A Comparative Sociolinguistic Study  

U.S. Results

Below, the answers of the U.S. informants will be analyzed question by question. I will present the distribution of answers, point out deviant address behavior of sub-groups (e.g. Southern males1) where it is striking and try to account for some phenomena observed. For a more concise account of key observations and findings, please refer toSummary 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.”

More than 70% of the American students chose "Ms. Irving," the most neutral way of addressing a woman by last name2. This choice seems logical because Alice Irving's marital status is unknown. Additionally, it might play a role that she's more than 30 years old (otherwise some more might have chosen "Miss")3. Some 10 % each chose "Mrs." (mostly Southern males) and "Miss" (all females).


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 64 %, the answers showed a preference for "Mr. Reed" here. Apparently, these students didn't consider it appropriate to use a reciprocal address (only 9 % did so) - i.e. first name - in this situation because of the difference in status (maybe also age) between them and "Dean Reed" (as 12 % answered). At least they not until invited to do so. Some added comments like "unless he says he wants to be called by first name." This is the phenomenon Brown/Ford have described as follows: "The gate to linguistic intimacy is kept by the person of higher status."4 One informant in her late twenties remarked that she'd expect to call him Todd if they met more often because of their similar age.


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."

Not surprisingly, 91 % answered "Mr. Burns" in this case, since there isn't really any other option in combination with using the last name. Other options mentioned were "sir" and "Robert" or "Bob," in both cases provided Robert Burns introduces himself like that.


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, ...."

Informants almost unanimously opted for "Dr. Tanner" (91%). Obviously, the use of academic title plus last name (also "Professor") is perceived as very polite and therefore appropriate for addressing a non-intimate person of higher status, as is the case in this sample situation.


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 "..."

70% did not use a term of address (or, linguistically speaking: used a zero form of address). Instead, they just wrote down a greeting ("Hi," "hello") or another type of attention-getter ("Hey," "Excuse me") combined with the placing of their order. Several used politeness-marked expressions like "Excuse me" instead of a term of address that might convey politeness. The occupational title "barkeeper" or "bartender" occurred twice (6%), but one student stated that it would only be appropriate for a male person.


Question #6
Due to a minor car accident, you have to write a letter to your 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 vast majority of 79% selected "To whom it may concern" here. The only other answer mentioned more than once was "Dear sir or madam."


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."

In this written document in a business context, 64% put in "Dear Ms. Smith," which is the official politically correct variant as put forward in publications on business communication in the United States.5 Other forms of address chosen in relevant numbers were "Dear Amber Smith" and "Dear Mrs. Smith" (12% each).


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 "..."

"Sir" was the American informants' favorite term of address for this situation (about 70%). In most cases, it was accompanied by a politeness-marked phrase such as "Can I help you" or "May I help you." 24% chose these phrases without using a term of address (zero form). Overall, it seems like "Can/may I help you, sir?" is the most common utterance for this kind of situation. Compared to the zero form, it uses the term of address as an (additional) politeness marker, which seems appropriate when addressing a customer.


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 "..."

The most frequent answer "ma'am" (55%) was chosen considerably more often than the other answers "Ms."(9%), "Miss" (15%, all from the South) and a zero form (21%). Like in # 8,  other phrases conveying politeness, e.g. "Excuse me," were added in several cases.


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 Madam82%6
(B) Dear Ladies and Gentlemen21%
(C) To whom it may concern79%
(D) Other: ...

Roughly 80% considered A and C appropriate (although according to a comment, the latter seems rather impersonal) and B inappropriate. In comparison to #18, a situation of comparable formality, it then seems like "Ladies and Gentlemen" is only appropriate in spoken language. Proposals under D were addressing the sponsoring organization as a committee ("Dear members of committee") or by its name.


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?94%
(B) Excuse me, mister, do you have the time?45%
(C) Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?97%
(D) Excuse me, man, do you have the time?3%
(E) Other: ...

Almost all informants marked A and C as appropriate and D as inappropriate. Like in other sample situations (e.g. #8), using "sir" is more polite, but is obviously not considered necessary because the "Excuse me" already makes the utterance polite. With regard to B, there was a notable difference between answers from Southern and non-Southern students. While only 11% of the non-Southerners thought that "mister" was appropriate, 42% of the Southern females and 75% of the Southern males thought so. Overall, 60% of the males, but only 33% of the females considered "mister" appropriate. In short, notions of whether using the term "mister" (without last name) is polite in this situation varied considerably depending on the American informants' gender and origin.


