Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Hooptedoodle #53 - The Dreaded Small Print

This is intended to be an observation rather than a rant - I state this right at the start in case you cannot tell the difference.

I think my theme is basically the counter-productive effect of our modern dedication to Health & Safety. All the warnings printed on everyday items, all the overcomplicated messages printed on product packaging, all the safety stuff in user manuals, all those crazy garbled codas on radio adverts for financial services - all that - be aware that no-one actually cares whether you hurt yourself, or suffer financial loss, or even die. This is not to say that they wish you any harm, of course, but their main concern - you could say obsession - is to ensure you do not blame them or try to get any money out of them if something goes wrong.

I recently bought a new flat-screen TV, which came with a very thick owner manual. Being very careful to keep my back straight when I lifted the manual, I found that it was printed in 17 languages, including Arabic and Slovene. The remaining 8 pages in English started off with 5 sides of safety information, including details of how to dispose safely of the item and its packaging, a surprising amount of detail about the risks of epileptic seizure if I watched the thing, and solemn advice about not watching it underwater, or on top of a mountain in a thunderstorm. Whatever goes wrong, they have told me about it in 17 languages, so what's my problem? Sadly, the manual did not explain how to edit the tuned channels, or configure the DVD player, and was very sketchy about quite a few other practical operational matters. This is partly explained by the fact that the manual is issued with a whole range of very different models, and so can only refer in general terms to some topics. In truth, the TV is fine, once you poke around with the menus and stuff, but, basically, the manual says:

"Congratulations on buying this TV. We think it's quite a good TV - don't do anything daft with it, and further instructions on anything that isn't intuitive about the operation might have been found at the following internet URL if we hadn't moved it 2 years ago. If anything goes wrong, or you hurt yourself, don't bother getting in touch - our legal department is bigger than our technical development section."

And it says this in 17 languages. One reason why these documents have to be so multilingual was made clear to me some years ago when the previous Mme Foy recruited the services of a student to help with the housework. If there is any implication of a fantasy au pair in a short overall, forget it - this girl was not of that breed, and her main qualification for the job was that she was penniless and Mme felt sorry for her. Maria didn't understand how to use the vacuum cleaner, or how to do much else, as far as I could see. The arrangement lasted some 5 weeks, until the Great Bath Disaster. Because she had poor eyesight, and was Spanish, she had problems with printed English instructions on packages, and one morning she cleaned the bath with a cleaner which said, in small print on the package, "Caution: not suitable for enamel baths". Remarkably, she must have put an unusual amount of energy into cleaning that bath, because she turned it into a horrible, matt-finished, piebald item which had to be replaced - could not be rescued. It was about 4 years old, and it cost something like £1500 to remove it, replace it and restore the bathroom to a proper state. Neither the cleaner manufacturer nor my insurer were the slightest bit interested in sharing the financial grief, since the product package said clearly it was unsuitable for enamel baths - assuming you had very good eyesight and could read English - and that got everyone off the hook. This was about 20 years ago, and £1500 bought a lot of food and beer in those days.

I confess that in some ways I am a slow learner, but I took due note of the incident. The warnings are not there to help the customer - primarily, they are there to protect the manufacturer.

What brings it all to mind this morning is that, once again, I find that the present Comtesse Foy - bless her - has put interesting bottles of new products in the shower. Some of them may be familiar items with new packaging - I wouldn't really know, mostly, but I had better be sure to do a little label-reading to be on the safe side. It might seem astonishingly remiss - even eccentric - but I tend not to wear my spectacles in the shower - is that unusual? - I wouldn't have thought so. Whatever, it is not unknown for me to attempt to wash my hair with skin cream or bathe with something which turns out to be hair conditioner. It hasn't got any worse than that, but the scope for disaster is impressive - chilling, even. If a new green plastic squeezy bottle appears on the shower shelf, there is no immediate way that I can identify what it is unless they give me some very large print and maybe some pictures. It could be a new German shampoo containing caffeine, which is fine - Mme Foy is a tireless researcher - or it could be Mr Muscle's Extra Strong Barbecue Cleaner. I wouldn't know. Taking a shower can be a major act of trust.

Of course, it could be that the legal requirement to print all those disclaimers and warnings on the label in microscopic fonts leaves no room for pictures. There is probably even a message that says, "If you can't read this, it isn't our problem - have a nice day." 


  1. I know what you mean about instructions, I usually press a view buttons and hope for the best, then call in the kids to sort out the mess. Glasses in the shower made me chuckle!!!

  2. Great read Tony, gave me a good laugh. I'm afraid the 'Great Bath Disaster' had me chuckling too, sort of put me in mind of 'Lead Balloon' somehow!

    Btw, please bear with me as I do intend to seek your opinion/thoughts on grids, but I'm terribly slow at getting round to things thesedays. I WILL email you.

    All the best,

  3. My nephew and his wife bought a pack of cleaning wipes for the baby on holday in Turkey from chemist which turned out to be very strong sterilising pads for wiping toilet seats etc. Baby recovred OK but for a while his backside was visible some miles away on a dark night. Have to be careful - Lou