TrainBecause of the changing attitudes and needs of the consumer, the voice of advertising has evolved as rapidly as the goods and services it aimed to sell, but the “voice of government” in this country hasn’t changed in ages. Actually, “officialese” has never evolved from talking down at people.

The communication of officialdom with the ordinary citizen has always been stilted, pedantic and convoluted and—even in the Third Millennium— clearly betrays the belief that authority must speak in a stiff and complicated way to be authoritative.

According to Dutch cultural anthropologist Geert Hofstede, power distance is one of the key dimensions defining a national culture. With their average high index of power distance, Italians accept the fact that power is still distributed unequally and endure an elevated degree of formality in their dealings with the powers that be.

Public announcements in Italy are unduly complicated and assume a pompous tone, instead of making things simple to understand for the less literate. Safety information in public transportation is pathetically ineffective because it adopts insider terminology that the end user can hardly comprehend. Messages are formulated in a clunky and verbose way that fails to explain things and make them understandable.

A classic example is displayed by the quintessential non-customer-centric organization, the state railways (aka Trenitalia).

If you stand in a major station for at least 5 minutes, you will hear this public announcement (in Italian): “Passengers are requested to position themselves on the platform based on the location of the car corresponding to the class of service they have purchased and to let arriving passengers disembark first”.

Such a uselessly convoluted and obscure message is understood by few and simply adds to the constant din of the station. Surely, it could have been made simpler, perhaps by dispensing with its silly formality. But that is a non-starter for the likes of Trenitalia.

Another doozy produced by the very same organization has to do with the computer-generated female voice that makes public announcements in high-speed train stations. This virtual creature with a British accent starts every message with “Trenitalia informs…”. The oddity here is that the name of the rail operator is pronounced “Treni-tay-lya”.

Now, in English the noun Italy is pronounced it-l-ee and the adjective Italian ih-tal-yuhn. The sound “tay” in Trenitalia is an aberration, since it does not originate from either the noun or the adjective. Common sense would dictate that—before you run a public announcement hundreds of time each day—you have it checked by a native speaker or a linguist.

But an in-focused, government-owned organization like Trenitalia doesn’t operate that way. With 35,000 employees and revenues of Euro 3.5 bn it probably thinks it can write its own language rules.