Today, almost all business is global business. Cultural awareness is core for successful businesspeople today. This post is part in an ongoing series to help readers leverage insights into the eight dimensions of culturally based work style differences, so you can raise your own global business productivity.

Of all eight cultural dimensions that I’ve studied to assist businesspeople in overcoming their intercultural communication challenges, Formality has always been particularly relevant to me. Though I never used to think of myself as a very formal person, I can’t help but notice: when others wear t-shirts, I’m in a button-down; when others were button-downs, I’m in a blazer.

Born in Peru, I was raised to show respect to elders and to dress well for work and school. If I told my family back home that my culturally different style stood out because my U.S. classmates were not dressed that way, I was told that’s their problem, not mine. In Peru, to be called “elegant” is among the best compliments one can receive – without any irony whatsoever.

Following the Peruvian behavior modeled by my family and others, I became what informal cultures, as in the U.S., would consider a very formal person. It was only years later when I learned about the Formality Dimension within the CultureWizard Intercultural Model’s eight dimensions that I understood my behaviors through that multi-cultural lens. Now, I can easily see that the United States is a very informal culture, in context of which I am simply not a very informal person.

Of course, I certainly can be informal by adapting my own work style, when necessary, to avoid making people uncomfortable in cross-cultural business communications. Adapting to U.S. culture is pretty straightforward for me now.

Cultural Diversity and the Formality Dimension

Status, rank and power exist in every society – it’s just not always obvious how they are conveyed. The Formality Dimension describes attitudes and behaviors regarding outward appearances and the importance of such visible cues as an indicator of status. It’s scale – from very Formal to very Informal – speaks to the importance of protocol and etiquette, the appropriate use of titles, surnames and honorifics, and appropriate ways of meeting people, building relationships and entertaining.

Understanding Formality in Cross-Cultural Workplace Communications

Luckily, with a small amount of cultural awareness, a given culture’s place on the Formality spectrum is easy to recognize.

In Formal cultures, the size and location of offices in a business setting, the quality of dress and accoutrements, the use of titles and the type of car you drive are extremely important. All of these symbols are cues to others about your rank in the world. Similarly, the use of titles is critical. These symbols tell others in the culture where they fit in relation to you, and how they should behave towards you.

Formal style influences written and oral communication, as well. In some Formal cultures, all the trappings of power become extraordinarily important, and as such must be accorded great respect.

For example, you probably already know that business cards take on immense significance in Formal cultures. The reason is that they indicate a person's status and communicate that status to others who don’t know the individual personally. Thus, the way people exchange cards is meaningful because the business card itself is viewed as an extension of that person. People handle cards with great care and take pride when exchanging them. Just as you would not mistreat someone’s favorite possession or photograph, you respectfully handle business cards. You can see this behavior in Japan, which is an extremely Formal culture.

At the other extreme, in Informal cultures, the visible trappings of authority are obscure, or at least less obvious. People express themselves – not necessarily their rank – in how they dress, which is often for their own comfort. Titles are not used for everyday communication, and referring to them is sometimes even considered pretentious.

Indeed, the outward signs of authority are subtler, and making sense of them is often difficult for a cross-cultural newcomer. A CEO, for example, may sit in a tee-shirt in an open floor plan alongside other employees, dress as casually as they do and drive a practical, family car. People use first names and comfortably socialize across levels. Language is freer and more casual. If this sounds a lot like tech start-up culture in San Francisco and New York, that’s because U.S. culture is extremely Informal and the tech industry even more so!

However, make no mistake: there are signs of deference and acknowledgement of status in Informal cultures, as well. Subtle gestures can take on great meaning, and business titles imply all the same levels of authority as they do in a Formal culture.

Tips to Adapt Your Work Style Communication to Cross-Cultural Differences

How will this affect you? Understanding the level of Formality in a society allows you to avoid offending someone who might expect a certain degree of deference. It also helps to keep you from looking foolish by behaving too formally in a situation that calls for a more casual approach.

  • Check with a trusted employee, local national or expat cultural mentor about rules of protocol and etiquette surrounding social and business entertaining and gift giving.
  • Use the CultureWizard Country Profiles and Culture Calculator to gauge a society’s general level of Formality.
  • Learn to address people appropriately, including use of surnames, honorifics and the formal version of "you" in the local language, if that becomes necessary.
  • If you are a manager or employer, spend time understanding how you’re expected to display that rank. You will enhance your credibility by doing so. The clothes you wear, your demeanor, and even where you live may be quite important.
  • Check to see if talking about non-work-related topics is appropriate in social settings, and if social functions are used for networking.