12 December 2007 @ 10:24 am
Formality is not hostility.  

I know that this topic has been discussed earlier by others, but I feel that it is especially prudent to discuss it right now. I am leaving it public, and am crossposting it to other journals, because I consider it sufficiently important. It is based on personal experience. This is not directed at anyone on the Friends List. If you have any opinions on it, do tell me.

Formal language and presentations do not automatically mean that the party using them is deceptive, inscrutable, emotionless or hostile. Formality is a framework for expressing opinions, but formality in itself does not preclude honesty, comprehension, emotion or friendliness. We have dealt with such assumptions about us, before, especially I, since my presentation is supposedly formal. Rather, such linguistic preferences usually come from upbringing, education, personal disposition or preference. I believe that a lot of the hostility towards formal language and presentation is related to the 'bastard' and 'snark' cultures that seem to be ubiquitous now.

We must do away with the idea that formality indicates deception. Anglophone culture has supported the idea of 'plain speaking' for the past fifty years, approximately, and popular culture supports that notion. I believe that much of this is related to the concomitant anti-intellectualism that 'snark' and 'bastard culture' seem to promote, as well. One depicts heroes as being plain-spoken, 'good ol' honest Everymen', and villains as being eloquent, well-spoken and formal. (One might also notice all the 'Doctors' and 'Professors' amongst the villains, but that is another, tangentially related, subject.) It stands to reason that people will interpret formal speech and wriitng as deceptive, since that is the idea that this culture has inculcated into them. Intellectuals are not to be trusted, because their ideas are hard to digest; therefore, we must not trust anyone who sounds intellectual. One must learn that formality does not necessarily mean obfuscation, and that a formal interaction can be just as open and honest as an informal one.

Secondly, formal language and behaviour do not necessarily show that one is being inscrutable, emotionless or hostile. I have been told, by more than one person, that it is difficult to ascertain what I am thinking because I express myself in a particular way. We have also been told that we sound unfriendly. It is as though feelings are not 'real' unless they are expressed in the form of profanity, 'plain speech' and inelegant language. I believe that this is tied to the idea that formality is linked to deception. If I feel adamant about something, I am going to be frank about it. I usually do not hide my distaste or moral outrage when it is appropriate to show such feelings. I am not emotionless because I choose not to use colloquial language. In fact, I consider myself a very passionate person, and there are times at which I hold very strong opinions. I am not unfriendly because I use formal language. (In fact, I try to be as friendly and gracious as possible!) It is simply that I feel no need to couch such feelings in colloquial language when that is atypical of me in the first place. It is unreasonable to expect that of me, or of other people who prefer to use more formal language.

It is pernicious, dangerous and truly upsetting to hear that people have these interpretations of formal language and conduct. I think that I should do something about it, honestly.

Quid ausculto?: The Tallis Scholars - Loquebantur variis linguis
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[identity profile] n2-the-void.livejournal.com on December 12th, 2007 06:34 pm (UTC)
I am guessing that anyone who does or has consider(ed) you to be emotionless, unfriendly, and untrustworthy were simply intimidated (by no fault of yours) because you are likely more intelligent than they are. This is clearly an issue with them that would serve them well to work out with themselves. I'm not nearly as formal (probably because somewhere deep inside I'm doing whatever I can to go against an upbringing I dont remember very well) but my intelligence intimidates people. To me, it is not so much that I am a whole lot more intelligent but a deeper thinker than many people. I wish this didn't intimidate people. How one is by nature is no one's fault.

Reader's Digest, Condensed Version of the Comment: I agree completely.
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[identity profile] phen0type.livejournal.com on December 15th, 2007 03:49 am (UTC)
I suppose so myself, along with the anti-intellectualism and 'bastard culture' hypotheses that I wrote about. I think that some of those people thought that I was probably going to 'trick' them, or something similar.

None of us find you intimidating at all, and I wish that other people didn't think that, either.
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Birgit[personal profile] birgitriddle on December 12th, 2007 06:40 pm (UTC)
I think one of the problems that people have with formal speech (I do not have much in the way of a problem with it personally), is that it sounds distant to them and academic and for some reason that makes them feel as if...they are being looked down upon. I suspect this is not because academic and formal speech is a way of looking down on a person, but due to a person's self-esteem issues. Perhaps they are jealous that they are not as well spoken as the formal speaker. Or just that the show of intelligence is threatening in some manner because the person may be more clever than them.

