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Getting Smarter through Language

Formal and Informal Registers in American Language and Culture

Marc Franco

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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 or someone of a higher status or older than you.

You tend to be more informal with people you have closer relationships 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, you may offend people or come across as rude. On the other hand, if you use formal language in an informal setting, people will likely be friendly enough to let you know 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.

Deciding on the Appropriate Level of Formality

Deciding on the appropriate level of formality is not always straightforward because the right level of formality depends on several factors:

  • the social setting,
  • the age of and your relationship with the speaker,
  • how say something,
  • the topic of the conversation,
  • a combination of the social setting, the person you are talking to, the topic, etc.

You make a social blunder when you do or say something embarrassing or inappropriate for a social situation. Even people who grew up in a culture cannot always tell what level of formality they should use. Well, that is why we make social blunders even in our own culturally familiar environment.

All you can really do is be aware of where you are, know what is appropriate, and hope you do not accidentally put your foot in your mouth.

Avoiding Social Blunders in a New Culture

Here are some tips anyone who may not be familiar with the language and culture, the social setting or situation, or the people you are talking to:

Avoiding social blunders

Play it safe. If you are not sure about the level of formality in a social setting, it is better to be “too formal” than inappropriately informal.

Pay attention to the level of formality people use around you in a particular setting. Use the level of formality others use.

When you change settings, you may need to change the level of formality even when you are talking to the same people.

For example, if you have an informal relationship with people you work with when you are in the office, you may need to be more formal with the same people when you are in a meeting with people from outside the office.

In American culture, most people say things like “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you” even in informal settings.

Example Sentences Showing Different Levels of Formality

The examples below show how you can express the same idea at different levels of formality. The sentences go from very informal to very formal

Close it!

When you ask someone to close the door, you could say one of the following sentences:

Close the door

Close the door, please.

Close the door, will you?

Close the door, will you please?

Could you close the door?

Could you please close the door?

Would you mind closing the door, please?

Sorry to bother you. Could please close the door?

Sorry to bother you, sir (or ma’am). Would you mind closing the door, please?

Many businesses such as grocery stores, clothing stores, or restaurants have a polite but friendly atmosphere. See the examples below.

Give me!

Let’s say you want a salad at a restaurant.

Do not say

I want a salad.(This would be considered rude.)

Instead, you should say

I’ll have a salad, please.

I’d like a salad, please.

Could I have a salad, please?

Show me!

At a clothing store, you want the store clerk to show you a T-shirt.

Do not say

Show me that T-shirt. (This would be considered rude.)

Instead, you should say

May I see that T-shirt?

Could I see that T-shirt?

Could you show me that T-shirt?

Of course, you could say “please” at the end of both of the above sentences.

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