Sociological License Plates
I have a strange hobby. I take pictures of license plates that I find interesting. You’d probably call them personalized license plates, but I call them sociological license plates. What’s so personal about a license plate that you want everybody to see? A specialized license plate is kind of like a tattoo on your car. In my view, people customize license plates to communicate something about themselves. In that sense, I consider such license plates to be form of impression management.
For example, consider a license plate that says ICA BABY. Can you guess why someone would have this license plate? I took a picture of that license plate when my wife was pregnant and we went for an ultrasound. This car belonged to the ultrasound technician. The license plate announces an important aspect of her identity. No doubt she is many things in life--a friend, a daughter, an American--but she chose to highlight her occupation and share it with society.
Once when I was driving through my neighborhood, I saw a car with a plate that says 2 FLIRTY. Love it! For whatever reason, she wants people to know that she is flirtatious. Apparently, being flirty is a personality trait that is salient to her, so she uses her license plate to present that part of herself. I haven’t seen the driver of this car, so I can’t personally confirm the owner is a female. However, I once showed this picture to one of my classes, and a few weeks later a student said she happened to drive alongside the 2 FLIRTY car, and indeed the owner was a female. (I assumed the owner would be female, but we can’t rely on our assumptions because they don’t always turn out to be accurate).
In one case I was able to conduct a brief interview with the owner of a car with a sociological license plate. I saw a car with the plate 2 BLSSD at a thruway rest stop while driving during a vacation. (Even on vacation, I can’t help but investigate the social world. I have a saying: “In sociology, there are no days off.”) The woman told me that the other car owned by her family has a license plate that says BLSSD. So this woman and her family want everybody to know they are blessed with their lives. This license plate reminds me of something former professional athlete Deion Sanders once said: “I’m too blessed to be stressed!”
My favorite sociological license plate is one that says SUPRMAN1. That license plate belongs to a man who doesn’t lack confidence. Rather, this man has a high opinion of himself! His giant vehicle is occasionally parked at a gym in my neighborhood. I’ve never seen him, but I sure hope he’s built like Superman. Otherwise, his license plate would be a fraudulent presentation of self! Here I feel safe in my assumption the owner is a male; otherwise it would probably read SUPRWOMN.
My last example offers great advice. During a stop at a video store, I saw a license plate that says JSTBEYOU. I love that advice, but it’s easier said than done if we keep in mind Kenneth Gergen’s book The Saturated Self. Because we play so many different roles and interact with so many people, we constantly receive feedback from people. All of this information, Gergen explains, can confuse our self-concept. As such, it’s hard to know who we really are in contemporary society. Is there such a thing as the “real you”? In any case, I appreciate the sentiment in this person’s license plate. The advice “just be you” encourages us to be authentic and not worry about what others think of us. To that I say cheers!
Well, I told you this is a strange hobby. What can I say? Some people like to hunt. Others bowl. Some like to cook. Others spend all day on Facebook. I’m a sociologist, so my hobby involves taking pictures of the social world that surrounds me.
Have you ever seen an interesting sociological license plate? If you have one, what is it and what does it say about you? If you don’t have one but had to choose a message for your license plate, what would it say and why?