It also might be a bit older than just 50 years old I would believe. After all it used to be the factory owners and the middle class that used to be the more formal speakers while the workers and lower class members spoke a so-called cruder language. Since they had been mistreated by factory workers and perhaps saw the middle class as the enemy, formal speech became some of a sort...of snobbery to them and we haven't gotten quite gotten rid of that attitude.

However, most of this is just conjecture and not supported by anything that I have read. I would like to know if there is any information on this - perhaps there are linguists who study this.
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[identity profile] phen0type.livejournal.com on December 15th, 2007 03:51 am (UTC)
I think so, too -- formal speech may very well cause the other party to think that they are either unintelligent or inarticulate, and may arouse sentiments of inadequacy. I do not want people to feel that way, but I suppose they may. It's really very frustratng.

You've a point with the class-related differences as well, by the way.

I think that hystorical linguists may have something to say about such things...
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[identity profile] visual-syntax.livejournal.com on December 12th, 2007 09:30 pm (UTC)
At the very least you're in the correct age frame to use it (or so I'm assuming). My headmates have wanted me to informalize my language for a while.

Mm. I understand that, as much as Lisa and Cloud are concerned, they aren't so much able to formalize themselves. Even in academic settings, they're rather informal...but in our department, it's considered acceptible.
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[identity profile] phen0type.livejournal.com on December 15th, 2007 03:52 am (UTC)
There is nothing wrong with being young and speaking formally. (By the way, I have noticed that Lisa and Cloud are rather informal myself.)
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[identity profile] lion-azure.livejournal.com on December 13th, 2007 09:30 am (UTC)
Maybe people interpret formal language as being hostile because it usually is a sign of intelligence and education? As they say, knowledge is power, and people always fear those who have, or seem to have, more power than themselves.

Also, some people do use formal language to put others down, to elevate themselves above their fellow humans. And on the internet, where you usually don't know people very well, and all you have to judge them by is their words, it's very easy to misinterpret the intentions of others. I guess we all can, from the tops of our heads, recount at least three instances where other people have completely gotten something we've posted on the internet in the wrong.

As far as language as a means of obfuscating your real motives and intents go, well, anybody who thinks that that can only be accomplished through formal language is a bit of a naive fool. You can just as well fool people with informal language. For instance, I have the habit of talking like a total airhead, both in our journal, in comments or when chatting with people. I've gotten into the habit of doing that mostly because my old life required me to hide most of what I was from others, and that's a lot easier to do if you make them think you're a bit of a simpleton. Like I said above, people tend to be afraid of intelligence, but nobody was ever afraid of a happy airhead.

- Malak
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[identity profile] phen0type.livejournal.com on December 15th, 2007 03:56 am (UTC)

I do believe that that sort of thing can happen on the Internet. I have seen some of those people myself: they enjoy using fancy, obfuscatory language in order to make themselves look more 'powerful' and 'intelligent', even when they are discussing ideas that have made little sense in the face of actual analysis. I know that we have misinterpreted people's writing ourselves.

I agree. One of the people in my system, [livejournal.com profile] hessgasm is rather intelligent and politically astute, but chooses to use extremely informal language and colloquialisms for various reasons. He's rather similar in that respect, I suppose.
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[identity profile] horsdumonde.livejournal.com on December 13th, 2007 04:53 pm (UTC)
In America, we like to think we're all "equal", that no one is better than the next. It's a nice idea but it's simply not true. We should treat each other as equals, but one should not compromise himself. The use of "five dollar" words does upset people, chiefly because they don't understand them; they become aware that the speaker is more intelligent than they. That is what upsets them. They then turn their own feelings of inferiority into anger against the speaker, accusing him of "putting on airs." Of course, some people do put on airs, but they are always easy to spot. One should never, however, take his speech "down a notch" for the benefit of the ignorant; to me that's an offensive idea. If someone doesn't understand you, you who speak beautiful English, let them say so. To dumb-down one's language is awfully presumptious. It's the same with manners; slapping a stranger on the back and calling him by his first name is horribly rude to people like us, but to many people it's "nice"; it's an expression of that "equality" so cherished by the masses. Manners exist to make people feel comfortable around each other, to lubricate the cogs of society, but we all have to be on the same page. We used to be taught manners; the idea was that we all would know what to say or do in a particular situation. But after, say, the hippies ruined everything, nobody knows what to do any more. Add to this situation an influx of immigrant who bring with them their own manners and customs and you get a melting pot where all the flavours have been boiled down into a brown goo of "thank you", "please" and little else, and often not even those simple words.

