Black tie vs. business casual: decoding formality

By Deborah Gaines
President, Deborah Gaines Associates

I admit that I’m a writing snob, grammarian from hell, witch in the next cubicle—whatever you want to call it. But there are situations where formally correct writing isn’t necessary or even desirable.

Don’t pull an Elle Woods and show up to an email chain in inappropriate attire.

One example is when you’re talking exclusively to peers. The staff newsletter, written by employees for employees, will come off as stuffy if it refers to “Mr. Fuster’s performance on the field” at the company softball game. A group text to IT staffers under age 25 didn’t ruffle any feathers when it began, “resvd conf rm for the 3 pm.”

There are two rules to keep in mind when writing informally. First, be appropriate; that text would look ridiculous on a printed page. Second, err on the side of formality, especially if you have a tendency to “joke” using terms that could be considered offensive. A memo addressed to “Hos and Bros,” meant only for members of a tightly knit sales department, got a writer fired when someone forwarded it to the CEO.

The level of formality also varies according to industry. Publishing and entertainment companies tend to be casual (although publishing types are notorious sticklers about language), whereas law firms veer to the other extreme. So it might be appropriate to start a letter to a senior editor “Dear Leela” but address a junior associate as “Ms. Pandit.”

The following “informal” elements are often acceptable in business writing:

  • Abbreviations. Familiar abbreviations like “DVD,” “copy” and “fax” are not only acceptable but preferable—you’d sound pretentious if you spelled them out. On the other hand, recent terms like “btw” and “fyi” should be avoided except in texts or very informal e-mails. And as for LOL, BRB and the like—no.
  • Colloquialisms. Conventional wisdom holds that words like “kids” and “guys,” and sayings like “nail Jell-O to the wall,” should never be used in business writing. But if your document has a personal tone, and the terms are age-appropriate and not overly hackneyed, they’re fine.
  • Contractions. Used correctly, contractions like “I’m,” “won’t” and “they’re” have all but replaced full words, even in formal documents. That said, if you’re not confident about your contractions, you’re better off spelling them out than risking an embarrassing error.
  • Em dashes. Once reserved for informal writing, these handy marks—expressing a thought within a thought—are now appropriate anywhere, in moderation.
  • Imperatives. As a rule, clarity is prized over old-school courtesy in correspondence with people you know. “Remember to visit our booth at the trade show” is better than “We hope you’ll remember….” Similarly, active voice has replaced passive voice in just about every situation. It’s fine to say, “I approved that yesterday” instead of “The document was approved yesterday.”
  • Second-person pronouns. The use of “one” or “the reader” instead of “you”—as in “One can hardly remember a time before cable television—” has gone the way of the Cave Bear except in charmingly retro publications like The New Yorker.

However, these elements are rarely if ever appropriate:

  • Profanity. Even if your recipient isn’t offended, work e-mail accounts are the property of the company and can be read by any authorized person. Why risk getting fired for the transitory pleasure of lobbing the f-bomb?
  • Slang. There’s a thin line between colloquial usage and slang: The first describes informal, relaxed language that could be used by anyone, while the second is specific to a region or ethnic/cultural group. Slang is easier to misunderstand and more likely to make you look bigoted and provincial.
  • TMI. Save the details of your personal life for drinks after work. Sharing them in business correspondence is highly unprofessional.

One last caveat: Informal writing does not give you a license to make errors. Though casual language is less pretentious and more appealing under the right circumstances, poor grammar or spelling just makes you look dumb. So edit your informal business writing just as carefully as your formal proposals, and, when in doubt, keep things buttoned up.