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 Taylor55% (G) Ma'am45%
(B) Mrs. Taylor18% (H) Madam15%
(C) Ms. Taylor76% (J) Lady0%
(D) Prof. Taylor97% (K) Lady Taylor0%
(E) Elizabeth39% (L) Other: ...
(F) Liz30%

While only 18% (all from the South) considered B appropriate, the informants were about evenly divided about A (55% voted appropriate). Both results show that the terms "Miss" and "Mrs." have come to acquire other functions than just to reflect marital status. If it were not so, "Miss" would have gotten a clearly positive and "Mrs." a clearly negative rating since the person in question is unmarried. However, what happened here is that some informants, though the minority, interpreted the two terms more as an indicators of age ("Miss" implying a young woman, probably no older than 30 at the most). A significant number probably also thought that a woman holding an academic title ought to be addressed as "Ms." After all, characteristics like "unmarried" or "successful in professional life" are frequently associated with the term "Ms." and the women who title themselves so.7
Just like in #4, the academic title plus last name (D) was the informant's absolute favorite and received the highest rate of approval. About one third marked E and F as appropriate, but several comments indicate that in a situation like that, the use of first name towards a professor (i.e. a person of higher status) requires being explicitly allowed to do so - which is again the gatekeeper phenomenon described under # 2. Southern females were especially critical of using first name (only 17% "appropriate"). Of the 45% who approved of G, more males (53%) than females (39%) thought so. H was hardly rated appropriate and K and L were rejected by all informants.


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) Miss88% (F) Girl0%
(B) Mrs.6% (G) Lady0%
(C) Ms.67% (H) Waitress52%
(D) Ma'am88% (J) Other: ...
(E) Madam9%

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) Miss39% (E) Madam21%
(B) Mrs.39% (F) Lady0%
(C) Ms.55% (G) Other: ...
(D) Ma'am97%

With regard to A and B, we can observe three distinct groups of address behavior. Non-Southerners largely disapproved of both "Miss" and "Mrs." (only 11% and 22% approval),
Southern males preferred "Mrs." (58%) to "Miss" (33%) and Southern females considered "Miss" (67%) to be more appropriate than "Mrs." (33%). D was again considered a good choice and E was rejected by everybody. While the men were about evenly divided about the use of D, all women considered it inappropriate. This striking difference is not easy to account for. One could of course speculate that the term "madam" has the connotation of being an old-fashioned relic of a time when society was much more patriarchal. To a certain extent, that could explain why all female informants disapproved of the term. But these things remain to be investigated elsewhere.


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 Gentlemen19%
(B) Guys82%
(C) Boys and Girls0%
(D) Other: ...

The vast majority of the American students marked B as appropriate and A and C (everybody) as inappropriate. Apart from a zero form (as in "Hi, do you know..."), the only prominent possibility added was the typically Southern "y'all" (15%).


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) Miss91%
(B) Mrs.12%
(C) Ms.85%
(D) Madam3%
(E) Other: ...

Most informants opted for "Ms." and "Miss" to be adequate while B and D received no significant approval. Since the person addressed is young and unmarried, there is no conflict between age connotations and marital status connotations here. Several students suggested using first name.


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) Miss15%
(B) Mrs.91%
(C) Ms.58%
(D) Madam0%
(E) Other: ...

A clear majority voted for A as inappropriate and B as appropriate. No informant would use D, while there is only a slight edge for "Ms.," probably because the other informants consider it unnecessary or inadequate since Angela Sellers' marital status is known.


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, ..."

The majority of informants opted for either "Ladies and Gentlemen" (58%) or "everyone" (18%). Occasionally both were given as possible answers. Other answers included a zero form or address forms referring to the occupational status of the audience - such as "Professors and fellow students" or "Colleagues and Mentors."


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, mister30% (E) Hey, boy0%
(B) Hey, sir42% (F) Hey, you30%
(C) Hey, man82% (G) Hey91%
(D) Hey, dude51% (H) Other: ...

