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In a film from an English teaching youtube channel at 5:40 around, the female teacher is expressing that using "obey" instead of "observe" is a little too odd and strong in the following sentence.

"Attention customers, please observe social distance rules while you are standing in line." (at 5:26 in the film)

After checking the Cambridge Dictionary and Oxford Learner's Dictionaries online, I don't see that point. And in Oxford, it explains "observe something, to obey rules, laws, etc."

So, is it really a little too odd and strong to use "obey" instead of "observe" in that context?

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I agree with the teacher. "Obey" is stronger, and may imply legal sanctions backing up the requirement. "Observe" is less official.

So, while "obey" means "observe", they aren't exact synonyms, and the latter is more likely to be used in the context you are discussing.

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    "Obey" (to enlarge on the same idea) suggests that an actual order has been given by somebody, that somebody in authority insists on you doing this, whereas you could "observe" a purely voluntary rule even if there are no official orders about it. In the case you mention, there may well in fact be official orders, but the speaker may still think that talking as if it's just a voluntary request is more polite!
    – A. B.
    Jun 3 at 13:59
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    Especially in this case, a lot of people are pushing back on mandates to wear masks, limit gatherings, etc, so using gentler language is less likely to provoke those people.
    – Kat
    Jun 3 at 19:29
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    They wouldn't be different words frequently used if there was no difference in their nuance. Obey is certainly stronger
    – TCooper
    Jun 3 at 20:32
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"Obey" is not only stronger, it carries a greater connotation of being subordinate. If there is a rule that was agreed upon by a group of equals, it would be more natural to talk about observing the rule. If a king has issued a decree, then you would obey it. Note that this distinction is not hard and fast; neither word would be wrong in either context. But those are the impressions the words tend to have.

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    +1 for this. It would be extremely rude in a work setting to have a memo saying "please obey the signage in the break room". "Observe" or perhaps "follow" would be acceptable. It would be normal to hear "Please obey the instructions of the safety officer", where it's clear the stakes are higher and the authority us more obvious.
    – CCTO
    Jun 4 at 19:05
  • @CCTO Not "rude", but somewhat authoritarian. Jun 5 at 22:58
  • "Observe" here is very much akin to "Note": "Please note that breakfast is served at 8am". The implication is along the lines: I'm reminding you of the rules. I'm not ordering you to obey them, but that's because I think I can trust you to do the right thing". Jun 5 at 23:02
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To reword Jack's answer, "observe" and "obey" have different connotations:

a feeling or idea that is suggested by a particular word although it need not be a part of the word's meaning, or something suggested by an object or situation

For example:

  1. Get home by 6PM for dinner. Obey me.
  2. I suggest that you observe the 6PM dinner time.
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    It's the word "suggest" that makes the second example optional (well, that and the tone). A like-for-like comparison would be "You must {obey,observe} the 6 p.m. dinner time.", and the meanings then are identical. Jun 4 at 10:33
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    @TobySpeight To me the 2nd one doesnt sound optional. More like a first warning.
    – lalala
    Jun 4 at 18:58
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    @lalala definitely not optional... but does not have the command connotation.
    – RonJohn
    Jun 4 at 19:12
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The two words have the same meaning in this context.

"Observe" is slightly more formal in register. It's also a little more general, in that we can observe rules, conventions or advice, but "obey" really only applies to definite commands (including rules).

(This is a UK perspective; usage may differ elsewhere in the world.)

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