Past Is Prologue

Why Italians Use Dozens of Words for Simple Instructions

And other examples of why more is more in Italy

Anders Pettersson
Human Parts
Published in
6 min readNov 29, 2020

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The Statue of David in Florence. Photo: iStock.com/Feverpitched

In Italy, you’ll find signs about face masks with 40 words in bureaucratic language. No smoking signs consist of 109 words of legal text, and simple toilet signs can be made up of 122 words. What reasons can we find for this in Italian society?

Among the novelties the Covid-19 pandemic has given us—in addition to face masks and awkward elbow bumps—is a variety of new signs instructing us how to behave. In the summer of 2020, I flew from London to Italy, Denmark, and Sweden, when travel restrictions allowed it, and I noticed some interesting differences in instructions on using face masks.

London’s Heathrow airport had posters saying, “You must wear a face covering in the terminal.” Signs at Copenhagen’s airport advised “Please remember to wear a medical mask,” and the airport in Stockholm read, “Use a face mask in the terminal. At Rome’s Fiumicino airport, however, I was greeted by a sign made up of 40 words:

“According to Covid-19 containment measures provided for by the Council of Ministers’ presidential decree of 26 April 2020, the use of respiratory protection is required in interior public places. Therefore, the use of masks is compulsory even inside the airport.”

The sign at Rome’s Fiumicino airport advising to wear a face mask
The sign at Rome’s airport advising to wear a face mask. Photo courtesy of the author.

Despite Italy’s penchant for signs like this in bureaucratese, I’ve long had a passion for Italy and for the beautiful Italian language while growing up in Sweden and Finland. After Italian studies at Stockholm University led me to a student exchange in the northern Italian city of Padua, I lived in Italy for three years. I became fluent in Italian and did a master’s degree in communication studies at the University of Bologna.

Although I left Italy in 2014, the country and its language have never left me—especially since my wife is from Italy’s southern Apulia region. I currently live in the United Kingdom and I’m always on the lookout for cultural differences between Northern Europe and Italy, which has led to some thoughts on why…

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Anders Pettersson
Human Parts

Multilingual digital marketer that has lived in Finland, Sweden, Italy, Belgium & the UK. www.linkedin.com/in/anderspettersson1988