One of the noticeable features of U.S. culture, especially in California, is its informality and egalitarianism: people usually address “superiors” by first names, for example; even children do this.
Shaking hands usually only occurs on a first meeting. “Ma’am” and “Sir” are rarely heard anymore, except in certain regions of the country or by individuals with a military background. In fact, some people complain about the degree of informality going “too” far or not knowing where the boundaries lie: for example, what is “too” casual for “Casual Friday,” the practice of relaxing the rules of attire on Fridays at the office? Should I really call my teacher by his first name—even if he invites me to do so? Knowing the levels and appropriateness of informal and formal behavior may present a particular dilemma for ESL students, who have heard that Americans are informal, but who themselves seem to be renegotiating the boundaries between casual and formal. In addition, these boundaries are usually “unwritten” or implicit. There is no manual anywhere to refer to these rules of formality although they are just as real as if they were.
Problem Areas in the Formal/Informal Dilemma
Jeans are usually okay for school. They may be okay for work depending on the work situation: in most office jobs, for example, jeans would not be appropriate but they might be in a restaurant kitchen.
Puzzling Terms for Dress
Sometimes the contradictory terms for dress found on invitations and announcements confound even native speakers. Does the “business casual” sometimes designated at work-related events like conferences include jeans if worn with a nice blazer, for example? Or can it be an Oxford shirt but no tie? And what the heck is the “elegantly casual” (or “casually elegant”) for some office parties or dinners?
Terms of Address
While the student may be fairly sure he shouldn’t call the teacher “Dude,” is his first name all right? Is “Professor Smith” too phony and pretentious? What is some advice we can give our students about what to call their teachers, bosses, or friends’ parents?
Public eating is one of those areas that again can make even sophisticated natives of U.S. culture nervous because the rules change, vary according to the specific situation, and in general seem to be booby-trapped, designed to catch the hapless eater in a violation of etiquette. For example, I just read an article in the jobs section my local newspaper, in which the author advised job candidates, if invited to a meal as part of a job interview, not accept an alcoholic drink even if offered—on the belief the potential employers are watching and taking note of the job seeker’s alcohol habits and might form negative opinions. This seems a form of entrapment, but the advice not to imbibe in this situation is sound.
General Guidelines for the Informal/Formal Dilemma
So what to do in these difficult etiquette situations? Some might suggest leaving home as little as possible to avoid being caught in an etiquette violation. However, there are some guidelines our students can use so that they can negotiate different social situations comfortably.
Consider the Setting
The setting plays a big role in the level of formality: an outdoor party such as a barbeque or picnic will usually demand less formality in dress and manners than one held in a fine restaurant or hotel. It’s usually acceptable at a picnic, for example, to pick up food like sandwiches and pieces of fried chicken with your hands; it’s less acceptable in a fine restaurant. Similarly, when I worked in a fine clothing store in college I wore more formal clothes than when I worked in an appliance repair shop.
Err on the Side of the Formal
If you are new to a situation and really aren’t sure about the level of formality required, behave in a more formal manner until you learn otherwise. For example, call your boss and teacher by last name unless invited to use first names. Wear more formal clothes—slacks rather than jeans, for example--until you see how other people dress in that environment.
How do the rest of the employees address your boss? If they use his first name, it’s an indication that he is open to or even prefers this. Many Americans are in fact uncomfortable being addressed as “Mr. Smith,” responding something like “Mr. Smith is my father; I’m Bob,” demonstrating the informal and youth-oriented nature of U.S. culture. Observing the behavior and responses of others will tell a lot about not only the country’s culture but also the culture of the specific organization: each workplace has its own culture and standards of behavior, and while in one office jeans may be acceptable, for example, they won’t be in another. When eating in a restaurant, observe others for cues on which fork to use or whether or not alcohol is acceptable. U.S. citizens may themselves engage in this kind of observation because, while familiar with the overall culture of the country, they are not necessarily familiar with the “culture” of the specific situation: because I know how to eat in restaurants in general in the U.S. doesn’t mean I know in a specific restaurant what the heck that specific fork is for!
When all else fails, ask! You probably aren’t the only person with questions. For example, if you’re unsure what to wear to the meeting or conference, ask your coworkers what is meant by “business casual.” Don’t be surprised if they don’t know exactly either, but they may very well be able to say what they have worn in the past at such events and if it was acceptable. Often a term like “casually elegant” or “business casual” are best defined by example, and you’ll get your best examples usually by asking. When I started my first job out of college, I asked my supervisor what kind of clothes would be acceptable for the office, and got a list in response: jeans were not acceptable although corduroys and khakis were, and dresses and heels were generally not expected. It might have taken me about a month to figure this out on my own.
Although today largely an informal, jeans-wearing culture, Americans are not too far removed from their hats-and-gloves past and are often themselves unsure of when “Casual Friday has gone too far,” as a recent cartoon observed beneath a picture of office personnel in various stages of undress.
Complicating this uncertain boundary is the fact most rules regarding informality and formality are unwritten. But through careful observation and asking, as well as considering the setting and erring on the side of the formal, students can negotiate the uncertain formal-informal territory.