Formal and Casual Communication

Communication (written or oral) is important in any organization. Management employs several modes of communication to give instructions to employees regarding the company’s rules, policies, norms and culture. Communication at Workplace
There are two ways of interacting with people. One is formal and the other is casual or semi formal. There are certain pros and cons attached with both the ways. The type of communication one wants to employ also depends on the occasion. Formal communication is needed in various instances, e.g. when a subordinate is reporting to his/her superior. Similarly, when you have to make an important announcement, business meeting, interacting with clients or when CEO/President has to communicate goals to the employees, a formal way is generally preferred.
Employees can opt for casual/semi formal way of interacting with each other but it is appropriate when they are at a certain level of understanding, otherwise issues of misconduct can arise.
Communication is imperative for the functioning of any organization. One needs to be vigilant about when to be formal and when to be semi formal while interacting with superiors, peers and subordinates. One also has to keep in mind that certain standards have to be met in the functioning of the organization, professionally. In my opinion, respect is the key for maintaining successful work relationship at every level anywhere in the globe.
Which mode of interaction suits you best and why? What are the pros and cons associated with each method?
Feel free to share positive experiences regarding the same.



16 Comments

  • I have to agree with you, respect is the most important key of maintaining successful (work) relationships.
    At our company we try to be as casual in our communication as possible, when talking about communications with employees. We are a young company and to get to the employees we try to communicate on their level with them. Of course there is a risk, that the respect just goes away, that is where the semi formal communications kicks in. For example: in meetings about the performance of the employee there will be a semi formal talk.
    Communication with “the outside world” that are about sales, are formal. But again to find new employees we try to be as casual as possible.
    I think that you have to look at the company you work for and then deside how to communicate at all the levels.
    Personally I prefer: casual communication.

  • Both can be used, as seperate or as a combination. The criteria of selection of one of the methods depends on two things: time, and nature of work. In any case, every communication should be documented (email). In our society, we at times dont tend to work on things unless otherwise imposed. The best management is one which lets employees feel the responsibility, by communicating in a sweet, casual way, keeping intact the limitations of formal one.
    If its a communication of employee to the outside world, it still depends on how ease you are giving to the customer, and how your relations are with the people in the firm. Obviously it changes with time, the importance of work, and the type of business you foresee with that particular client.
    I use a combination approach. It works fine for me and let me continue my work and have confidence in my employees to the max.
    Fahad Khan.
    Regional Manager – Business Development
    Lakson Business Solutions.

  • People are accountable for their words and their actions. Therefore, any communication comes with responsibility.
    For an organization to be successful there has to be a balance. It is important for subordinates to feel that they are important and that they have the ability to speak with upper management whenever necessary. At the same time, there must also be respect for that upper management.
    It has been my experience that it is more important for there to be strong and healthy communication. However, with that communication comes responsibility for the words used. When people fail to understand that responsibility problems ensue. These problems can lead to employment law claims, poor performance, poor morale, poor productivity and poor customer service.
    Thank you for posing such an interesting question.
    David Gabor
    esqs@gaborlaw.com

  • Great comment about formal vs. informal communications. Consider variation by generations as well, and the big issue is how to be conversant with senior executives (seemingly informal communications) while showing deference (formal communications). Also, consider not just wording but tone of voice as other impactful factors. It’s an interesting topic!

  • Salima:
    I think the most important issue here is language. English, for instance, has no formal tense so it can be very easy to develop casual speech patterns. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that almost all the Engish speaking countries are fairly casual places, although there is certainly not enough evidence to attribute that to language alone.
    My Spanish tends to be kind of formal and wooden to begin with, since I’m only about 85% fluent, but I do find that the use of the formal or the familiar in a Spanish conversation tends to set the mood better than anything else. However here in the Americas the familiar tense is used even in business, so this is an advantage that may have already slipped away.
    I don’t know enough about the formal and familiar tenses of other languages to comment, but if I had to hazard a guess, I would say that the answer may lie there.
    Herb

  • Hi Salima,
    The trick is to be ‘casually’ formal. A bit of selfless, casual talk never hurts, but your colleagues should know n respect that work comes first, n that’s what you’re at the firm for. Nowadays, most work environments (specially those within the IT industry) are usually casual (in every sense of the word). The sole purpose to that, is to help facilitate productivity – n not to prioritize ‘fun’ over work.
    Sadly, a vast majority of people have trouble drawing lines between work priorities and friendliness with other colleagues. Those who do it right, however, are the ones who progress.
    There’s really no rocket science to it, one should always favor work priorities over colleague relationship restraints. However, this should be done in a mutually respectable manner, without creating an air of arrogance.
    z

  • Hi Salima
    Good comments so far.
    I would add – depends on the audience, and the setting too.
    I feel comfortable to be casually formal as mentioned by a member here.
    But if the situation demands, I would be formal till the end of the discussion.
    But getting the work done gets priority.

