Saturday, November 2, 2013

"Be Safe!"

I'm easily annoyed at words that stick together in catchy appellations, and even more annoyed when those phrases start appearing on advertisements, signage, train platforms, yogurt lids...etc.

"Be Safe!" is the latest verbiage on my shit list (as in, shit you shouldn't say).

But why, Byrd?  It's so friendly! It's so concerned!  Well, my number one reason for disliking "Be Safe!" is its feigned attitude of friendliness and concern.  It's not actually friendly, nor is it actually concerned about your welfare.  It's become one of those things that people say when parting, whenever anyone has to drive a distance, is about to go on a trip, is about to do something fun, or is just about to step into the street in front of a bus.  "Be Safe!" comes out of people's mouths as often as "Have a good one!"  But "Have a good one!" is actually something you wouldn't say unless you were feeling genuinely friendly. It's so colloquial, its use implies not a familiarity but maybe a desire for familiarity, or at least it implies the satisfaction of having momentarily shared a social space with someone. "Be Safe!" on the other hand, carries no actual care or concern with it. It's something people say because they think it is the cultural expectation now.  Where the hell did that come from?

I know the forms of "Goodbye" mentioned above are different from "Be Safe!" because they are simply versions of parting words. "Be safe!", at first, replaced only phrases like "Drive Safely!" and "Be careful tonight!"  But those are situation specific.  "Be Safe!", on the other hand, has even started to replace the usual parting words for some people.  It's too specific to do that.

Not every parting occurs under potentially dangerous conditions. Unless you habitually part in dark alleys.  Or, unless you are a super-hero who is continually rescuing curb-side-stepping idiots from certain bus-whompings. Or, unless you are a cop who talks to people in the mean city streets on Saturday nights. There is a narrow set of circumstances where "Be Safe!" makes perfect sense.  But no, you, regular everyday civilian folk, don't have any goddamn reason to suspect the person from whom you are removing yourself is in any more danger now that you're gone than they were when you were right there with them.  That's a pretty stupid thing to think, non-super-person.

Second, that phrase is too damn up in my business. I can't stand that "Be Safe!"  is so much of a command.  It's in the imperative mood, like so many partings; but it assumes so much authority!  Even "Have a good one!" is giving someone an imperative.  But having "a good one" is so metaphorical and vague, you can have a good one of anything and still satisfy your friend's or acquaintance's culturally imperative parting imperative. I ate a croissant. Done!  Or, I hugged a towel fresh from the dryer. Done!  Having a good one is easy, and it makes me glad that other folks might wish me to have one, in any of its forms.  But whether I do safe things after talking with you is none of your damn business.  While I might not be in immediate danger after leaving a Be-Safer's presence, I certainly feel the pressure of this imperative, because it is delivered with such ownership. It's like the bestower of the imperative is a grand master of safety, and you, on the other hand, are a stumbling, bumbling, drunken, ne'er-do-well whom they have every right to expect will get into trouble tonight. Me? Be safe? YOU be safe. Boring safe person.

I've said much about the individual's usage of "Be Safe!", but this last gripe applies to both Be-Safers and "Be Safe!" signage.  I simply can't stand the pragmatics of that phrase. Telling someone, imperatively, to be safe, is just not sensible. While it may be too specific for a generic parting, it's not specific enough for signage or for an actual safety concern. Without more direction, your signs and well-wishes are meaningless.  What exactly do you want me to do to accomplish safety? And, more importantly, do I ever really have any control over whether I am safe? 

I can take measures.  I can chew food completely before swallowing.  I can tie my shoes mightily tight to avoid tripping on laces.  I can avoid dark alleys, rabid-looking animals, diving pools, dive bars.  But even in this relatively safe bubble I may create by avoiding the joys of sticky bar stools and rabies shots, "Be[ing] Safe!" is not under my control.  There are highwaymen. There are asteroids. There are papers that cut. You, Be-Safer, and your "Be Safe!" signs, are telling me to do something quite humanly impossible. What the hell do you expect? 

This evening as I walked up to the train platform at 57th Street, after traipsing through the famously sketchy U Chicago neighborhood, there it was.  A blinking sign announced the next arrival time, and then it flashed: "BE SAFE!...BE SAFE!...BE SAFE!"  I donned my ear muffs, toed right up to the yellow bumpy edge of the sunken tracks, and let the wind push me a little as a freight train screamed by with its 3000 tons of petroleum tankers.  I imagined them flying off the tracks and exploding against the side of the platform.  I felt as safe as I could be.


  1. I have this feeling about, "Thanks for stopping by", which feels like another way of saying, "Don't let the door hit you on the way out." Very insincere and false in the "thanks". You say that type of thing if you are talking to a customer who made you run all over the store looking for something only to decide they didn't want it after all. "Thanks for stopping by and wasting my time." However, while I agree that "be safe" is being used in the way you mention, it sort of became a ritual verse from me to my husband around this time last year.
    We were impacted by Hurricane Sandy, living at my brother in law's house because he had power and 30 seconds of hot water for a shower. There was NO gas to be had because people were hoarding it and the roads were a mess for a while. So, I began using vacation time I had left over at work in order to let Jason (my husband) use what little gas I had left in his car to get to work in the Bronx. Unfortunately, everyone seemed to be affected by the storm by being assholes while driving (because that conserves gas) so I was actually concerned for his safety. So basically, as he left early for work each morning, I would mumbler, "I love you, be safe." Not sure why that slipped out but it did. A year later, I still mumble it when he kisses me goodbye. :P

  2. I like that example of "be safe." The way you describe it, it's almost like a spell you are casting over your husband when he leaves the house. It's a beautiful sort of ritual when coupled with a kiss. Instead of commanding him to somehow be safe of his own volition, it's your command to the universe to let him be, to sustain him in safety.

    It makes me want to combine the words into one of those archaic verbs like "becalmed." She quoth "BE SAFE!" and he was besafed.

  3. Thank you! I just wanted to offer a personal example of how the phrase can be used. As always, I love your perspective.

  4. Nice!! I like the way u write.Keep up the good work


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.