Decoding the power of formality in effective communication

What is the psychological impact of formal language on communication effectiveness, and how does formality influence attention and action?

In today’s world, where texting and emojis are part of our daily communication, one might assume that the government needs to adopt a casual approach to attract attention. However, a fascinating study conducted by researchers at Harvard Kennedy School has challenged this notion. They have discovered the “Formality Effect,” which suggests that when the government communicates with us formally and officially, we are more inclined to listen and comply with its directives.

Picture this: You’re sorting through your mail, and amidst the usual bills and flyers, you find two letters from the local authorities. One looks highly official, like something you’d get from a lawyer’s office—with a serious font and devoid of embellishments. The other looks bright and cheerful, like an invitation to a local concert. Which one grabs your attention and compels you to take immediate action?

Credit. Midjourney

The surprise discovery

According to the study led by Elizabeth Linos and her team, chances are that the formal one gets you moving.

The research team conducted both online and real-life studies involving over 67,000 participants to examine reactions to different government messages. They analysed businesses registering as owned by minorities or women, individuals signing up for emergency medical services, and families applying for tax credits.

What they found was surprising. Contrary to many expert beliefs, the more formal letters—with no fancy colours or casual chat—yielded superior results.

According to this study, if a letter seems more official, you are more inclined to take action—like registering your business in a unique programme. In one city, businesses were 25% more likely to respond to a formal letter than a casual one. Moreover, this effect extended beyond businesses as individuals were more inclined to sign up for a medical service when the invitation was formal.

This discovery is a game-changer. It suggests that adhering to a formal tone may be more effective when the government seeks to capture our attention and prompt action. It’s not that fun; colorful messages are ineffective; rather, the traditional, formal approach possesses unique effectiveness in accomplishing tasks.

However, before assuming that everything must become dull and conventional, consider this: the key takeaway lies in finding the right mix. Governments can maintain creativity while leveraging the formal approach when seeking our attention and action.

In a nutshell, this study highlights the value of embracing traditional formalities. So, the next time you get a highly official-looking letter from the city, know there’s a good reason for its dignified appearance. It aims to capture our attention and prompt us to take action for the betterment of our communities.

Why does formality work?

So why do we pay more attention to these formal messages? The researchers posit that we perceive them as more credible and meaningful. When something looks official, we tend to take it more seriously.

It is akin to dressing up for a job interview; it signifies seriousness and professionalism. Similarly, with government messages, the formal presentation leads us to perceive them as more legitimate, compelling us to consider complying with their requests.

This doesn’t imply that every government message must be boring or difficult to understand. The key is finding the right balance between clarity and respectfulness while ensuring people grasp the message’s significance.

What this means for the future

This discovery could change how governments and other big organisations communicate with the public. Rather than attempting to adopt a familiar tone, they might stick to a more formal one to underscore the seriousness of their messages. But it also serves as a reminder that simplicity and clarity are essential. Just because a formal letter is formal doesn’t justify filling it with complicated jargon that may be incomprehensible to the recipient.

The notion that formal messages can be more effective is a wake-up call. In a world full of flashy ads and social media, one might expect that the most effective way to capture attention is to be as loud and visually striking as possible. But it turns out that, regarding important matters such as health services or tax benefits, being straightforward and somewhat formal proves more effective.

Looking ahead

This study raises several questions for future research. For instance, does this formal effect operate uniformly across all countries, or does it depend on individuals’ perceptions of their government? Additionally, are there specific situations where a casual approach may yield better results?

For the time being, the message to governments seems to be that sometimes, adhering to the established method of formality is more effective if they wish to capture people’s attention. It’s not about being distant or rigid, but rather demonstrating the significance of the message being conveyed.

Ultimately, this study shows the significant impact of message delivery on people’s responses. As we navigate a world saturated with information, perhaps taking a moment to consider the tone and presentation of our messages—whether as a government agency or simply sending an email to a colleague—could be the key to eliciting the desired response.

The “Formality Effect” might sound like something from a boring textbook. Still, it is a powerful lesson in real-world communication dynamics. Whether you’re running a government agency or just trying to get your kids to listen to you, the way you convey a message matters as much as the message itself. So, before you sprinkle emojis in your next message, consider how a touch of formality could enhance its impact.


Journal reference

Linos, E., Lasky-Fink, J., Larkin, C., Moore, L., & Kirkman, E. (2023). The formality effect. Nature Human Behaviour, 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01761-z

Mohammed Salah is an Assistant Professor at the Modern College of Business and Science (MCBS) in Oman. His research primarily encompasses social psychology, public administration, and artificial intelligence. Currently, he is delving into understanding how artificial intelligence, specifically generative AI, influences decision-making processes.