When is formal offensive?
January 16, 2008 3:05 PM   Subscribe

In a discussion with a co-worker today, it was mentioned that I seemed too "formal," and that another, unnamed co-worker, had brought it up and said that they found this formality offensive.

The co-worker to whom I was speaking seemed a bit embarrassed to have let this slip, and would not elaborate further.

I'm at a loss... I may not exactly be the life of the party, since I tend to clam up a good bit around folks I don't know really well...but I still do my best to be warm and friendly to all. I don't dress formally....I mean, take today for instance: sneakers, a t-shirt layered over a thermal, and an old pair of jeans with a hole in the knee (we have a relaxed office). After work, I even stick around sometimes for a beer or two.

What could they mean by formal, and how on earth could I be causing offense? I have to admit, this makes me a bit uncomfortable.
posted by kaseijin to Human Relations (30 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Structured sentences, care in speaking. I only mention this because when a good friend of mine is defensive, he sounds like a Jane Austen book.

Then there's people who don't like touching, we're seen as overly formal and stand-offish. Another thing I do is to not ask personal questions of people, because I myself don't like it. Some people apparently do. I don't share details of my personal life, because for the most part, it's boring (not to me but to the rest of the world).

In short, my communication style is for necessary, work things, not about me, or about my colleagues.

Sometimes people take offense and it's not actually your fault.
posted by b33j at 3:12 PM on January 16, 2008

You have my sympathies. Staff here routinely mention in private that I scare them because I seem so intense, and yet anyone who eventually deals with me knows how benign I am and how fiercely I defend the staff. It's just how I come across. You clearly come across as formal to someone there and yet aren't in any meaningful way.

Is it out of the question to gently pose your question to the original commenter?
posted by docpops at 3:12 PM on January 16, 2008

So what if you are formal. People like you (like they say you are, should you choose to shoulder the burden) are an absolute necessity for any organization. If it weren't for your gravity, they'd all be flung off into outer space.
posted by jamjam at 3:15 PM on January 16, 2008 [7 favorites]

How bizarre. Sounds like the problem is with your coworker(s), not you. Can you bring it up with your manager, with something like "I've heard that another coworker finds some behavior of mine offensive, and for the life of me I can't figure it out what it is."
posted by ldenneau at 3:15 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you normally speak in an "educated" way but your colleague doesn't, they might think you're deliberately trying to sound snooty, or something like that. Some people think that "educated" speech is always part of a power play (which it can be, but in many cases isn't).

Or maybe they mean that when you're working, you don't look up and smile at passersby or something? "Formal" as a way of saying "less overtly warm and expressive"?
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:19 PM on January 16, 2008

Like, dude, some people are, like, uncomfortable, with language that's too formal, y'know?

Some people who speak in a less formal way are uncomfortable with more formal english. Get up to date on current slang as it is used in your office. That's my guess, anyhow. It could also be that you don't have much of a sense of humor, or it could be that the unnamed co-worker feels that you have a different class background and are showing it off. Could be that unnamed is jealous of you, and complaining about random things. Or it could be something else entirely, that only the mystery co-worker knows.

Co-worker probably accidentally shared a confidence with you, thus their clamming up.
posted by yohko at 3:20 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

It may or may not be something that you're doing. Some people, either because of the way they look or the pitch of their voices, just seem more...formal or something.

If you can't figure out anything specific that you're doing, just assume it's something you probably can't help. What you _can_ do is find some way of compensating - tell jokes, wear a cowboy hat, be just a little extra warm (somehow, carefully) when meeting people. Ask about their families if they seem inclined to talk about them. Smile more, and make sure you are smiling genuinely - think of something happy or wonderful about the person you're smiling with. Wear warm colors sometimes. Do something a little crazy occasionally, but fun-crazy (not scary-crazy).

Just maybe show a little more of yourself, the happy part of yourself that is interested in being with and connecting to other people.
posted by amtho at 3:22 PM on January 16, 2008

Please note that I am *not* suggesting that you do all of these things, nor that you re-make your personality. Just pick one when it feels right, if you are so inclined.
posted by amtho at 3:23 PM on January 16, 2008

I know exactly what you mean. I used to work with someone who dressed totally casual, but when she'd come to my office she'd quietly wait until whatever was going on in my office ended, and squarely look me in the eye and very politely ask me or tell me whatever it was she had come for, and at the end of our exchange she'd thank me and leave without hardly smiling. I knew through the grapevine that she suspected that she made people in the office uneasy.

It's because normally, people come into my office and flop down into the chair, slouch, start with a "WAZZUP!", put in a little "OK, here's the deal..." do a lot of laughing and commiserating about whatever needs to be done, and in the end, says, "cool?" OK, that's just one example of one scenario, and not everybody is that "informal." It's just a matter of looking *comfortable*. Is it possible you're coming off as uncomfortable or shy?

