The difference between formal & informal communication

Updated April 16, 2018

Formal and information communication references are most often found in the study of organizational communication, which examines communication interplay in corporations and other business organisations, as well as family and social units. It examines the flow of communication as it travels upward or downward, such as you would find among employees and their superiors; and horizontally, which is common among you and your peers, for example.

Formal Communication Examples

When you fill out a job application or complaint form, write a business letter or send a business request via facsimile, you are engaging in formal communication. Other examples include the human resources manual on your desk that contains your job description, vacation policy and other employee guidelines; a business meeting with an agenda; and even a job interview.

Informal Communication Examples

That handwritten note with a reminder to pick up steaks at the meat market --- and the kids from the babysitter --- that you tuck into your spouse's briefcase is an informal method of communication. Other examples include friendly e-mails, birthday cards, engaging in office or personal gossip, your late-night telephone chats with your former college roommate --- even writing a romantic message in red lipstick on your bathroom mirror.

Structured Format versus Relaxed Format

The primary difference between informal and formal communications is the presence or absence of structure or relaxed structure versus a formal structure. On application or complaint forms, for example, you confine your responses --- your communication --- within very rigid boxes or spaces. Your business meeting and job interview follow an agenda or format, guided by the interviewer, presenter or speaker. Your note to your spouse, however, is free-flowing with no format or structure. Your late-night telephone conversations go in any direction, or multiple directions with multiple interruptions. Other notable differences include a formal tone (formal) versus a relaxed tone (informal), and contrasts in personal space or distance --- your informal communications will command a more intimate space than your formal.

Why It's Important

Communication permeates our everyday lives, formally and informally, socially and professionally. Recognising and understanding the proper communications etiquette, in terms of formality or relaxed, is important to gain your communications objective --- which is, quite frankly, to get what you want. When you fill out a complaint form, you want a satisfactory resolution. Perhaps you need to send a complaint letter; you need to construct that letter with a clear, concise structure, with the proper formality, to achieve a desired resolution. Understanding the differences in electronic communications is especially important today; some people get too relaxed when sending e-mails, even if it is for formal purposes. If it is a business e-mail, it should receive the same, formal attention as a formal business letter. On the other hand, you do not want to alienate someone at a wedding reception by coming across as stiff, formal and unapproachable.

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About the Author

Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.