The trouble with first impressions is that they tend to stick around and settle down. So it’s imperative we take special care when meeting someone for the first time, especially if this is a person we wish to establish a social, professional or diplomatic relationship with. In other words, our approach has to ensure mutual respect, causing neither conflict nor rejection.
In theory, the safe approach is to complement our well groomed appearance and our good manners with the formal register of language. But alas, the world is too diverse to allow us such a simple solution. Often, the choice between formal and informal registers of language can have unexpected consequences.
For example, take a man who is in a relationship with a woman whom he eventually intends to marry. How should address her parents upon first meeting them? Formality can certainly denote respect, but in many cultures also mean imposing distance, and imposing distance is quite the opposite of becoming part of a family.
On the contrary, it’s difficult to take someone who acts a little too fresh around the office seriously. Whatever professional credentials and experience they may have would definitely come into question.
There are languages that have well-defined formal register such as Spanish, with its “tú” and “usted” dichotomy, German, with “du” and “Sie”, and French, with “tu” of “vous”, etc. Asian languages like Chinese manifest this difference as well. But then, there is English, whose speakers, bereft of this easy pronominal recourse, must make do with word choice to switch registers.
To make things even more difficult, in some countries speaking in the informal register denotes a lack of respect where as in others, formality can be misconstrued as casual aloofness.
And if the issue of register is so complicated within a single culture, imagine what trials linguists must endure as they localize documents, attempting to communicate across cultures. Not only must they ensure that the translated material is as accurate and unambiguous as possible, but also must they find the most appropriate register, taking into account the context in which the document will be presented.
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