A Comparative Sociolinguistic Study  

German Results

Below, the answers of the German informants will be analyzed question by question with a focus on how they compare to, and especially deviate from, U.S. Results. For a more concise account of key observations and findings, please refer to Summary and Conclusion.

The questionnaire contained the following introductory information:
Imagine you are studying at a new university. Please answer the following questions concerning everyday situations in the life of a student. Some are simply "fill in the blank" questions. In some instances you need to mark whether you find certain expressions appropriate (i.e. they could be used without any problems) or not for the situation described.


Question #1
At your new dorm, you walk up to the front desk to ask where your assigned room is. A sign tells you that the woman working there is called Alice Irving (about 35 years old). Therefore you address her as “… Irving.”

In accordance with the U.S. results, the German students' most frequent choice here was "Ms." (56%). 36% picked "Mrs.," which doesn't seem to be an ideal choice according to the Americans' answers (except the Southern males, who showed a very distinct address behavior on several occasions of the survey). While the term cannot be ruled out as a potentially appropriate answer just because few (American) people selected it,1 the data nevertheless shows that it is not the most common or most accepted possibility for the situation at hand.


Question #2
After a good night's sleep, you get up and go to an orientation session for new students. During the welcome session, you meet the Dean, Todd Reed (about 30). You know that because just like you, he's wearing a name plate on his chest. "Welcome, ... (your first name)," he says, "nice to have you here." You answer "Hello, ..."

With "Mr. Reed" (72%), the German informants again chose the native speakers' favorite variant. Similarly, they did not want to use first name to a superior unless officially invited to do so.


Question #3
It looks like you'll have to pay most of your university fees by check. Because of this you  need to open a bank account. The sign at the counter tells you that you are talking to Robert Burns (about 60). You address him as "... Burns."

Expectedly, everybody filled in "Mr."


Question #4
It is Monday morning, 8.45 am in your second week of class. You are about to attend a 9 am lecture by Dr. Robert Tanner (about 50), who works at your university department. Before class, you need to ask him some questions. You greet him by saying "Good Morning, ...."

Although the majority is not as clear, "Dr. Tanner" was the Germans' preferred form of address also (56%). 24% chose "Mr. Tanner," probably in analogy to the use of German "Herr." However, the fact that only one U.S. informant used this term of address implies that it is (though maybe not impossible to use) at least less politeness-marked. Therefore "Dr." would definitely be the better choice in a situation like that.


Question #5
On Saturday night, you and your friends go out to have a drink. It turns out it's up to you to walk up to the bar and get the first round of beer. You address the student (female, about 20) working at the bar by saying "..."

Like the Americans, 76% did not use a term of address (or, linguistically speaking: used a zero form of address), but instead many used other politeness-marked expressions like "Excuse me." 16% used "Miss," probably because of the person's young age.


Question #6
You have to write a letter to your health insurance company. Since you don't know the person who will be responsible for your claim, you have to address the company in a general way. Therefore you start your letter with "..."

The most frequent answers were the two approved of by the native speakers, namely "To whom it may concern" (52%) and "Dear Sir or Madam" (24%). 20% answered "Dear Ladies and Gentlemen," which seems rather inappropriate because the Americans rated it so in a comparable sample situation (#10).


Question #7
Two weeks later, get your a letter from your insurance company which asks for some additional information. According to the letterhead, the responsible clerk for your claim is Amber Smith. In your second letter to the insurance, you can write directly to her and therefore you open your letter with "Dear... Smith."

Answering this question, the German students were about evenly divided between "Mrs. Smith" (52%) and "Ms. Smith" (48%). In a business letter like this, the latter is the safe way to go (compare the U.S. informants' answers) since it is the officially accepted term. As far as "Mrs." is concerned, its appropriateness in official written documents (and in many other situation) is debatable and depends on the background and personal preferences of the respective speaker. At any rate, only a small minority of the Americans chose it in this situation.


Question #8
You have started to work as a salesperson in a department store to earn some extra money. When your first customer (male, about 35) comes in, you offer your help by asking "..."

It seems like the most important thing in such a case is to offer your help in a generally friendly way, e.g. "May I help you" (see U.S. Results). However, the 56% of the Germans who added "sir" to that chose a more common (and thus probably more polite) variant than those who did not use a term of address (32%).


Question #9
Shopping for clothes, you find a nice shirt that you really like. Unfortunately, you can't find it in the right size, which is why you ask one of the salespersons (female, about 55) if it is available in your size. You draw her attention by saying "..."

In this sample situation, the answers deviated considerably from U.S. results. While only 13% used what the U.S. informants more or less defined as the standard, namely "ma'am," 38% wrote "Madam," a term that not a single American chose. As the U.S. answers to many other questions show, it is practically out of use in everyday American life. According to one informant's remarks, that might be different in Great Britain, which would explain why the German informants repeatedly evaluated it as appropriate in the course of this survey. The zero form, which 32% selected (e.g. just "Excuse me") seems to be a safe choice, but not as polite as "ma'am".


