How to Master the Art of Formal Communication

You wouldn't wear a suit to a beach party, just like you wouldn't walk around in flip-flops at a funeral.

Yet in communication, such grand misses happen all the time. A job applicant sends an overly formal letter to an Hawaiian shirt startup; a Western sales rep ruines a deal by addressing a Japanese client with an overly amicable tone.

The protocols for professional communication change at a different pace depending on culture as defined by national culture, industry, and organization.

What is formal communication?

Communication can be formal in two ways.

The first is the style of your message. "Mr. Smith, pleased to make your acquaintance," is a formal version of "Hi John, nice meeting ya!" But formal communication can also refer to the information networks in your company. These consist out of formal channels, like planned meetings and processes, or informal ones, like what's discussed with whomever you happen to sit next to during lunch.

To use a definition, formal communication is (1) a style of speaking or writing that's neutral, orderly, controlled, explicit, following protocol, and without an indication of close personal acquaintance, or (2) the official, planned communication processes within a company.

In this post, I'll focus on the style through which a message is transferred. If you're interested in formal communication networks, I'd recommend this article.

Why use formal communication?

If you're familiar with books on good writing, like The Elements of Style or 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing, you'll note that many of their tips run counter to what formal communication stands for. That's because general writing best practices and formal communication have different purposes.

Pencil in circle.

While the goal of most writing is to communicate with as much clarity as possible, the goal of formal communication is to distinguish oneself as part of a certain social group.

It's about showcasing your ability to write in an effortful manner. Another use case is to de-emotionalize situations. Generating and processing formal communication takes more mental bandwidth, thus forcing you to switch off emotions.

So even though many wordsmiths despise formal communication, it's a handy skill to master. Situations in which to turn up the formality volume:

  • When writing an application letter for a traditional company
  • When addressing people in high positions
  • When giving negative feedback
  • When dealing with an angry person
  • When writing a legal letter
  • When your communication partner uses it (social mimicry)
  • In certain social circles, e.g. when in the presence of royalty

Differences between formal and informal communication

Let's take a look at some style differences.

Formal communication is...

  • Cold
  • Objective
  • Neutral
  • Rational
  • Controlled
  • Effortful
  • Abstract

Informal communication is...

  • Warm
  • Subjective
  • Involved
  • Emotional
  • Uncontrolled
  • Effortless
  • Practical

So how to put these differences in practice? Some tips to raise the formality of your tone:

  • Avoid contractions. Contractions, like you're for you are and don't for do not, make sentences sound informal. Stick to the complete version to raise formality.
  • Minimize personal pronouns. When writing formally, you're aiming for objectivity. That means taking your own or others' personal views out of the equation. Don't say "you'll sound more formal", say "one sounds more formal." Another way to make things more objective is to rely on the passive form, "I was taught the ability to converse formally through an outstanding blog post."
  • Use longer sentences. The ability to write long, correct sentences suggests a large working memory. Correct is the crucial word here. Longer sentences have more interdependencies, making them harder to write. Errors in their buildup give the inferior mind away.
  • Use elegant words. You can replace many everyday words with more sophisticated synonyms. But turns into however, still into nevertheless, talk into converse, so into thus, etc.
  • Use Mr./Mrs./Ms. + Surname. Using first names is associated with friendship. Keep things neutral by referring to ‘John’ as 'Mr. Smith'. If you don't know the marital status of the lady you're addressing, use Ms.
  • Use official titles. By using official titles you show respect for the accomplishments of the people you're talking to/about, and you show you've done your research. If there are no PhD or titles, fall back to Mr./Mrs./Ms.
  • Avoid slang. Slang might give you street cred, but it will destroy whatever formal image you've created.
  • Use jargon. Normally, using jargon risks losing your audience. But it's useful if your goal is to distinguish yourself as part of a specific group. If you're at an online marketing convention, the (correct) use of terms like SEO, SEM, CTR, and conversion rates shows that you are one of them.
  • Avoid analogies and anecdotes. These are great tools for everyday communication, but in formal communication, you should try to keep things abstract.

As mentioned, the formality of communication is largely determined by a number of social vectors.

1
Culture

In our post on cultural diversity in customer service, we discussed the cultural dimensions that influence the way people communicate with each other around the world.

Cartoon of globe.

Neutral vs. emotional cultures. Some cultures condemn the display of emotions more than others. In these ‘neutral’ cultures (e.g. Japan, UK), emotions are thought to distort our reasoning, and showing them is regarded as ‘unprofessional’. In ‘emotional’ cultures (e.g. Greece, Mexico), on the other hand, emotions are regarded as what makes us human, allowing us to communicate and understand one another. They see the hiding of emotions, as done in neutral cultures, as lacking warmth and trustworthiness. Naturally, formal communication will be more prominent in neutral cultures.

Low vs. high power distance cultures. Some people have an almost allergic reaction to anything hierarchical, while others accept and follow authority without question. In Scandinavian cultures, for example, it’s considered best if the boss is almost at eye level with the rest of the team, playing a facilitating role. In Japan, on the other hand, the boss is always high above her employees. The higher the power distance, the more formal the level of communication flowing from the lower to the higher regions of the pyramid. Only the powerful can afford to ignore formality protocols.

President Barack Obama receiving visitors in the oval office.
Only the powerful can afford to ignore formality protocols.

2
Industry and corporate cultures

These national cultures merge with and flow against the dominant cultures within industries and companies. The legal industry is more traditional and hierarchical than the tech industry. And within industries, companies will differ again in their cultural dimensions.

So it's not enough to know that you're in a neutral, high power distance culture. If you're applying for a tech startup, they'll likely expect a more informal approach. To be sure, check the website and social media profile of the company.

3
Communication channel

How formal a conversation will be also depends on the medium.

  • Email. This channel tends toward more formality, probably because it is an older medium, resembling the good old paper letter.
  • Phone. The phone resembles a face-to-face conversation the most, and can thus be both formal and informal.
  • Chat/messaging. As the new kids on the block, chat and messaging tend toward informality. Most people have grown familiar with these channels from their private usage of apps like Facebook, WhatsApp, and MSN messenger. This, together with the low barrier to contact, make them informal channels.

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