Intermediate/Advanced Reading Level
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An 8-minute read
Languages have levels of formality, and English is no different.
You can express the same idea at different levels of formality when you talk to a family member, a friend, or someone you are familiar with as opposed to when you talk to a stranger, someone of a higher status or older than you. You tend to be more informal with people you have a closer relationship with and more formal with strangers or those we have a professional relationship with.
What is considered socially appropriate in one culture may be considered inappropriate in another. That is why, when you learn a foreign language, you should learn not only its grammar and vocabulary but also how to use the language in its social and cultural contexts.
Avoiding Social Blunders in a New Culture
If you are unfamiliar with the language and culture, the social setting and situation, or the people you are talking to, it is better to be formal than to be inappropriately informal. This could prevent embarrassing situations.
In general, if you are informal where you should be formal, people may get offended or think you are rude. On the other hand, if you use formal language in an informal setting, sometimes people will be friendly enough to tell you do not have to be so formal.
Examine the following example dialog between you and someone called John Smith,
— Thank you very much, Mr. Smith.
— You’re welcome!... but please call me John.
This signals to you that you can be more relaxed in that social situation. (However, that does not necessarily mean you can be just as informal with other people in that same situation, just with John Smith. )
If you are unsure about the right level of formality to use, it is better to be formal than inappropriately informal.