Question #10
To apply for a scholarship, you have to write a letter to a sponsoring organization. Since you don't know the name of the person (or the persons) you are writing to, you start with "..." Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Dear Sir or Madam76%2
(B) Dear Ladies and Gentlemen28%
(C) To whom it may concern68%
(D) Other: ...

Most informants voted along the lines of the native speakers, rating A and C appropriate and B inappropriate.


Question #11
On a sunny afternoon, you are walking to Starbuck's. Suddenly, you remember that you are supposed to meet a professor at 3 pm. In order to find out if you have enough time to get a coffee, you need to ask an unknown person (male, about 30) for the time. You address him as follows: "..." Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Excuse me, do you have the time?80%
(B) Excuse me, mister, do you have the time?32%
(C) Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?84%
(D) Excuse me, man, do you have the time?0%
(E) Other: ...

Like the Americans, a clear majority marked A and C as appropriate and D as inappropriate (everybody). The term "mister" was considered ok by a slight majority of Southern Americans, but evaluated negatively overall. With regard to regional differences, non-native speakers might be better off if they refrain from using the terms in question. Since only about one third considered "mister" appropriate, this is what most German students opted for.


Question #12
Going to a class on Friday morning, you meet your friend and fellow student Dan, who's talking to  Prof. Elizabeth Taylor (about 40, unmarried). Both of you have known this professor for a while and are on very good terms with her. Shaking hands, you greet her with a cordial "Good morning, ..." Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Miss Taylor56% (G) Ma'am48%
(B) Mrs. Taylor28% (H) Madam44%
(C) Ms. Taylor60% (J) Lady0%
(D) Prof. Taylor67% (K) Lady Taylor0%
(E) Elizabeth44% (L) Other: ...
(F) Liz4%

The results for A, B, E, G and also J and K (both rated inappropriate by everybody) were along the native speakers' guidelines, but German informants were a little too hesitant to approve of "Prof. Taylor," which was the U.S. informants' favorite, and "Ms. Taylor" (60%; 12% did not answer this part, some put in question marks). As far as "Ms." is concerned, the German data (not only for this question) indicates some insecurity about how and when to use this term. Although the U.S. informants were also divided about "Ms." in most sample situations, they gave the term a high rating here where a woman holding an academic title is addressed. Interestingly enough, 44% of the German informants can imagine calling the professor in question "Elizabeth," but not "Liz." On the other hand, both options were rated appropriate by about equally many Americans. Last but not least, the Germans' most striking deviance from native speakers' address behavior concerned the term "madam," which nearly half of them considered appropriate. Like in all other sample situations, U.S. answers here indicate that this term is hardly used at all in American English. It is debatable in how far it might be offending for a foreigner in the U.S. to use it, but it will most likely sound at least stiff or awkward to American native speakers.


Question #13
It's your birthday. You have dinner with some friends at a nice Italian restaurant downtown. You want to draw the waitress' (about 20) attention to order some more food. Please mark whether you find each of the following terms of address appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Miss80% (F) Girl0%
(B) Mrs.24% (G) Lady4%
(C) Ms.76% (H) Waitress32%
(D) Ma'am28% (J) Other: ...
(E) Madam20%

Most answers for this sample situation were in accordance with U.S. results. German informants only gave deviating answers for waitress, which they obviously considered more impolite than the Americans did, and "ma'am." While the former doesn't seem recommendable anyway because the native speakers could not agree on its appropriateness at all, the latter was almost unanimously marked as appropriate by them. Contrary to that, the German informants low approval rate shows that most are unaware of the term's frequency and versatile applicability in U.S. everyday life (see also Question #9). Although formally related from "madam," its function in the American English address system is, as can be seen from the data collected here, fundamentally different.


Question #14 
While you do your shopping in the mall, you realize that you've left your watch at home. Nearby, a woman (about 45) is shopping for clothes with a man who seems to be her husband. On seeing that the woman has a watch, you ask her for the time by addressing her as "...." Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Miss4% (E) Madam72%
(B) Mrs.76% (F) Lady8%
(C) Ms.48% (G) Other: ...
(D) Ma'am64%

Most informants rated "Mrs." as ok and "Miss" as inappropriate. In the U.S. survey, however, both received about 40%. The deviation is, as mentioned before, due to differing perceptions of the two words' implication concerning age. A considerable number of American informants, though the minority, seem to think that calling this woman "Miss" is a compliment because it implies youth. Along the same lines, they consider using "Mrs." inappropriate because it implies advanced age. For the Germans, who were obviously not aware of these possible implications, it might be recommendable to refrain from using either one in a situation like that, above all since it is one of the many cases in which (according to U.S. results) "ma'am" fits in perfectly. About two thirds of the German informants realized that. Even more, however, voted appropriate for "madam," which was again not an option at all for the American students. The German and American results for "Ms." (disputed) and "lady" (rejected by nearly everybody) were roughly identical. In the case of the former, one informant remarked that, like "Mrs.," it could have a negative connotation of implying advanced age.


Question #15
On your way to a guest lecture at your university, you meet a group of fellow students (male and female, ages 20-25). Assuming that they know how to get there, you ask "..., do you know where the lecture is?" Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Ladies and Gentlemen4%
(B) Guys96%
(C) Boys and Girls24%
(D) Other: ...

