The Spectator
founded 2004 by ron cruger
A place for intelligent writers
A place for intelligent readers
2017 Spectator Ron - The Spectator All Rights Reserved
Your comments about this column are welcome ~ e-mail Jon at
 by Jon Burras
What's in a Signature?
      Hundreds of times a year we are asked or required to sign a document. This document might be a marriage license, rental agreement, sports contract, business check, software upgrade or credit card purchase. We affix our John Hancock from the smallest of items like a movie rental to some of our largest purchases (like a new home). You are not allowed to be admitted or discharged from a hospital without a signature.
      When most people sign their name they are oblivious to what they are doing. They quickly place their signature on a document because they are in a hurry to get their prize or walk away with their stuff. The act of signing and agreeing to what is on a document never crosses their mind and they perform this unconscious act perhaps several times a day.
      What does it mean to sign your name to a document? In order to understand this question we must first go back in history. Over the course of human history deals have been struck, truces and war treaties have been negotiated, brides have been given away to prospective grooms and livestock has been traded. All deals come with some sort of promise or oath.
      The pre-modern era used the handshake to seal a deal. This act was referred to as a "gentleman's agreement." A man would look another man in the eye and shake his hand while agreeing to whatever he was agreeing to. This handshake deal was as good as gold. A handshake deal meant that you were promising to fulfill your part in a transaction. You were not just representing yourself but your tribe, village or country. A handshake meant that you put your honor and your family's honor on the line to complete the deal. There was no backing out or false promise.
     The handshake deal was soon replaced by the signed document. From the Magna Carta to the United States Constitution, most major documents were all signed letters of intent. On September 17, 1787 there were 39 delegates representing twelve colonial states that signed the Constitution of the United States. These signatures denoted that the members of each state would uphold these laws of the land. While one person might place his signature on a document it was representative of a whole group of people, both present and in the future.
        The handshake was considered informal because nothing was written down and oral promises did not carry much weight in a court of law. Written signatures would hold up better in court rather than oral promises. The signature was a mutually agreed upon social behavior that most assumed would help society to operate much more efficiently. In order for this process to work most had to agree that the signature was a symbolic gesture for a promise. Without this universal societal agreement the signature itself would have little importance.
        In many modern day tribal villages the handshake deal is still in place. A man's word is his word and stands for his honor and the honor of his family. When you shake another man's hand and say "I give you my word" you are cementing a contract in place. Breaking this honorable exchange would be disastrous not just for you but for your entire family. Where family honor and respect is important there is nothing more feared than dishonoring a handshake deal. Many native American tribes within the Untied States feel the same way. They would rather look you in the eye and put their honor on the line than sign a document.
        When you apply your signature to a document you are taking an oath or a pledge to uphold a certain agreement, not just for you but for others whom you might represent. This agreement does not just end when the ink fades but only when both parties decide to come back together to renegotiate the deal. If one party decides to dishonor the contract then it means that their honor was never forthcoming to begin with. The art of signing a document is just a modern version of a deeply rooted ancestral custom of making agreements, trading and finding solutions. We still engage in this tribal concept yet most of us have moved on to a more modern version of it.
        Family and tribal honor seem to have been lost somewhere down the road. We affix our signature to various documents and we do not realize that we are making a promise. We scribble our signature one after another and are oblivious to the promises that we are making. We lose sight of the fact that we are displaying our family's honor when we sign a document. The family respect and image hangs in balance when we sign documents.
        There is power in a signature. We have witnessed historic events, like at the end of World War II in the Pacific. The leaders of Japan and the United States gathered on the deck of the great battleship Missouri to have an end of the war signing of the treaty. Nuclear anti-proliferation treaties have been signed in historic ceremonies. Purchasing a house requires many signatures before you can take over the property. Signing a birth certificate for your newborn is an historic moment in your life.
        Unfortunately, the signature has lost much of its power. More and more people are disrespecting the signature and the promise behind it. For example, as an analogy we have placed the mail box as a sacred sanctuary where you deposit mail and mail alone. What might happen if the sacredness of the mailbox began to fail and people started dumping trash and empty soda cans in the mail box. The mail box would lose its primary magical purpose and be tarnished and disrespected. You might not want to put mail inside while not knowing what also might be in there.
        The signature has begun to take on this decline in it magical purpose. We have seen on many occasions how an elected official completely disregards the promise attached to a signature. A President of the United States takes an oath of office to willfully defend the Constitution and enforce all the laws of the land. Once he is established in office he begins to decide which laws he wishes to obey and which laws he wants to ignore. He begins to dismantle international treaties signed by former presidents. He completely ignores the promise that the former president made and throws honor to the wind like a maid beating the dust out of a pillow.
        Countries around the world sign documents and then fail to uphold them. Most countries have signed documents swearing to adhere to international laws and courts but when a decision goes against them they completely ignore these regulations as if the signing of international laws never really happened. Nuclear treaties, trade treaties, immigration, fishing rights, global warming pacts and many more international documents have been ignored by many different countries. The United Nations has very little power because of the decline of honor and the decline of the promise of the signature. Most countries do not want a ruling to go against them so they pretend that a promise never really existed.
        The United States government broke over 500 signed treaties it had made with the Native Americans. Countries around the world break treaties every day about development of nuclear weapons, illegal killing of whales and dolphins, drug trafficking and many other topics. Disrespect for honor is not just limited to the shores of the United States but seems to be widespread through our the world.
