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Formality Vs Professionalism

Written by George Saxton - Sales & Marketing Support 

 formality vs professionalism

While on our way to a recent networking event, Sarah & I found ourselves talking about the interesting topic of the differences between formality and professionalism. Although it wasn’t a long conversation, it got me thinking about what “formality” and “professionalism” really mean. Something that Sarah said stayed in my mind, which I have paraphrased below: 

“I can go to a meeting in jeans and still be professional. Formality is something you show but professionalism is a way of behaving.” 

This may seem like a simple statement, but it started me thinking about what the differences were between formality and professionalism as I had always imagined they were one and the same thing. First, I had to understand the terms and pull apart any differences there. Get ready for dictionary definitions!  



The definition of being “formal” is: “done in accordance with convention or etiquette; suitable for or constituting an official or important occasion.” The final parts of that definition stand out to me - “suitable for or constituting an official or important occasion”. “Etiquette” (if you didn’t know) means polite behaviour in society among members of a particular group and “convention” is a way in which something is usually done. So, formality is this sort of mix between both convention and etiquette. In basic terms it’s “the model polite behaviour among others”. 

Formality is the sort of thing you expect when meeting new people or attending official events. You want to behave and look a certain way that others will find pleasing, making people want to talk to you or do business with you. 



You might be someone like me, who thought that formality and professionalism were the same thing with a few tiny differences. The dictionary definition of “professionalism” is: “the competence or skill expected of a professional”. “Competence” being the ability to do something successfully or efficiently. So “professionalism” is the expectation someone has of you to be as good (if not better) than you tell people you are.  

You don’t want to walk into a meeting not having any clue what you are talking about as that is not professional at all. You want to show you have the knowledge to do what needs to be done and tell people in a way that shows them you can be trusted to do it and not just talk about it! 


Formality & Professionalism 

I think it’s important for people to know this difference. You may go out to a networking event, just as I did, and find that you need to be formal with people you are meeting for the first time. However, after meeting them and introducing yourself you may want to loosen up a bit and show your professionalism more than your formality. You can go to business meetings dressed in your jeans and t-shirt, but that doesn’t mean you can’t talk about your business professionally. That is the difference between formality and professionalism. You may need to use formality to introduce yourself and to show you are worth talking to; but you can use professionalism to prove that no matter what you look like, you know all the details to manage your business skilfully. 


You don’t need to be formal to have professionalism. Professionalism is something you should always show in everything, even if you look formal or not. 


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