Our exit surveys exhibit a wide range of preferences for formality levels. Many of our users write to tell us that they appreciate the approachable, informal tone that many AskAwayers take on during a chat. Some users want AAers to express more formality, while others complain that we're not casual enough.
So how can you make sure that patrons of all types are happy and comfortable with the tone of their interactions? Here are some tips, courtesy of this study of chat reference and politeness theory.
From the article:
Users tended to be less formal than library staff; however staff tended to adjust their own formality levels to that of the users. If a user started at a moderately formal level but quickly moved to a low-formal level, the librarian tended to move from a high-formality level to a moderate-formality level. That is, the librarian tended to stay a notch or two higher. That arrangement appeared to be comfortable for both parties in that neither made radical shifts to match or contrast with the other. As the help-seeker, the user needed to ask the library staff for a simple fact or actual guidance on a more complex problem. Ceding some control also permitted the user to cede responsibility to some extent; the comfort with which that occurred was underscored in the excessive gratitude and enthusiastic expressions of appreciation.
The take-away: Adjusting your formality according to that of your patrons puts them at ease. Staying just a notch or two more formal than they are keeps you approachable, but maintains your image as an authority or expert - someone who is able to provide the help they need.