Formal vs Informal: Which works is best?

Consider  this email I sent a few weeks ago:

Hi there,

I’m well aware of everything you’ve said on the website, and I’m not expecting variety or anything at all, but I think it’d be worth letting you know that I’m vegetarian – I don’t eat meat or fish. If you could pass that on to the group leader it’d be awesomely appreciated!

Cheers,

Look at the words and sentence construction I used:

Hi there” – an informal greeting

awesomely appreciated” – clearly informal and unusual sentence construction in place of a simple “please”.

cheers” – an informal way to sign off

The context of the email, is a holiday abroad, the whole nature of the email is informal, casual, but still important and to be dealt with.

Here’s the response I got:

Dear Mr Dobson,

Many thanks for your email. I have notified our agent that you are vegetarian so that they can make adequate preparations for your trip.

I hope that you have a great time. If there is anything else you need before you go please do not hesitate to contact me.

Kind regards,

In my mind, this grates a little.

Dear Mr Dobson” – formal writing

our agent” – more formal and not the language that was initially used

notified“, “adequate preparations” – complicated and/or formal way of saying “OK”.

Kind regards” – largely-formal, way to sign off.

I didn’t want to speak to a business, I wanted a person. I wanted a person to give me a “yes, this is no problem” answer. I’d hoped that by phrasing my initial email in the way it did, this is what I’d get.

If I received my email, I’d have responded:

Hi Tim,

Yep, no problem at all, I’ve let the tour leader know for you.

Have a fun trip!  Do feel free to give me a shout if there’s anything else I can help with,

Cheers,

Now I imagine, some people will be reading this thinking “I’d hate it if someone responded to me in a casual/informal manner – it wouldn’t instill confience at all – I’d much prefer the more formal response – that’s just what I prefer.”

When dealing with customers, it helps when one can adapt to suit the customer.

Being able to switch from cheery casual to serious formal, for the right people, will help the customer feel more comfortable and happy which is generally “a good thing“.

Obviously, the context is important, if you work in an industry where people generally prefer communicating in a more formal manner, and they’re wishing to complain to you about something, then now is [probably] not the time to see whether they’re more comfortable with fewer formalities.

My real problem in this specific instance, was that the context was clearly not “serious business”, I clearly just wanted someone to say “yes, fine”, but they didn’t really adapt and respond to me, in the way that would have been most reassuring.

It’s a tough balance, but in my experience, finding that balance, can make a big difference when working with people.

5 thoughts on “Formal vs Informal: Which works is best?

  1. Hi Tim,
    I did like the point that a person dealing a business with clients or simply business need to understand/ adapt to the tone of its customer!

    But I simply don’t get point on why do you thing a holiday business is not a serious business and why a formal business reply isn’t assuring things?!!!

    –RK

    1. Well, it probably changes from person to person! To my mind, it’s a recreational holiday and so it’s not an inherently formal situation (like a business meeting or something) – I’m a customer of theirs, but I initiated the conversation in informal way…

      For me, the formal business reply feels like they’re just giving me a corporate response, which isn’t what I asked for. They’ve also confirmed it so obviously I’m happy that they’ve done what I asked for me.

      To me, the business response felt a bit like the customer service I’m used to from many large corporations where they pay low level people not very much to be largely unhelpful, yet very polite.

      In the context of this travel booking, this wasn’t what I wanted – I wanted someone who’d I felt take personal responsibility and reassure me it was good and they’d sorted it all out.

  2. Dear Mr Dobson/Hi Tim,

    I am aggrieved to hear of the issues you have encountered in these situations. I enjoy flipping between the two to throw off all those business fiends who piss me off. I do hope you share my sentiments and that an amicable resolution is found for all parties. Though honestly mate I’m with ya overall.

    Yours flippantly,
    Francis :P

  3. I’d probably write my message in the way you did, but would be disappointed if I received the “informal” reply unless it was somebody that I already had a working relationship with. It would come across as insincere trying to be all “matey matey”.

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