It is often pointed out that some meetings are more formal than others (2). The distinction is all-important as choosing both appropriate means of expression and some particular line of behaviour is dependent on it. The related problems are no doubt within the domain of Business English teaching.
The degree of formality depends on the procedural characteristics of a meeting, which determine the type of interaction, the style of turn-taking in particular.
Various features of a language, like for example, forms of address to stimulate the participants’ contribution in the course of a meeting, the choice of formulaic language and the corresponding prosodic contours are all the result of the chosen style of a meeting.
Formal meetings are in opposition to informal ones for a number of reasons. The one, explaining the interest of a Business English trainer to them is that formal procedures allow clearer structuring of a meeting, larger involvement by the participants and generally more efficient discussion.
The realization of the category of formality results in a tendency to monologisation (1), i.e. taking turns in lengthy monologues instead of quick exchange of cues, typical for interpersonal communication.
This accounts for a greater necessity to maintain the structural integrity of a meeting and gives grounds for an extensive use of formulaic language.
"What have you got for us"?, “Go ahead”, “Anyone have anything to add?” “Any reaction to that?”, “What are your suggestions?” “May I come in here?”, “Just a second…,” “May I add something?”, etc.
Another instrument of structuring a conversation more clearly is resorting to different forms of address and ample using of interrogations. Since the size of a formal meeting is generally larger, specifying the addressee’s name proves to be highly essential. Interrogative sentences make up a polylogue, which develops in the direction prescribed by the agenda. Questions may be targeted at some of the participants, like Well, how about a lunch, Derrick? or at all of them, inviting them to speak: What do you have to say?
Informal meetings are characterized by greater flexibility and spontaneity, allowing a larger amount of interruptions and overlaps. They seem to be more interactive, since they give each participant more opportunity to take on the initiative. As a result, turn-taking becomes more frequent and loosely structured. Interaction becomes generally more multyfold, allowing participant/participant involvement as well as chairman/participant one. Effective informal meetings are more likely to take place within small teams of employees sharing common bonds, interests or having common business commitments and, more importantly, the same cultural background.
The latter factor is not to be overlooked. Non-native English speakers usually find it more difficult to take part in informal meetings. Clearer structure of formal meetings makes it easier for a person to tune in. It leaves no hesitation as to when and how to contribute to the discussion. Besides, informal meetings are often based on the internal group regulations, not always obvious to foreigners. This can be especially true in case of humorous remarks, joking, etc.
However, there can be found formal and informal elements of language in both varieties of business meetings, which can make it hard to classify meetings unambiguously as formal or informal.
A peculiar example of a meeting reflecting the case in point elements is an episode from Ian Fleming’s world bestseller “The Man with the Golden Gun” (3). It features a gangster meeting of six participants headed by a notorious crook Scaramanga, who is in the chair. The participants make quite a close group, bound not only by their common ‘business’ interests, but also by oath.
Nevertheless, the beginning of the meeting from the structural point of view is quite formal. The floor is taken by Mr. Hendriks, a foreigner, (presumably of Russian origin), who utters lengthy monologues, which logically cover the first points of the agenda, one by one: “and so it is that I will now report from my superiors in Europe,” “I have one most important message to our Chairman,” “Next I am wishing to know what is the policy of the Group…”The formal style set by Hendriks makes the Chairman act up to him, changing from “Hell, no! And should I care?” to “Next question, please, Mr. Hendriks.”
The meeting is clearly structured and is fully controlled by the Chairman. He is quite authoritative and rigid in cutting through overlapping reactions of the participants without letting them go any further than indistinct hubbub.
All the members of the meeting address each other by either family or first name. “So all right, Mr. Hendriks,” “I’ll pass on your saying, Mr. Scaramanga,” “Beggars can’t be choosers, Ruby.” It contributes to the formal setting of the meeting.
When the discussion comes to a disputable point, with the participants joining in chaotically, the Chairman takes over and directs the discussion by means of asking each member in turn for his opinion, which is in accord with commonly accepted requirements of a formal meeting.
What strikes an eye in this example is the specificity of interaction. All the members communicate indirectly, that is through the Chairman, almost without developing, clarifying or arguing each others’ statements. It is the chairman/participant kind of interaction that prevails. As for the choice of language, it is generally an interplay of a formal one with frequent slang interspersions, which are common for the class of people the participants represent: ‘So the net of it, gentlemen, is that we need to find ten million bucks.’ ‘I don’t want a damned cent of your phoney Notes.’ ‘Right. We’re all set.’
Structurally the meeting, however, does not look informal. It has the classical opening and closing stages, exercised by the Chairman. The performance of the Chairman is a highly formal one. It is through him that the whole interaction is carried out during the meeting. As far as the form of expression is concerned, the meeting is characterized by highly informal vocabulary and simple syntactical structures. Nonetheless it is perceived as rather a formal one.
Thus, a distinction between formal and informal styles in a meeting is of crucial importance. The two main features of a meeting – structure and language – can often clash. As the example shows, it is the structure of a meeting that determines the style of interaction between the participants and predetermines its general outcome. All the above discussed features clearly shift the focus of pedagogy from teaching predominantly vocabulary and formulaic language of meetings in class, which is often the case, to mastering the structure and procedures of a formal meeting.
1. Pamela Rogerson-Revell. Meeting Talk: A Stylistic Approach to Teaching Meeting Skills.//Business English: Research into Practice.
2. Bill Scott. The Skills of Communicating. Gower Business Studies, 1987.
3. Ian Fleming. The Man with the Golden Gun. Coronet Books, 1989, pp.102-111.