Formalism and Details

I have been thinking about the merits of formalism in our laid-back society. I wonder how many people even have a basic understanding of parliamentary procedure or know what Robert’s rules of order are. I suspect that more people are familiar with the details of table manners than are familiar with the details of how to run an organized meeting.

I studied Robert’s rules of order when I was starting as the president of a graduate student organization. Before that I was aware of the general structure of parliamentary procedure but not with the details. Now, as I question if these are dying arts, I start to wonder what we might gain by making people more knowledgeable about these kinds of formalisms. In the world of text messaging is there something to be gained by putting more emphasis on the rules of spelling, grammar and punctuation.

I really would like to know what other people think about this. What is the value of the details? Are we losing those skills in our society?

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.

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8 Responses to Formalism and Details

  1. Mark Hansen says:

    In my youth, I was involved in Model United Nations conferences. I loved them a lot, as I loved studying the politics of the issues and the role playing. I also learned a lot about parliamentary procedure.

    Unfortunately, in my adult life, there are precious few moments I’ve encountered where this level of formality is really practical. In a business meeting of 5-10 people, parliamentary procedure can be as tedious and as much of a time-waster as disorder. If the meeting leader simply has an agenda and sticks with it, it moves.

    There are a lot of situations, however, where I wish that people could communicate in writing. There are reasons why rules are there for things like spelling and grammar. Even in text messages, clarity is important, but not always found.

    We have found it to be difficult to teach children how to act in more formal dining situations, but it’s always worth it in the end. True, sometimes we just throw together sandwiches and eat, but sometimes, there’s more finesse. In general, my kids behave pretty well at restaurants or more formal dinners here at home.

    I do admit, however, that I don’t know the deeper details of which fork to use in all circumstances, however. But, we still manage to be polite and respectful.

    I guess, overall, I don’t object to formality, in the right circumstances. I object when people enforce higher levels of formality than are necessary, just as I don’t like it when someone is less formal than is proper.


  2. Jason Black says:

    I once heard a very simple definition of manners that I think might be appropriate here: Manners comprise that set of behaviors that will serve to make present company feel most comfortable.

    In other words, proper manners means to treat others with respect and dignity, and to conduct oneself in a way that will not offend them. In familiar surroundings and among friends, easy and relaxed manners may be totally appropriate, indeed more appropriate than formal manners. At a state dinner among dignitaries, a more formal mode of conduct would make those present more comfortable, etc.

  3. David says:

    I can see that you guys don’t really crave much more formalism than we have in our society, which is fine with me, and not surprising. I also agree with Mark that parliamentary procedure can be a huge time waster – especially in smaller meetings. In fact I would not be surprised if someone were to do a study and conclude that parliamentary procedure, when it is used, is often used specifically to waste time.

    So now a question for Mark, since you learned about parliamentary procedure through model U.N. – do you think that the understanding of those very strict and formal details of meeting protocol is, or has been, beneficial to you even though you do not have many situations where actually using parliamentary procedure would be appropriate? To ask the question more simply – do you think that understanding parliamentary procedure has some inherent value to you independent of using those procedures?

  4. Mark Hansen says:

    No, not really.

    It has helped me to understand what’s going on in circumstances where it is being used. In other words, when I watch legislative sessions, or some such big meeting, I “get” what’s going on, in much the same way as someone who “gets” the game of football understands why it’s a good idea to pass or punt this play.

    Well, in the sense that having a broad experience helps me to understand more circumstances, it is good.

    But has knowing PP really helped me in my life? Not really. Sorry.

    Might I go on and comment a bit on formality in life in general, though. I also come from a different perspective. I, for example, see no inherent value to wearing a tie. I do it, primarily because other people require it of me (at work, for example), but I see no reason for it. No value for it, for that matter, either.

    Does wearing a tie make me better at my job? No. Does it make me more spiritual at church? No. But it IS what people expect of me. In my eye, this is a level of formalism that is intrusive.

    But it’s also not something I’m going to fight. No point.


  5. Jason Black says:

    I agree with Mark that there is no inherent value in wearing a tie. However, I do recognize the importance of an increased level of respect or deference paid by one’s attire in certain circumstances. I guess it is similar to the adjustment of our common pronouns to more formal ones when we pray – there’s nothing intrinsically better about using pronouns that in common practice most people scarce know how to conjugate – yet the reverence of our God requires it of us. Wearing a white shirt and tie, in and of itself, has no real value. But the wearing of our best attire for attendance at worship services is of value, as it symbolizes our inward commitment to raise ourselves above the natural man as we approach God.

    That argument probably does nothing toward increasing your desire to wear a tie to work, however. I guess the argument works the same way, but carries much less weight.

  6. David says:

    Mark and Jason,

    I think that the two of you have hit at the heart of my original question. Wearing a tie does not make you more spiritual at church, nor more capable in your work. Jason has made the argument that a tie shows respect and reverence in a worship setting, but admits that the same argument is not so powerful in the workplace. I agree on both counts and would like to delve into the work setting.

    My brother is a CPA and is required to wear a suit and tie to work daily. What do you think would change in his work environment if that requirement were dropped for all their employees? Let’s assume (safely) that their skill as CPAs, or whatever their particular function within the company, was not affected. What other effects might we see in a company when the policy was dropped? Would the net effect be positive, negative, or neutral?

  7. Jason Black says:

    When I studied labor economics, we discussed a principle called signaling. The principle is one of giving otherwise non-quantifiable information to others through some kind of symbol. An example might be a bachelor’s degree for someone working in a field where a degree isn’t required – an employer sees a degree as a signal that the individual has a certain level of dedication.

    Formal attire can be a similar signal to potential clients that the individual they are to work with is smart or skilled or ethical or any number of other positive qualities. This does not require that the clothing we wear actually makes us more productive, only that it gives the appearance to the end consumer. As an employer, I would certainly want that image and would likely require such attire of professional employees.

    Consider other non-productivity affecting, appearance related issues. What about extreme hairstyles (say mohawks) or visible tattoos and body piercings? How about torn or muddy jeans and work boots. Would you hire a CPA that appeared with one or more of these? You might hire a roofer with torn jeans, or a DJ with tattoos. But when you hire a professional, you expect a certain appearance. By extension, so should an employer.

  8. David says:

    I have heard of signaling before. I wonder if there is any internal reaction that results from those indicators. In other words, is it possible that I think or act differently when I am wearing torn jeans than when I wear my suit?

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