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Level of Formality in American Language and Culture

Marc Franco

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Languages have levels of formality. English is no different.

For example, when you greet a family member or someone you know well, you use informal or casual greetings. When you talk to an older person, your boss, or someone you are not familiar with, you may want to be more formal.

What is appropriate in one culture may be inappropriate in another. That is why, when you learn grammar and vocabulary in a new language, you must also learn how to use them in different social situations.

How to Decide on the Appropriate Level of Formality

Sometimes it is difficult to know exactly how formal or informal you should be. The right level of formality depends on a combination of several factors:

  • the social setting,
  • who you are talking to (the person’s age and social status, your relationship to them, and so on), and
  • the topic of the conversation.

You make a social blunder when you do or say something embarrassing or inappropriate for a social situation. Even if you grow up in a culture, sometimes you are not sure how formal you can be in some situations. Well, that’s often why people make social blunders.

All you can do is know where you are, know what is appropriate, and hope that you get it right.

How to Avoid Making Social Blunders in a New Culture

What should you do if you are not familiar with the language and culture? What should you do in new situations? It is better to be formal than to be inappropriately informal.

If you are informal in a formal situation, you may offend someone. If you are formal in an informal situation, sometimes people will just be friendly and let you know that you do not have to be so formal.

For example, let’s say you are talking to someone called John Smith, and you say, “Thank you very much, Mr. Smith,” which is very polite and formal. In response, Mr. Smith may say,

— You’re welcome!... But please call me John.

Mr. Smith (well, John) is letting you know that you can be more relaxed with him in that social situation.

Yet, be careful. This does not mean that you can call everyone else by their first name in that situation, only John Smith.

If you are unsure about the level of formality you should use, it is better to be formal than inappropriately informal.

Below are some tips you can use when you are unfamiliar with the language and culture, the social setting or situation, or the people you are talking to.

Some Tips

Play it safe. If you are unsure 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. Then use that level of formality yourself.

However, be careful. When other people are informal, it does not mean you should, too. Do they know each other well (but you do not)? Are they colleagues who have been working together for a long time (but you have not)?

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

For example, let’s say you have an informal relationship with the people you work with when you are in the office. You may still need to be formal with them when you are in a meeting where there are other people from outside your office.

In American culture, most people say things like “excuse me,” “please,” and “thank you” even in informal settings or when addressing family and close friends.

Example Sentences Showing Different Levels of Formality

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

Close the door!

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

  • Hey! Close the door.
  • 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.

In the United States, many businesses have a polite but friendly atmosphere (for example, in grocery stores, clothing stores, or restaurants). See the examples below.

Give me!

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

Do not say

  • I want a salad. (This is considered rude.)

Instead, you should say

  • I’ll have a salad, please.
  • I’d love a salad, please.
  • Could I please have a salad.

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

Show me!

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” with each of the above sentences, too. Remember, even among friends and family, saying “please” is very common in American culture.

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