Please forgive my stream-of-conscious outburst. I hope some of it has made sense, but I have to run. I will conclude with "proper English and good manners are for everyone" and not the exclusive domain of some elite class.
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[identity profile] phen0type.livejournal.com on December 15th, 2007 03:59 am (UTC)
Indeed. It's a pity that people have to transfer their own feelings of inferiority on the formal speaker, though.

I am one of those who refuses to make his language les formal for anyone, save children, and even then, I do not make it -that- simple. I would rather teach someone something new than insult his intelligence.
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[identity profile] exaltedunmelody.livejournal.com on December 15th, 2007 11:03 pm (UTC)
yo yo dawg don't be hatin they just got no reading comprehension aiiiight
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[identity profile] zyfron.livejournal.com on December 28th, 2007 11:18 am (UTC)
I could not agree more with your feelings on this matter, it is a topic which I have often felt deserves considerably more attention and discussion than it usually receives.

Anti-intellectualism is not something that can be justified by the unfounded fears of others. To feel threatened by formal language is to feel threatened by learning. If you should happen to use a word that the listener is not familiar with, they will be forced to admit their ignorance, and learn something new. This, unfortunately, makes most adults feel uncomfortable and inadequate. This aversion to learning is pervasive throughout the adult world, and so aversion to formality is a symptom of a larger problem.

Another possible cause for this aversion to formality (which nobody has yet mentioned) is our societies aversion to responsibility (how many times have you heard politicians of business leaders, in recent years, make the claim "it's not my fault" with regards to the state of a company or nation, or the people who live within that nation or off of the salary or products of that company? Nobody, at least in the United States, is 'responsible' for taking care of the poor, or the sick, or for ensuring that people do not become poor or sick on a massive scale, and when this happens, nobody can be held accountable, which effectively prevents anyone from having to spend money, time, or effort on these and similar problems. But I digress.). Behaving formally makes a person sound competent, and competent people can be held accountable. In far to many cases, competency in our society is hidden away for fear of standing out. I have known quite a few PhD's who claim to be "just average guys," or bright kids with passions for science, who, in the company of their peers, would never bring up any remotely academic subject for fear of being ostracized. Acting 'educated' is discouraged by society, and, of course, a certain level of educated is necessary in order to even -use- a formal vocabulary.

Of course, this requires a warning of 'everything in moderation.' On the one hand, we have the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world, who can barely construct a proper sentence (and, of course, we have the voters who elected him because this made him seem 'friendly' and 'nonthreatening') However, on the flip side, there -are- academics (and others) who take the use of vocabulary to far. As a college student with parents in graduate studies, I have seen far to many essays, and even books, which try to make simple points using completely inaccessible language, which, more so than being threatening, is jarring to the reader and serves (as far as I can tell) primarily as an obstacle to learning. There is such a thing as to much 'fancy language,' and in these cases where the level of academic vocabulary was artificially raised to unnecessary heights, the authors began to look -less- intelligent, in that they were unable to clearly express themselves, and seemed to be clinging to 'fancy words' to make themselves look smarter. This seems to me to be a symptom of the same misconception, namely that advanced vocabulary directly corresponds to the speakers level of intelligence, and is therefore imposing and impressive.

There is a lot to be said for expressing yourself succinctly, (which, as you can see by now, is not one of my strengths), but, in general, I agree with you completely.
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[personal profile] ex_oneiros673 on July 7th, 2009 05:34 am (UTC)
Thank you, Richard. I know you wrote this nearly two years ago, but...I needed this. Would that Hess simply remember it.

Edited 2009-07-07 05:35 am (UTC)
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