit on card transactions, that’s half-a-dozen opportunities to have a better conversation, not a reason to make a notice so you can avoid them.

I go into a restaurant to eat and to be treated pleasantly by hospitable people. The day a member of staff is allowed to delegate any element of that interaction to a laminated piece of A4 – with or without crimes against grammar – is the day that something in a restaurant starts to die.

Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter @TimHayward

Illustration by Richard Allen

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