Smart Signage Aimed at All Four Tendencies–Brilliant and Fun!

I continue to be obsessed with my Four Tendencies framework — lucky for me, given that I’m writing a book on the subject! (To hear when that book goes on sale, sign up here.)

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m on the prowl for signs aimed at a particular Tendency, or that do a good job of appealing to all Four Tendencies.

Before I get to the signs, if you need a quick overview of the Four Tendencies:

In a nutshell, it distinguishes how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense–essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike


To take the online Quiz to determine your Tendency, go here.

Last week, I posted about signs that seemed aimed at a particular Tendency. So fascinating.

This week, I want to highlight two signs that, I believe, do a good job of appealing to all Four Tendencies. See if you agree.

1. Food Attracts Ants


I spotted this sign at my beloved New York Society Library, where I  go when I’m doing serious writing, or of course when I want to check out books.

This sign does a great job of appealing to all Four Tendencies.

It appeals to Upholders: here are the rules, follow them.

It appeals to Questioners: the reason for the rule “No food or drink” is that food and drink attract bugs, and indeed we have bugs, and bugs damage books, and so we need to keep food and drink out of the library.

It appeals to Obligers: because we have ants, the librarians know that people have been breaking the rules,  so stop!

It appeals to Rebels: the people using the Reading Room have bookish identities and value the library, so they’d choose to act in a way that protects the collection and acknowledges the request of respected librarians—plus, who wants to work in a place that’s crawling with ants?

2. Help Conserve Water


I found this notice in my room at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. I think it does a good job of appealing to Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Here’s what we’d like you to do; here are the facts about why we’re asking you to do it; you can lighten people’s work load and conserve valuable resources; but hey, go ahead, do whatever you want. Smart last line — and it’s even in big type!

I get such a kick out of looking for these signs. If you see any, please send them my way.

Also, have you ever seen a sign that made you so nuts, that you deliberately ignored it or did the opposite of what it was asking?

  • First Ghost

    Signs that drive me absolutely NUTS are ones that say “Thank you for ” – the implication that because they’ve ordered me to do it, I will do it. It just irritates me soooooo much!

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh, this is a great example. Can you think of a specific “thank you” sign that annoyed you? I’d love a few cases.

      • First Ghost

        I think I’ve seen ones on public transport that say “Thank you for not putting your feet on the seats”, and I see “Thank you for not smoking” a ton. Both of those are things I wouldn’t actually do! But the fact the signs *assume* I will automatically obey their order (that’s how I read it, anyway!) just incenses me and makes me want to do the opposite!

        • Natalie

          Same! Smoking is disgusting, but those “thank you for not smoking” signs make me want to take up the habit.

      • Caroline

        “thank you for leaving the restroom as clean as when you came in”, usually on a old piece of paper taped to the door.
        It drives me crazy when the room is nice and clean, and the sign is the less appealing thing there : do we really need such a sign ? Does that imply that without the sign, people would care less ?

        PS : of course, I am a questioner.
        PPS : next time, I may put on my rebel mask and remove the sign…

        • gretchenrubin

          Love it!

      • Victoria

        As you’re leaving a village, “Thank you for driving carefully through our village” – how do they know I didn’t career through at 80mph on two wheels?! And if there’s a long queue in a shop or bank, when I get to the counter and they say “thank you for waiting”, as if I really had a choice if I want to be served – I’d prefer them to say “sorry to keep you waiting” but apparently that contains a “negative” word and customer service training tells people to avoid those!

        • Deirdre

          OTOH, two people left the customer service line at Costco the other day while we were waiting. The employees felt a bit bad about it (you could tell), and when they said “thank you for waiting,” I believed they meant it. Sometimes it might mean “as opposed to cussing us out loudly as you leave, slamming the door behind you.” As a customer service person, yes this happens.

  • Marie

    I hate the sign “only access for residents” at the gate where I live… The gate isn’t locked and provide a beautiful shortcut from the park to my local library… I’m a resident but I break the rule everyday by letting everybody in … I live in Denmark and we take pride in solitary… That sign, to me, is the exact opposite… So I’m actually just doing my duty:-D

  • Renee

    I was at a seafood restaurant and there were specially designed utensils for breaking the shells of crabs and lobsters. Etched on the side was “Stolen from Joe’s Crab Shack”. It would never ever have occurred to me to snatch it till then…it’s in my kitchen drawer right now (I’m an obliger. Maybe I felt like the little sign gave me permission rather than shame).

