I had thought the variations on "Keep Calm and ______" had run their course. The fill-in-the-blank trend seen on t-shirts, coffee mugs, iPhone cases, onesies and mouse pads is based on a morale-boosting poster, "Keep Calm and Carry On," designed by His Majesty's Stationary Office in Great Britain at the start of World War II
I had already seen t-shirts urging me to Keep Calm and Dream On, Keep Calm and Drink Beer and even to Keep Calm and Hug a Penguin. And I had to smile after receiving the perfect luggage tag from VisitBritain: Keep Calm and Pack a Carry On.
The original poster, in clean capital letters against a royal red background, was never actually displayed during the war. But it captured the public's imagination after one appeared on the U.K. version of "Antiques Roadshow."
Its instant popularity, I think, is the recognition in the Kingdom and abroad that the slogan, with its succinct counsel not to let emotion get the upper hand, captures the essence of British sensibility. The Germans were heavy-handed with their propaganda, but the Brits, true to their nature, chose understatement.
And so, as we come back to work after the holidays and too much food, too much drink and too much political discourse with family members and friends, I have the sense we need to be wary about wariness. We are entering a peak travel-booking period, yet I found myself too often saying to family and friends, in one way or another, keep calm and keep traveling.
Shortly before I left New York for the holidays, I had the opportunity to interview John Whittingdale, the U.K. secretary of state for culture, media and sport. It's the cabinet-level position that includes travel and tourism in its portfolio.
One reason he came to visit the U.S. was to promote an initiative to define the U.K. as the "Home of Amazing Moments," in which visitors are encouraged to share the highlights of a visit on social media using the hashtag #OMGB (Oh my, Great Britain).
The day before we met, he had visited the 9/11 Memorial in lower Manhattan, and reflecting on that attack and the recent one in Paris as well as previous terror attacks in London, he offered advice that stayed true to the "keep calm" sentiment: "I don't think we should allow [recent terror attacks] to change one's behavior. That would be giving in. In Europe we haven't raised the security threat [level]. We have extremely effective security in this country and in my country to keep people safe. People should go about their normal lives."
He suggested that the case could even be made that to travel is to do service for one's country. Travel and tourism, Whittingdale said, are a form of "soft power."
Security is boosted by "greater understanding between countries," he observed. "The more people take advantage of the opportunity to visit other countries, and the more that [citizens of other countries] have exposure to visitors, that is a huge contribution."
In cabinet-level discussions, the secretary said, travel and tourism considerations are being given much more weight than ever.
"The prime minister launched a five-point plan for the promotion of tourism, and that he launched it personally is what really sent the message that this is incredibly important for the U.K.," he said.
As a result of that initiative, Whittingdale chairs a group of ministers representing each government department that has involvement in tourism. Sitting at his table is the Interior Ministry, the Home Office, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Local Government and the Treasury.
"It isn't just my department thinking about what more we can do to encourage travel," he said. "That message is embedded into each department."
And perhaps the greatest indicator of the recognition of the importance of travel and tourism to the British economy and its vital role in soft power is that the budget for tourism promotion was raised by 33% for 2016.
The message of "soft power" and tourism isn't likely to motivate a skittish American to travel. Its significance is, perhaps, most relevant for groups that work to influence public policy. Reminders about the "soft power" of travel and tourism need to be kept front and center before our government.
In particular, the importance of travel to spark cultural understanding on the part of both visitors and hosts is vitally important during a time when political discourse often focuses on paranoia, misunderstanding and mistrust.
During discussions with family, friends and acquaintances during the holidays, I found that, in a way, an act of terrorism brought perspective to the question of travel.
The apparent randomness of the attack in San Bernardino may have contributed to a realization that travel is not inherently more dangerous than staying at home, so why deny oneself the benefits of travel?
That epiphany isn't exactly "Keep Calm and Carry On," but Americans have never been particularly known for understatement. Perhaps in 2016, morale-boosting posters should be printed reflecting U.S. values. I nominate, "Be bold, travel freely."