I myself was mortified to find out years ago that my shyness was mistaken for being aloof. If anything, I was unsure of myself and thought everyone else deserved to be wherever they were more than I did, and here people thought I thought I was better than them. I was actually pissed about that for some time. Now I don't know if it's still the case, but I care less. I've become more comfortable and more confident, and I think it shows.
posted by iguanapolitico at 3:24 PM on January 16, 2008 [2 favorites]

The real nub of the question to me is not the formality per se but the fact that they consider it to be offensive. I cannot think for the life of me why formality would be offensive other than that you might come across as a bit aloof and they perceive this as you thinking that you are above or better than them. This happens to some of my smart-ass friends (I mean smart-arse here as a positive thing- clever/geeky/shy/smart) and though they are thoughtful and sensitive to a point they don't always present it like that to other people.

Maybe it's that you are intellectually quite intimidating to them or come from a different social milieu and that is transferring to your relationships with them. Are any of these possibilities?
posted by ClanvidHorse at 3:27 PM on January 16, 2008

Since this is second-hand information to begin with, and inconsequential gossip to boot, your wisest course of action is to shrug and not give this another second's thought.

Sometimes, people just say stupid things. One of the reasons I love AskMe so much is that this comes as a revelation to so many so often.
posted by sageleaf at 3:35 PM on January 16, 2008 [6 favorites]

I have a colleague whom I think of as very formal because he is always "on." He takes his job very seriously and always brings the conversation back around to it, asking you what you think can be improved, what your experience with this or that has been, etc. He never makes fun of himself or makes light of anything to do with his institution. I'm sure these characteristics are responsible in part for the fact that he is now the head of said institution. Jamjam is right that people like you (if that's what you're like) are a necessity for any organization and tend to rise to leadership positions. On the other hand, if that's not who you want to be, you could think about whether you want to be more open about your personal life, laugh about your own failings, bitch about things at work, and so forth.

Also, some people find observance of traditional etiquette to be "formal." I think it's just that it makes them feel insecure, so they label it "formal."
posted by Enroute at 3:37 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

I myself was mortified to find out years ago that my shyness was mistaken for being aloof.

I have seen "formal," as well as shy friends and colleagues be misread as being "aloof" and sometimes considered "arrogant." When aware of how they were being perceived (like iguanapolitico) they've often realized "this is who I am." It's not incumbent upon you to "change." As docpops suggests, I recommend approaching the original commenter, asking him/her to join you for coffee ... and have a conversation. While it might be difficult/scary for some to make such an approach I am confident that such a chat is likely to lead to an open discussion and mutual understanding of who you are and how you behave in the presence of others in your professional setting.
posted by ericb at 3:42 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Going in a bit of a different direction here, but are you more of a stickler with company rules/policies than the average employee? I could definitely see how people would be annoyed by that.
posted by fermezporte at 3:52 PM on January 16, 2008

In my experience the easiest way to short-circuit the formality problem is to use more curse words. Just casually, once in a while so people don't get to think you're a total prude. If this won't work for you, make analogies to rap or death metal once in a while. "That jackhammer outside sounds like a song by Pig Destroyer." Stuff like that. I'm a total grammar nazi and I know I come off all edumacated and prudish, but that's just the way I am.

Also, know that in prison culture, independence is seen as a sign of aggression. You don't need them, could do without anybody else, stuff like that. A lot of people will call it "arrogance," too, not knowing that the definition of arrogance is the denial of rights to other people that you freely exercise yourself. That last part was just me, cuz I'm kind of a dick that way.
posted by rhizome at 4:01 PM on January 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Here is my take (based on past experience) on how it can be seen as "offensive": the word offensive can be misused, and sometimes when people feel uncomfortable, they mistake that feeling for being offended. They may feel uncomfortable because they feel you speak too nicely, or you don't laugh enough, or you are professional on a more consistent basis than they are used to. Instead of recognizing this as a difference in personality, it's taken as you being condescending, or thinking you are better then them. Hence, offense being taken.

I was in this situation once at a previous job. The offended parties admitted (to my boss, to whom they complained that I was too "professional"), that I had never been curt or rude or anything like that, and was always courteous. They just didn't "get me", so they were uncomfortable. So many times this kind of opinion says more about the holder of the opinion than about the person who is supposedly being offensive.

I think I would go back to the person who let the comment drop (even though they were hesitant to say more), and explain that you don't want names or anything, but you are interested to know in the reasons why people think this. Then take that info and process it as you wish.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 4:02 PM on January 16, 2008

I seemed too "formal," and that another, unnamed co-worker, had brought it up and said that they found this formality offensive.

I wouldnt worry about it too much. People at work sit around a chat and gossip and come to all sorts of bullshit agreements. Just because two people burning time agreed on something doesnt mean you now have to now re-asses your life or do *anything.* If youre worried then get some more opinions. A couple of chattering cow-workers are rarely right about anything, especially other people.