        Back in the Unites States this lack of respect for the signature keeps on growing and growing. We have seen frequently that a sports figure feels that he is not being paid enough money so he begins to boycott team activities. This is in spite of the fact that he had already signed a contract months or years earlier agreeing to his salary. He breaks his promise. Sports leagues themselves are notorious for dishonoring the signature and oath by striking and making demands on owners. Sports union officials signed contracts agreeing to playing conditions and salary for players. Yet, some years later those same union officials dishonor the signature and moral code and break that oath. The same holds true of the college letter of intent. Star high school athletes are asked to sign a letter of intent while in high school about where they wish to go on to play their college sport. While this signature and letter of intent used to be sacred you cannot say that anymore. There are more and more athletes who choose to break this letter of intent and after months of signing it they change their mind and negate their promise. Their signature meant nothing.
        A signature is not just a bunch of letters fused together by ink and paper. A signature is an identity and a personality. Those who analyze signatures can tell if you are tight and in control in your life or if you are artsy and creative. All of this shows up in how you write your name. Do you cross your t's and dot your i's or are you lazy and quickly scribble your name? Is your signature legible or something that looks like Egyptian hieroglyphics?
        Besides the actual written letter a signature is symbolic of how trustworthy you might be. The signature is about your honor and your coat of arms, your family's integrity in the world and how well respected you are. A signature is like a credit monitoring bureau where your entire honor code is put on the line about how strong your promise is. A signature can tell you more about you then sitting in a therapist's office for months on end. A signature tells an entire story about who you are and how you see the world. You are not just representing yourself but your entire tribe, whether that is your family or your country.
        The signature can add value to an object. An author's book that is personally signed by the author himself will create more value if the book is sold later on. The implication is that the author actually touched this book and it was not just something that rolled off the press in bulk form. Memorabilia like sports equipment and baseball cards will have their values greatly increased if there is documentation that the celebrity owner of the object actually signed the piece. A signature of a movie star is a memento of a moment of contact with that person. A signed autograph from a celebrity means that you have been able to have a personal relationship with that celebrity, whether the autographed picture was sent in the mail by the head of the fan club or you happened to bump into the celebrity in a restaurant.
        What if your first grade teacher imparted in you the value of a signature and you just did not learn how to get all of the letters correct but you also learned to sign your name with dignity and knew that you were making a promise not just for you but for the honor of your entire family, team, country or tribe. It seems that at an early age we are not quite prepared for what it means to have our own personal signature, much like a fingerprint, unique to all of us. If we had a conscious choice of sharing our personality rather than just worrying about getting it right, would we have a different signature? If we knew that a signature would later mean that each and every day we would be making promises that affected our integrity, would we be much more careful about what our signature looked like? While the first grade teacher might show a child how to sign his name the teacher does not necessarily teach the importance of a signature. The act of signing might be only one percent of the total process; the other ninety-nine percent is the oath or promise associated with the signature.
       Could it be that the faith in the promise of the signature declined at the same rate as the moral fiber of our culture. Children have stopped honoring their elders by addressing them as "Ma'am" or "Sir." Music is filled with racist slurs, disrespect for women and authority and sexualized themes. There are more fatherless kids who do not have a strong role model to follow. Television and movies are filled with violence, sarcasm, disrespect and sexualization. Is it any wonder that children growing up have lost the sense of honor and faith. The signature is just a part of that evolution. 
         To "rubber stamp" a situation means to approve of something without giving it its proper weight or consideration. That is exactly what we are doing. We sign many documents without ever knowing what we are signing. We are rubber stamping our lives over and over again. We have more technological means of signing documents from printed forms to electronic signing software. In fact, does pushing a button on the computer really mean that you are signing a document? How much promise or oath is involved in an electronic signature? Are we not moving farther and farther away from the gentleman's agreement where the completion of a transaction really meant something?
        We can blame lawyers, government red tape, the technology world and a host of other sources for where we are. It seems like "legalese" has taken over and lawyers are kept busy finding more small print for us to sign our names to. When you sign these large documents and proclaim that you have "read and understand" what you are signing, are you not lying? Who actually reads and understands all of the fine print that we are ordered to affix our signature to? One must have a speed reading credential, the IQ of Albert Einstein and a law degree in order to understand what it is that you are signing. If that is not you then you are not alone. There should be few documents that hold up in court when it comes to contracts. This is because almost nobody reads and understands what it is that they are signing.
        Imagine if the framers of the United States Constitution did the same thing that many modern day signers do. Five years after the signing of the document, many would claim that they were just kidding and wanted to change the rules of the declaration. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and others were just kidding and they did not mean what they had signed. They wished to boycott and stop participating because they changed their minds years later.
        Men of this era had character. Their word (and their signature) mattered. When they made a promise they kept it. When they affixed their signature to a document they were honorable in their belief in that document. Honor and trust were important. This was an age where honor was so important that men would duel to the death if one's honor were disrespected.
        The handshake deal and the signature in today's culture have eroded to mean about the same thing-like peeing. Just get it done and move on. Do not linger and think about it; just perform your duty. It all comes down to honor. Your signature represents how honorable you treat yourself and others. The next time you write your name are you thinking about the promise that you are making or are you more interested in just getting it done without any thought of honoring that contract? What does this say about you and your own personal honor code?