Seattle public transit is the linguistic gift that keeps on giving. Yesterday I took issue with their signage, but today I want to praise their clever solution to a perennial source of confusion.
You disembark from the local commuter trains either on one side or the other depending on each station’s configuration. As you approach the stop, an eerie/soothing recorded female voice gives a heads up as to which side it is. But how to do this? The whole right/left thing is always tricky because the terms are only meaningful relative to a given orientation, and it’s often unclear what part of the physical surroundings should provide it. The way the speaker is facing? The way the listener is facing? The direction in which some long pointy vehicle both speaking and listener are riding is currently headed? Different domains invent specialized jargon for this problem–“port”, “starboard”, “stage left”–and in failing that we can always fall back on a do-you-mean-my-left-or-your-left type negotiation.
Saying “port” and “starboard” on a train sounds stupid, and you can’t negotiate with a recorded voice. To make it harder, there are chairs facing both forwards and backwards on these trains. A real conundrum.
Here’s what the voice says: “Now arriving at Columbia City Station. Doors to my right.”
This is brilliant. Saying “my right”/“my left” uses the standard negotiation idiom, and the “me” in this context is the train, which is personified by the operator, who traditionally sits up front. (There is an actual human operator who sits in a little compartment at the head of the train, but this person is never seen or heard.) With a single possessive adjective the relevant orientation is established. It’s a little odd to have a clearly disembodied voice speaking as if it had a physical self, but this oddness works in Seattle Metro’s favor. It clues you in to the fact that the “my” isn’t just chit-chat, but a rhetorical strategy. Language is a system of perceptible differences harnessed for the purposes of communication. In a pinch any difference will do, even the one between what you expect a recording to say and what it actually says.