You should the 'stunning' realizations the ladies in finance come up with...
posted by damn dirty ape at 4:11 PM on January 16, 2008

Response by poster: Well, I'm certainly not a stickler for policy or political correctness. I make fun of myself on a regular basis. I swear. I contribute to the department's "lulz" mailing list....
posted by kaseijin at 4:39 PM on January 16, 2008

Their problem, not yours.
posted by Abiezer at 5:32 PM on January 16, 2008

it could be that the co-worker simply does not like you (for whatever reason), and uses the formality thing as a half-assed reason to justify it.

You seem like an alright guy - but you can't win em all. Don't lose too much sleep over it
posted by TheOtherGuy at 5:55 PM on January 16, 2008

A former boss once took me off the public reference desk for a month for being "haughty;" by the end of that month, she had figured out that I just do speak in complete sentences all the time.

I use that as my answer to "What are your weaknesses" in job interviews now.
posted by nonane at 6:13 PM on January 16, 2008

I'm unsure why you see this as a need to change. At all.

There are only two things that matter:

1: Does it stop you doing your work or make your professional life harder?

2: Were you happy with who you were before this?

If it's 1:, you need to be different at work, maybe. But speak to your boss and ask for guidance.

If 2: is a yes, then it really isn't your issue. Not everyone has to like you, and you don't have to care why. If you are happy with you (it sounds like you are) then stop thinking that you will have to (or need to) appeal to everyone.

Changing to try and please people is a very slippery slope to unhappiness as you try and fill a role for each person. Just accept that some people won't like you, you may not understand why, and it isn't your problem.
posted by Brockles at 6:15 PM on January 16, 2008

It feel so crappy to hear stuff like that about yourself. It's hard not to take it personally.

I tend to be somewhat formal in AskMe, and in most writing I do. In person, I'm pretty casual and love to use slang and be snarkastic. You might be a bit lacking in assertiveness, and people may see you as vulnerable and be picking on you. There's nothing wrong with being formal; maybe they're being jerks.
posted by theora55 at 6:19 PM on January 16, 2008

I'd ask your boss, or the original person. (I've been trying to figure out what "formal" could be a euphemism for but haven't come up with more than others above.)
posted by salvia at 7:33 PM on January 16, 2008

You have colleagues with bad manners. That stinks. Formal is good and it is a very attractive trait in my opinion. It means you care and you think about stuff. We need more caring people in this world thinking about stuff. Keep on being YOU.
posted by mamaraks at 7:57 PM on January 16, 2008

I interpret calling someone "too formal" as a perception that the person is not making a connection with people or is not making the effort to make a connection in a way that people are used to - like being jokey or snarkey or casual or interested. Being too formal to me means that someone is keeping people at arm's length a little. I'm not saying that's a bad thing or a good thing and I don't know that it is true of you or that you should change if it is true. That would be for you to decide. It's just how I interpret someone being called "too formal".
posted by gt2 at 11:32 PM on January 16, 2008

The problem is likely that you don't talk enough about the things that really matter. You don't talk about what you did over the weekend or what movies you want to see or how you're trying to save up money to buy a boat. There's a certain class of people who, when they go to work, go into a kind of "work mode" where they are all 100% machine and it's just depressing. Ask yourself if you've made any effort to really know your coworkers as individuals. You probably haven't and this lack of intimacy has translated into a kind of formality that puts people off. It's just "strange" to see somebody everyday and not develop any kind of relationship with them.

And learn to smile. People who don't smile are the worst people in the world. The first thing you should do when you see anybody each day is look them in the eye and smile. This little 'thing' goes a damn long way.
posted by nixerman at 2:18 AM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

How are you in written communications, including email? I have some coworkers who, no matter how friendly they are in person, always write something like:

Dear bassjump,

[Kind yet stiff pleasantry that I would use with a visiting VIP]
[Point of the email, using formal sentence structure and the longest words possible]
[Optional closing statement, possibly of gratitude or another pleasantry]
Best regards,
Stiffly Formal Person

I mean, I'm a stickler for courtesy and clarity, but when I'm friendly with someone I get more casual. There's no need to be ridiculous. Maybe there's a difference in your writing styles that makes you seem formal to them.
posted by bassjump at 4:07 PM on January 17, 2008

When I refer to co-workers as too formal, I'm usually implying one of two things: 1) they take themselves way to seriously, or 2) they take their work way to seriously. Here is an example (I work in software). A guy recently wrote me a 20-something page, immaculately formatted, document, in full-dressed technical legalese, just to explain how to install a particular tool, that is only used by two people (internally). Way too formal.

Formality is sometimes valid, but more often (in my business) it has diminishing returns and tends to unintentionally waste time for lots of busy people. Maybe when times were slower and more chummy it was charming, but not these days.
posted by brandnew at 5:23 PM on January 17, 2008

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