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Have you got style?

Most people connect the word style with fashion, particularly with clothes. In a sense, language too is either "dressed up" or "dressed down", depending on the situation you are in or who you are talking to. Style covers a variety of subjects but two aspects of style which are vitally important in business communication are formality and diplomacy.


English is different from many other languages in that its spoken form differs considerably from its written form. Naturally, written English tends to be more formal.

Spoken English contains a great many contractions such as "it's", meaning "it is" or "it has", "I've", meaning "I have", "he's", meaning "he is" or "he has", "we'd", meaning "we would" or "we had". These contractions, used widely in conversation, are not used in written English (except, perhaps, in informal friendly letters). They would not be used in a formal letter or report.

Another aspect of formality which is important in report writing is the use of the passive voice. If you were giving advice in spoken English, for example, you would probably use an "active" sentence, such as "if I were you, I'd relocate the factory." This type of sentence would not be used in a business letter or report. The sentence would probably read: "It is recommended that the factory be relocated." In formal written English, it is also often preferable to avoid using personal pronouns, such as I or we, in order to make the text more impersonal.


In addition to formal written style, English also has a unique diplomatic spoken style. Native speakers often try not to sound too direct. Examples of this tactful style include using I'd like instead of I want, eg "I'd like to hear your proposals", rather than "I want to hear your proposals...". Another example is "Perhaps we should now consider..." rather than "Now, it's time to consider...".

Native speakers also try to avoid giving an unnecessarily negative impression. For example, instead of saying "That is impossible" they say "That is not very likely". Or, instead of saying, "Wednesday is impossible" they might say "Would Monday be more convenient?". Notice the use of would which gives a more tentative sound to a statement or question. For example, "That is too expensive" can become "That would be rather expensive". Statements are usually softened by qualifiers such as rather, somewhat, quite, some etc. For example, "I don't fully agree" or "There is a slight problem".

Modifying your language in this way can be a useful tactic in business dealings when you are trying to establish a pleasant cooperative atmosphere, particularly with people of other cultural backgrounds. Indeed, in many business meetings and negotiations such diplomatic use of the English language can be a very positive aid to avoiding direct confrontation with your counterparts and a useful tactic.

Non-native speakers whose own language is far more direct may find it odd to use such diplomatic language. However, they should at least be aware of its existence, especially if they are doing business with native speakers of English.

Exercise 1

Change these spoken English phrases to more formal written language:

a. I'd like an answer from you soon.
b. If I were you, I'd launch the new product in April.
c. We'd suggest that you consider a different option.
d. Why don't we meet next Tuesday afternoon?
e. You can solve the problem in two ways.

Exercise 2

Change these direct statements to more diplomatic statements:

a. I want to look at the report now.
b. We can't possibly do that!
c. Next month is impossible.
d. I am fed up with these late payments - this is the third time!
e. This machinery is much too sophisticated for what we need.


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