5 things you never knew about formality in business communication

Why is formality interesting? Formality is a window into our use of social norms. There’s a helpful concept from sociology: a continuum between “tight” cultures and “loose” cultures”, where “tight” cultures emphasize strict following of social norms and formal behaviour, and “loose” cultures prefer more relaxed social norms, and more informality.

The social norms that we use in our language reflect the culture: if we follow rules in our language, we follow them in our workplace and our wider society.

The differences between formal and informal messages come down to three main points:

  • Adherence to rules. In informal writing, it’s okay to break grammar saying, e.g., “coffee?” instead of “would you like a coffee?”, or to use emojis and colloquialisms.
  • Acknowledgement of status. Does the text use given names or titles? Are there formal greetings and sign-offs? Formal language emphasizes differences in status.
  • Distancing of relationship and emotion. In formal writing, the feelings and personality of the writer fade away: there are fewer “I”s and emotion words.

Think about your messages: do you consciously adapt your level of formality depending on who you’re talking to, and why you’re talking to them?

Behind the text, though, it’s the underlying organizational culture that’s “tight” or “loose”. A tight organization has formality throughout: differences in status are highly visible, personal relationships are played down. Loose organizations are the opposite.

Language is just one aspect of the culture, but like office layouts and pay scales, language isn’t just a reflection of organizational culture, it’s an active tool that maintains it.

Think about your organization’s use of language, whether it’s broadly formal or informal, and what that says about your culture.

Formality is not a bad thing. There are contexts where it’s very appropriate. If you need to be seen as fair and unbiased, formality is helpful. Law and government are both good examples, but there are occasions for it in other areas too, such as hiring decisions and performance reviews. The emotional distance in formal language removes the appearance of personal factors in decision making. If you need to be seen as fair and impartial, keep it relatively formal.

Think about the different messages you send and receive: when you want to come across as fair, are you using an extra touch of formality to make the point?

It isn’t an accident that governments, law, and finance, our oldest institutions, tend to use formal language. And this isn’t just a stereotype. When the business environment requires creative and speedy problem solving, that’s where people have to work together in a way that encourages informal communication. Startups are a great example: when you’re intentionally agile and opportunistic, the constraints of formality become a barrier. Along with the pool tables and beer fridges comes more social familiarity, leveling in status, and informal language.

Think about your customers and partners. How do they think about your organization? What style of language reflects your culture?

At Turalt, we want people to be more emotionally intelligent writers, adapting their messages to improve the way everyone feels about their workplace. This means knowing when to emphasize the tightness or looseness of the workplace culture, and when to minimize it, and adjusting your language to fit.

Think about your messages to other people: are you adjusting your use of formal tone to manage people’s emotions effectively?

So remember, Grammarly users: proper grammar isn’t neutral, it’s a sign of formality, of expectations about social norms, and attention to status. If you want to come across as friendly, creative, and approachable, you might be better using a little more informal language in your messages.

For more information, see:

Morand, D. A. (1995). The Role of Behavioral Formality and Informality in the Enactment of Bureaucratic versus Organic Organizations. The Academy of Management Review, 20(4), 831–872. https://doi.org/10.5465/AMR.1995.9512280023

Tell me what you think: @turalt, stuart.watt@turalt.com

Dr. Stuart Watt has a PhD in the psychology of social intelligence and develops AI technologies that use psychological insights into organizational processes to improve email practice.

He is CTO of Turalt, a Toronto-based AI company using feedback and analytic tools based on AI, psycholinguistics, and psychometrics to solve online miscommunication in business.

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turalt — the technology of empathy uses artificial intelligence, psychometrics, & psycholinguistics to solve interpersonal communication problems in businesses.