  • I prefer formal communications when I want a consistent message to the group of people I am addressing. When I want to personalize the message I use a more informal approach in either written or oral form.

  • I’ve been on e-mail for 26 years, on the internet for 20, and I can calibrate my level of formality to any person within a couple of minutes.
    I’m happiest with a mid-range casual approach to peers and coworkers. However I take great satisfaction in my ability to go corporate-formal for the seniormosts and formal-cordial for outsiders.
    I am always happy when I have the opportunity to use the language appropriately and shrewdly.

  • Salima
    I agree at least somewhat with many of the comments already offered. In terms of my own communications style, I try to fit the mode to my audience. In my experience, communications methods and modes first need to fit the vision and national/corporate culture of the organisation. For instance, I am currently working with Corporate Cultural Differences that are creating issues and misunderstanding for Austrian-American subsidiaries of Austrian companies in the USA. The Austrians (managers and employees alike) tend to be quite formal — particularly in early relationship building stages. Early on, they use, and expect to be addressed by their personal/academic titles and surnames — both in verbal and email exchanges. They can be easily offended by American “Hey, Chris!” informality, and often find American email styles (sometimes with no salutation or close at all, and painfully blunt messages) rude and embarrassing.
    Similarly, many corporations within the same country have very different corporate cultures and hence very different expectations and preferences regarding the formality and informality of communications. This is often related to the extent and levels of hierarchy and the fixedness versus fluidity of roles and structure. Hence, I have some clients who are quite flat and project based who find a collegial, informal style works well for them versus some of my huge, highly structured corporate clients who tend to be more formal — at least when communicating up and down the hierarchy.
    I think that in building a culture in which communications are characterised by openness, but respect and professionalism, establishing
    company values and ‘branding’ around this are also extremely important.
    In terms of appropriateness for the occasion, I think the desired outcomes of communication should be considered. If the communication is an important company announcement, then at least initially it should be communicated formally. However, formal communication tends to prevent or suppress open dialogue — which can lead to misinterpretation. Hence, if the desired outcome is full understanding of the message, it needs to be followed up by less formal group and individual discussion providing an opportunity to ‘test what it means for me/us’ and to ask questions.
    In terms of work group standards for communication, I usually work with departments and work units to discuss their ‘cultures’, preferences, what they find acceptable and offensive etc — to agree to guidelines. This is particularly important if the work group has diverse cultures and other individual differences within it. As ‘individual cultures’ and preferences around degree of formality also occur, I encourage managers and supervisors to hold similar discussions with their subordinates to create an environment in which everyone feels respected and able to communicate.

  • Hi Salima,
    Communication is indeed a very important part of a working life. It can make or break you as a professional. Many people can know how to work best but few can express in terms of their capabilities.
    I truly believe, people are known by their communication skills rather than their work. talking about the question that you have highlighted here is mode of communication.
    Well, in a working life, both the methods of communication have to be used simultaneously. At times, you have to use format while talking to seniors or juniors to circulate information and work-related knowledge. But, between a formal communication, you can include a touch of informal communication. Informal communication can be used to make yourself clear or to make others comfortable or understand better.
    Pros of formal communication: Proponents of formal communication argue that:
    (1) It is more binding and thus more likely to be obeyed.
    (2) It is more precise and thus less likely to be misunderstood.
    (3) It is traceable at all times and can be preserved.
    (4) Formal communication establishes responsibility of the sender and receiver beyond any doubt.
    (5) Formal communication saves time and effort that would otherwise be consumed in informal talks, in discussions, and perhaps in arguments.
    (6) Formal communication avoids the embarrassment of face-to-face contact between the parties when the subject of communication is sensitive or painful.
    Cons of formal communication:
    (1) It is too rigid, in that it limits information within the department to that sanctioned by the chief or supervisor.
    (2) It follows a classic format commonly referred to as “bureaucratic jargon,” the cautious phraseology of which is not conducive to true understanding and often serves to obscure the real meaning of a communication.
    (3) It fails, in most cases, to identify the reasons behind the message; and this lack of explanation can be very frustrating to the recipient.
    (4) It is costly in terms of secretarial effort, reproduction costs, and delivery time.
    (5) It smacks of authoritarianism, since orders descend to a much greater extent than reports and feedback ascend to leadership positions (and since social matters are seldom mentioned).
    (6) It fails to motivate employ, since it is usually impersonal and final.
    Pros of informal communication:
    (1) Informal communication is less official and less intimidating.
    (2) Informal communication is personal, which imbues it with the enthusiasm and zeal of the participants rather than dry, bureaucratic logic.
    (3) Since it is usually verbal, informal communication allows both parties to discuss and explore the hidden dimensions of organizational matters in a two-way communication pattern.
    (4) Informal communication can be a convenient way of explaining to workers why the department operates as it does. It promotes disclosure of underlying motives and pressures through an atmosphere of free, yet discreet, discussion.
    5.Informal communication can unite workers and foster a spirit of camaraderie based on the discovery of shared concerns and interests.
    Cons of informal communication:
    (1) It is too loose and therefore difficult to define or apply systematically.
    (2) It can result in the spread of inaccurate information and half-truths. If carried to an extreme, it can result in second- and third-hand information being presented as original, factual, and trustworthy.
    (3) It can lead to the indiscriminate disclosure of classified information.
    (4) It is too often emotional or laden with sentiments which can distort or change its meaning.
    (5) Because it is verbal, it is hard to trace when an inquiry becomes necessary.
    (6) Its social advantages are questionable, since it is only as constructive as the participants make it.

