Formal and Informal Context is the fifth of 12 Dimensions of Culture that KnowledgeWorkx uses to map out the intercultural terrain. If you haven't already, you should read our article introducing the 12 Dimensions here.
What do you notice first in a new intercultural situation? Is it dress code? How people introduce each other? What about the order of seating, how you address people, and the way you write emails or letters? All of these things are part of context: the unwritten rules of what is appropriate and what is not appropriate in a given situation.
This is one of the most difficult things to deal with in intercultural situations, because there is only so much related to context you can memorize. The 12 Dimensions of Culture Cultural Mapping Inventory measures your personal context along two lines, which we call 'Formal' and 'Informal'.
Formal Context settings tend towards more rules and gives them more importance in day-to-day situations. In many countries, specific formalities like titles and honorary language are incredibly important. Languages like Korean have your hierarchical position in society built into their grammar. Older versions of European languages had something similar.
Informal Context settings have few rules, and the steps to engage and rules that govern interaction are not as important.
Formal Cultures don't just clash with informal ones: they can clash with other formal cultures too. You can have situations where two people from more formal oriented cultures might consider each other disrespectful because each of them follow different rules for being formal.
For example, we have seen people write emails that are very amicable and relational, with chit-chat about the weekend and their family, because in their culture business formality requires a personal connection be established first. Colleagues for whom business formality requires not talking about personal matters can consider these colleagues to be unprofessional.
The solution to these situations is to develop an understanding of formal and informal culture within your organization that leads to successfully navigating the intercultural complexities involved.
Formal and Informal Context in your organizational culture
It is important to establish what is acceptable when it comes to the level of formality for team dynamics. For example, does your team use titles at all times? Can you just ask one question in an email, or should you need to go through a ritual of establishing a virtual connect through certain phraseology, with a "Dear Mr. So and So"? – All of those things need to be discussed when you are developing new teams in environments where there is diversity on the formal/informal context dimension.
Once these topics are discussed, people will know what the third-cultural space is going to look like, and it will be much easier for that team to function effectively.
If you would like to learn more about what we mean by a "Third-Cultural Space", be sure to read our article, “Creating a Third Cultural Space: Part I”: the first of three articles on the importance, benefits, and steps you need to take to create a third-cultural space in your organization.
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