We all know about that if you compare “Hi mate, what’s up?” with “Good afternoon Professor Martin, I hope it is okay to ask you a question?”, we all recognise that these two expressions demonstrate a different level of formality.
How formal we are when we interact with people is significantly driven by the culture we are in. For instance, especially in countries using English where you do not have a distinction between a formal and more informal way of addressing people – where “you” is used for everybody – things tend to be much more informal. In cultures and societies where in the language you have various forms of formality when you address people, then things tend to be more formal and you have to be a little bit more careful when addressing people.
As an example, in America and in the UK it is quite normal that even people I don’t know just call me by my first name. In contrast, when I was living in Germany and Austria, it was much more likely that people would use a title and my last name to address me when they did not know me. And I had to adapt and do the same as they did in the different countries I lived in. That was the same in France where I grew up, where I would use the polite form and usually the last name to address a person I didn’t know and especially an older person or higher up in the hierarchy.
This is one aspect of formality: it is in the words you use. However, formality or informality express themselves in many more different ways than that.
It is not just about what you say it is also how you say it. For instance, how much eye contact will you make with the person you are interacting with is another aspect of the level of formality. It will be your behaviour too. Will you tend to be a bit closer or more distant physically from the person? How will you be sitting on your chair when talking to that person or standing when you talk?
Formality levels are also expressed for instance in what clothes you wear. Is it OK to have a pair of jeans and a sweater to go see your boss or not?
Being formal or informal seems superficially to be quite an easy aspect of culture to see and to implement. However, as you could see from the above, this formality level will be exhibited in many different aspects of behaviours and communication. So it is actually not as easy as it seems to ensure that you have the right formality level when you communicate with people you do not know and people from different cultures.
And this could lead to potentially serious consequences, like not closing a sale because you haven’t exhibited the correct level of formality. You could easily upset people because you were way too informal compared with what they expected.