  • Well written Salima!
    According to me a mixture of both should be used. What works best in a given situation varies tremendously. One cannot pinpoint as to whether it is vital to only stick to formal communication or casual communication.
    When it comes to casual communication, make sure you do not support too much of it because then the employees get too used to it and start taking everything too casually. Yes, it is important to have a casual and comfortable working relation with your employees, but do not forget that there should be a slight distinction between you and your employees and that they should respect you for who you are and the work you do.
    Formal communication when combined with casual communication helps to demarcate boundaries and get across your point firmly but at the same time comfortably. After all, you do not want to lose out on the rapport that you share with your employees.
    Hope this helps!

  • It is the defense attorney in me, but people should remember that any communication can be blown up to show to a jury. Fairness, respect, professionalism, grammar/spelling/puncutation (yes, really), all count for something.

  • John Schaefer

    Hi Salima,
    My research and experience over the past 21 years agrees with you on the importance of respect, but even more important is the importance of being genunie. Call it love, empathy, or “Making it Real”, as I do in my management training, it really translates in to the perception of your employee audiance. Whether in a formal setting or in casual conversation the respect they feel is directly related to how much they sense you truly care about them. I believe this transends generations, so is as important to Gen Y as Boomers.
    In Malcolm Caldwell’s book Blink, he refers to the power each of us holds in our subconcious that is “behind the door”. In other words, we make instantanious decisions and judgements based on our beliefs and life experiences that we are not even aware of. A feeling that your company or manager cares about you first, them about your performance or contribution, is unconsciously translated into a desire to offer more discretionary effort. In other words, employees that feel Loved and Respected, automatically think and feel more proud of their company that yields a desire to be more engaged, cooperative, creative, productive and profitable without concious thought. It’s the easiest ROI enhancer in business today and simply requires minor adjustments in communication style,
    The Behaviorist or Autocrat comes across as demanding and more interested in the company the the employee. The unconscious response to this is emotional disengagement and minimal effort (the rat will solve the maze to get the cheese, but only when hungry enough). A Caring and Genuinely Respectful manager comes across as interested you first, then the company, and receives the unconcsious result of 110% effort for no extra cost.

  • The mode of interaction that suits me best is informal. However, I seen to tailor the message to the audience and based on the purpose of the communication. I think most professionals know the pros and cons of formal and informal communication methods and modes. The reason that informal suits me best is that I believe stories are a good way to help people understand various issues. I am a storyteller. which tends to be informal. As someone, Margaret Sawyer I think, said, “The shortest distance between two people is a story.” We need to do what is necessary to get closer to others, and I think most formal communications maintain the distance.

  • Noor

    Salima, please allow me to see the first part of your question (Which mode of interaction suits you best and why?) with a different perspective or can say in my perspective what I experienced.
    I spent much time in Training Business in my early career and travelled with lot of Trainers & Consultants during out of town assignments. We were formal in the sessions but we were informal after sessions in Guest House Lobby or sightseeing or shopping. Sometimes client’s Managers or even senior team members were also joining us during dinners.
    In our business life we are wearing different hats and interacting with different people at different levels in different times. This depends on the situation what you are dealing with. There is no straight rule that only one way of communication suits or doesn’t suits.
    However, I would like to admit that “Informal Communication” helps developing stronger relationships. The trainers with whom I travelled and stayed couple of days together are still my good friends. The clients whom we met on the dinner table, we got more business with them.
    I really liked the quote given by Charles above on Story and also tried to link my answer with the story of my travels.
    Cheers!

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