Blog in 11 2010.
There’s a lot of bad language on the railways. Not swearing, though when trains get cancelled even sensitive souls dig into a store of expletives they didn’t know they had.
No, the bad language I mean is the announcements.
When train companies want to tell us things, they get all embarrassed. Why else use the strangely remote and pompous language they reach for so routinely? The kind that tells us they’d rather do anything but talk to us.
You’ve got to feel for them a bit. They hardly ever have good news to share. Prices never go down. There’s never a sale. And when stuff goes wrong, it’s often not their fault.
But it’s hard to like anyone who talks to you the way they do.
‘Here is a special announcement to help you with boarding and alighting,’ says the recorded voice of First Capital Connect, gearing up to tell us (needlessly, perhaps) how to open the doors. No one’s talked about ‘boarding’ since trains ran on steam, have they? And has anyone ever used the word ‘alight’ to mean anything but ‘on fire’? Nothing special about that announcement.
Live ones are no better. ‘There are safety notices displayed throughout the train. Could passengers please take a moment to familiarise themselves with their contents’. That’s the driver, reading the script obviously pinned up in the cab. It will only ever get one result. Zero compliance. But we might feel different if the driver said: ‘There’s a safety notice close to you. Please take a minute to have a look at it.’
People do notice when humanity puts in a rare appearance. A whole carriage recently clapped the driver who veered away from the schtick he was meant to deliver before linking our train up to another one. Instead of the usual ‘please be seated, the doors will be released shortly’ guff, he prepared us for the small jolt by saying: ‘Anyone with babies or laptops – hold on to ‘em’. The message landed. As well as laughing, people did hold on to their laptops (I didn’t see any babies).
The people who run the stations are just as bad, so at least the bad language is joined up. ‘Due to today’s inclement weather, please take care when on or around the station, as floors may be slippery’, says the Kings Cross PA on wet days. Nice that they’re worried about our brittle limbs. But unless you’re living out a Miss Marple fantasy, would you use a dotty word like ‘inclement’? ‘Ticket checks are in operation at this station’. ‘For your safety and comfort, this station operates a no-smoking policy’. And so on.
Then there’s silly stuff like ‘station stops’ (the other kind of stop is?), ‘sorry for the inconvenience this may cause to your journey’ (not ‘sorry for the inconvenience we’ve caused you’) and ‘de-training’ (‘getting off’ to you and me).
Language is a dead giveaway for how businesses really feel about their customers. The more strained the situation, the faster they retreat to their linguistic bunker and its awkward words. Us and them. We live together in permanent dread of the next delay. But what if companies started sounding like human beings? It might at least help us feel they were on our side. It might make us like them just a bit.
Meet Dave, the revenue protection officer.
You’re at a party. The mysterious shifts and waves of mingling lead you to a strange man called Dave. (Not strange as in odd. Strange as in you’ve never seen him before.) He’s standing alone, and later you’ll realise why, but for now you shake hands, introduce yourself, and ask what he does.
‘I’m a revenue protection officer,’ he says.
You nod, sagely. You seem calm, but inside your mind’s racing. Policeman? Banker? Accountant? Finance director? Pharmacist?
‘Basically I inspect tickets. On trains.’
Astronaut? Whaler? What?
End story. Cue moral:
If your business writing’s full of high-falutin’ words, your customers aren’t going to think you’re clever. Or professional. Or experienced. They’re going to think of Dave. And nobody likes that guy.