"Mister" and "sir" were declared inappropriate by a majority, probably because they were considered too formal for addressing such a young person. Contrary to that, "Hey, you" received a similar rating, but likely because it was considered too impolite or even rude. This is not the case with G, the zero form, which is rated a safe choice by 91%. The informants' second favorite was "man" (82%, incl. all non-Southerners), whereas "dude" was more often considered ok by students who are male themselves (67% approval; compared to a 44% rate among females). "Boy" was rated inappropriate by everybody.8  

b) the student is female, about 20

(A) Hey, Miss73% (F) Hey, girl15%
(B) Hey, Mrs.3% (G) Hey, lady27%
(C) Hey, Ms.52% (H) Hey, you27%
(D) Hey, ma'am55% (J) Hey85%
(E) Hey, madam0% (K) Other: ...

As usual, the zero form seems to be a comparably safe way out when in doubt about which form of address to use. "Miss" was considered appropriate by a minority of non-Southerners (44%), but by a vast majority of informants from the American South (83%). A similar difference, though not as extreme, can be observed in the evaluation of "Ms." (Non-Southerners  33%, Southern females 50%, Southern males 67%). "Mrs." and "madam" were ruled out by (nearly) everybody. The same, to a lesser degree, goes for "Hey, you" and "Hey girl." Lady was considered ok by 27%, all of which are from the South. There is a notable gender difference with regard to the use of "ma'am," which 73% of males, but only 38% of females approved of.

c) the student is male, about 40

(A) Hey, mister67% (E) Hey, boy0%
(B) Hey, sir97% (F) Hey, you15%
(C) Hey, man21% (G) Hey85%
(D) Hey, dude9% (H) Other: ...

The zero form is still widely accepted, but not as much as in #19a. Since a comparison of #19b and #19d shows the same tendency, the informants seem to perceive a higher necessity to use politeness markers when addressing an older person. Along the same lines, there is a lower approval rate of "Hey, you" (only 15%, mostly Southern males) here than in #19a. Not surprisingly, "man," "dude," and "boy" were not considered an option either. Instead, "sir" was rated appropriate by nearly everybody. In comparison to #19a, it is notable that age plays a much more important role than status (as a student) in this situation. Among the two thirds who marked "Mister" as appropriate, we can again observe a significant difference between Non-Southerner (33%), Female Southerners (58%) and, above all, male Southerners (100%), who generally marked a wider range of options as appropriate ("Mister," "man," "you") than other informants in #19a and #19b.

d) the student is female, about 40

(A) Hey, Miss53% (F) Hey, girl0%
(B) Hey, Mrs.27% (G) Hey, lady27%
(C) Hey, Ms.58% (H) Hey, you18%
(D) Hey, ma'am97% (J) Hey82%
(E) Hey, madam12% (K) Other: ...

The two best-rated options were Ma'am (97%) and the zero form "Hey" (82%), followed by "Ms." and "Miss," the latter again (see #19b) with a notable difference between Southerners (61%) and non-Southerners (33%). "Mrs." received a relatively low rating, maybe partly due to the addressed person's status as a student - contrary to her age, which would make "Mrs." a more likely choice than "Miss." But then again, "Miss" might also be regarded as polite exactly because it implies young age, as a few informants remarked. In that case, "Mrs." would consequently be considered an indicator of advanced age and therefore impolite. Madam (12%, all of them male), "lady" (27%, mostly Southern males) and "Hey, you" (18%, mostly Southern males) were marked as appropriate by few only. "Girl," naturally enough, was ruled out by everybody.


1 I.e. in this project, informants from Tennessee, Virginia, Arkansas, or Texas

2 I.e. unlike "Miss" (unmarried) and "Mrs." (married), "Ms." is neutral in terms of marital status. This is the traditional interpretation of these terms. As we will see, however, other considerations, namely age, play a role in today's usage, too.

3 Note: 30 is not some kind of linguistic border established by research, but just a rough guess at what connotations the term "Miss" might have with reference to age. The question of the implication of "Miss" and "Mrs." concerning age will be dealt with in # 12, 13, 16, 19b, and 19d.

4 see Brown, Roger and Marguerite Ford. "Address in American English" (1964), p. 240.

5 For instance Locker, Kitty. Business and Administrative Communication (New York 2003).

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

7 For a more detailed account of this phenomenon, see Murray's interesting study "Perceptions of Ms.-Titled Women: Evidence from the American Midwest" (1997).

8 I have heard that "boy" can have a pejorative sound when used towards African Americans, apparently because it was frequently used by white slave owners. How many informants felt like this, however, I cannot tell.