  • Mimi Gregor

    One sign that really pisses me off (pun intended) is: “Rest room for employees only”. Oh? My money is good enough for you, but I can’t use your precious rest room? Do you think I use rest rooms frivolously, as if I’m in the middle of going through racks of clothes, then I think, “You know what would really be fun now? Peeing!” I shouldn’t have to plan excursions like a D-day invasion: don’t hydrate too much… don’t take my vitamins until I get home (some are diuretic plus must take with water)… are there any fast food places or gas stations nearby…. Since I have a small bladder, this is an issue for me. Yes, they would probably let me use it if I asked nicely, but not necessarily, and I shouldn’t have to beg to take care of a necessary bodily function.

    • gretchenrubin

      I so agree.

    • Gillian

      I agree. I hate having to search for a restroom. On a trip to Scotland a couple of years ago, we found that public washrooms are everywhere, in every hamlet, town and city. And they were always, without exception, spotlessly clean. What a difference that made to our travels!

    • Maureen Merrill

      Yes! Once, as I was paying for a skirt in a boutique, I asked to use the bathroom. I was told to go to another business across the street. I said, “OK, forget the sale, please. I don’t shop in places that don’t allow use of the restroom,” — a policy I had just made up on the spot, but one I try to follow whenever possible. The only downside was that I really did like that skirt.

      • Mimi Gregor

        Unfortunately, the places I shop which have this policy are upscale consignment shops, and I am unwilling to pay the outrageous prices that retail charges for better quality clothing. As a result, I’ve come up with tricks to put off how long it is before I feel “the urge”, and I also know the location of every public restroom in the areas I frequent (and during construction season, the location of porta-potties). I could ask to use theirs, but then we would be at an impasse if they said no.

  • Helen

    What about “Thank you for your patience….” ? Don’t assume you have my patience. I’ve just lost mine with that stupid assumption on that stupid sign. Just tell me what to do then move on. Please don’t tell me how to feel about it. It is like telling an angry person just to calm down!

    • santaclams

      Are you a Rebel? 🙂

      I’m an Obliger and it doesn’t bother me, though I agree you re telling an angry person to calm down.

  • Lin

    There is an active set of literature on the effectiveness of different types of signs on conservation efforts in hotels. Studies have found that including a social element to promoting a desire to conserve. (“Most guests staying in this room have reused their towels” has been found to be more effective in studies than “Please conserve because it’s a helpful thing to do for us and the environment.” You can find one such study here: These lessons have been applied in other areas of conservation. (See OPower for its methods to motivate electricity conservation.)

    I wonder whether these methods are effective because most people are obligers. (I believe I read this on your blog somewhere.) I’d be interested in your thoughts on how inserting social norms might affect the other types of people. (I imagine it would not resonate with rebels. Some questioners might identify a reason for this overwhelming response of hotel guests and set an internal expectation. I imagine the specificity of the statement [a majority of guests in “this room”] might actually make them more skeptical, although researchers found that in general it led to more compliance. It might create an opportunity for upholders to create a new expectation for themselves or it may appeal to an existing one that they are above average in terms of actions to protect the environment.)

    • gretchenrubin

      This research is so interesting. I think the Tendencies mean that we could do a better job of doing signage that works for even more people. Appealing to Obligers is always a good bet, because they’re the biggest category, but why not try to appeal to all four if you can?

  • Choo

    Interesting. Could you come up with posters for the classroom for kids with all these tendencies so they behave and do what the teacher says?

  • Maria Zaboronak Metz

    I see a “Thank you for …” sign as meaning “We would be grateful to you if you …”

  • Eaglerose88

    Once, a sign in the work restroom informed us not to wipe boogers on the stall walls. I was rather insulted; a sign is needed for that? Seriously?! It’s a workplace full of adults, not a daycare…
    I’m not sure which tendency I am…I think I’m an obliger, but I definitely have questioner tendencies…does that makes sense?