Apart from the 24% who considered C (rejected by all U.S. students) a viable option, the informants' ratings largely matched those of the native speakers.


Question #16
You go to see your professor's secretary Michelle Casini (about 25, unmarried) to ask for some information. You greet her by saying "Hello, ... Casini."  Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Miss80%
(B) Mrs.20%
(C) Ms.76%
(D) Madam0%
(E) Other: ...

The answers were, to a large extent, in accordance with U.S. results. The only difference was that no use of first name was suggested under E.


Question #17
You write an email to student advisor Angela Sellers (about 35, married). You start it with "Dear ... Sellers." Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

(A) Miss20%
(B) Mrs.96%
(C) Ms.48%
(D) Madam12%
(E) Other: ...

Comparably to U.S. results, a majority approved of "Mrs." ( in this case clearly because of marital status considerations) and disapproved of "Miss" and "Madam." Interestingly enough, "Ms." was considered appropriate by 60% of female informants, but by only 30% of males. While the overall rate is only slightly lower than that of the Americans, the distribution of answers according to gender is striking. Whether this results bears deeper implications, however, is a question this project cannot answer.


Question #18
The decisive day has come. You are defending your thesis before an audience of professors (male and female) and a few students. You open your presentation with a friendly "Welcome, ..."

Like the Americans, almost all informants (96%) picked "Ladies & Gentlemen," in two cases accompanied by "fellow students."


Question #19
Holding a university degree now, you take a couple of days off from your sales job to relax. Having gotten up just in time, you go to the university cafeteria for lunch. While waiting in line, you see that a fellow student has lost his/her wallet without realizing it. Since you are an honest person, you immediately say "... , you've lost your wallet." Please mark whether you find each of the following expressions appropriate or not in this situation.

a) the student is male, about 20

(A) Hey, mister16% (E) Hey, boy8%
(B) Hey, sir8% (F) Hey, you72%
(C) Hey, man68% (G) Hey88%
(D) Hey, dude44% (H) Other: ...

"Sir" was considered appropriate by nearly nobody. According to U.S. results, it would be somewhat unusual, but not unthinkable to use this term here. More than 70% marked "Hey, you" as appropriate although it was considered impolite by a clear majority of native speakers. All other terms were evaluated similarly by both groups of informants.  

b) the student is female, about 20

(A) Hey, Miss44% (F) Hey, girl20%
(B) Hey, Mrs.4% (G) Hey, lady16%
(C) Hey, Ms.36% (H) Hey, you76%
(D) Hey, ma'am12% (J) Hey92%
(E) Hey, madam4% (K) Other: ...

Again, 76% marked "Hey, you" as appropriate while U.S. students were of a fundamentally different opinion. Contrary to the Germans' ratings of 44% and 12%, native speakers considered "Miss" a good and "ma'am" at least an acceptable choice. With regard to the latter, the U.S. data shows that similarly to "sir," "ma'am" is used more frequently towards elders, but can be conceivably used to address young people, too. The case of "Ms." in this situation is again disputed. Only about one third of the Germans found it ok and the U.S. informants were about evenly divided.

c) the student is male, about 40

(A) Hey, mister68% (E) Hey, boy0%
(B) Hey, sir96% (F) Hey, you67%
(C) Hey, man8% (G) Hey52%
(D) Hey, dude0% (H) Other: ...

Most ratings being similar, only the evaluations of F and G deserve a closer look. On the one hand, German students were somewhat reluctant to use the zero form "Hey." Although it is definitely not the most polite option, most Americans found it totally appropriate in this situation. On the other hand, the German informants again seemed a little too apt to use "Hey, you" (40% approval), a form of address the Americans totally disapproved of.

d) the student is female, about 40

(A) Hey, Miss24% (F) Hey, girl0%
(B) Hey, Mrs.48% (G) Hey, lady24%
(C) Hey, Ms.68% (H) Hey, you40%
(D) Hey, ma'am44% (J) Hey56%
(E) Hey, madam56% (K) Other: ...

The problems with "Hey, you" and "Hey" as described under #19c hold true for this situation also. Now that the person to be addressed is a female older than the informants again, a phenomenon already described before (e.g. #14) can be observed. Only a minority considered "ma'am" appropriate although the Americans rated it so almost unanimously and more than 50% suggested using the (at least in the U.S.) outdated "madam." Additionally, more Germans than Americans marked "Mrs." as appropriate (see the explanation under #14) and Miss as inappropriate. In this sample situation, the latter, however, received highly varying ratings from the native speakers. In short, "Miss" here seems to be ok in the South, but not outside of it. Considering these regional differences, it is not recommendable for a non-native speaker to use the term in a comparable situation because people's associations with it differ considerably.

1 Variation does not necessarily equal a mistake. In the vast majority of cases, there is more than one culturally appropriate option. See also Braun, Friederike. Terms of Address. Problems of Patterns and Usage in Various Languages and Cultures (1988).

2 The numbers given always show the percentage of informants who marked the respective answer as "appropriate."