How to address your teacher?
Country differences in preferred ways of address for university teachers

Prof. Anne-Wil Harzing, University of Melbourne
Web: www.harzing.com
Email: anne@harzing.com

Country collaborators: Joyce BALDUEZA, Wilhelm BARNER-RASMUSSEN, Cordula BARZANTNY, Anne CANABAL, Anabella DAVILA, Alvaro ESPEJO, Rita FERREIRA, Axele GIROUD, Kathrin KOESTER, Yung-Kuei LIANG, Audra MOCKAITIS, Michael J. MORLEY, Barbara MYLONI, Joseph O.T. ODUSANYA, Sharon Leiba O'SULLIVAN, Ananda Kumar PALANIAPPAN, Paulo PROCHNO, Srabani ROY CHOUDHURY, Ayse SAKA, Sununta SIENGTHAI, Linda VISWAT, Ayda UZUNCARSILI SOYDAS, Lena ZANDER.

© Copyright 2010 Anne-Wil Harzing. All rights reserved.

Fourth version, 26 February 2010.

Abstract

This white paper shows that there are large differences between countries in the way students normally expect to address their teachers. Using a scenario-based study amongst MBA students in 22 countries, we find that students in Northern Europe have a tendency to be more informal and address their lecturers with their given name. Academic titles such as Dr. or Professor are more common in other countries, including the USA.

Gender-based options such as Madam/Sir and Mrs/Mr followed by the family name are especially popular in France, the Netherlands, Greece and Turkey. Some gender differences in preferred ways of address are also apparent: students are rather more likely to see a male teacher as a professor and are more inclined to use the given name for female teachers. Male students in particular appear to make some level of distinction in the way they address male and female teachers.

Keywords: cross national research, academic address, university teachers

Introduction

In a recent cross national study (see my research programs Language in International Business and The International Research Process) we presented respondents in 22 countries with short scenarios describing a concrete managerial problem. The scenarios included a predefined set of possible solutions and we asked respondents to rank their top 3 solutions. Our respondents were local MBA students in each country in question. They were on average 32 years old, with 9 years of work experience. International students were excluded from our sample. The resulting sample sizes ranged from 41 for the Philippines to 168 for Portugal, but for most countries were around 100. Data were collected with a paper and pencil survey in-class between September 2005 and May 2006. Questionnaires were translated into the local languages.

As scenario based questions are not yet very common, we included a "warm-up" scenario to help our respondents get used to the format. This scenario queried to the way students are expected to address their teacher. Students were presented with the following question: Imagine that you are doing an MBA degree at a university in the USA as an international student. One of your teachers is a 40-year old woman named Maria SMITH (Maria is her given name, Smith is her family name). She has a PhD degree/doctorate. In the first seminar she indicated that she has no particular preference as to how you address her. How would you normally address her when you talk to her in class? Please rank the best three alternatives from 1 to 3. Students were presented with eight answer alternatives: Maria, Mrs. Smith, Professor Smith, Dr. Smith, Dr. Maria, Madam/Mrs, Professor, Teacher. An alternative male version (Peter Smith) was used in half of the cases.

In this short paper we report the results from this scenario, concentrating mainly on differences between countries. As the scenario asked students to picture themselves as studying in the USA, we can expect respondents to have accomodated their responses to some extent to the US setting. However, the very substantial variety between countries in their preferred ways of address leads us to conclude that home country norms are likely to have also played a significant role in many countries. This is confirmed by anecdotal evidence acquired from all countries in our study. Hence, our results might provide some interesting insights into country differences in the preferred way to address teachers. Our paper also presents teachers with an interesting case study to discuss in their class as an introduction to cross-cultural differences in a setting that is close to students' daily experience.

What are the most popular ways to address your teacher?

Overall, the most popular option was Dr. Smith, with Professor Smith coming a close second. Apparently, most MBA students prefer to address their teachers in a relatively formal way, using their official title and family name. Formally speaking the scenario did not contain enough information to assess whether Maria/Peter was a full professor and hence the slight preference for Dr. Smith is not surprising. These two alternatives were followed by three others that were nearly equally popular: Professor (without a family name), Mrs/Mr Smith, or Maria/Peter. Less popular was Madam/Sir without a family name. Teacher and Dr. Maria/Peter and took up the last two places.

Gender and age differences

For most of the options, there were relatively few differences between the female and male version of the scenario. However, Maria was significantly less likely to be addressed as Professor Smith and significantly more likely to be addressed with the Dr. title and given name (Dr. Maria). Apparently, students are rather more likely to see a male teacher as a professor and are more inclined to use the given name for female teachers.

Differences are also apparent for the student's gender. Even when controlling for country differences, male students are significantly less likely to call their teacher Professor Smith and are significantly more likely to call their teacher by their first name than female students are. Male students seem to perceive less social distance between themselves and their teachers than female students do.

The two gender effects also seem to interact. Female students generally make few distinctions between male and female teachers. The only difference we found is that they are slightly more likely to address their female teacher with Dr. Maria than they do their male teacher with Dr. Peter. Male students display this tendency as well, but in addition are significantly less likely to address their female teachers with Professor Smith than they do for their male teachers. They also have a slightly higher tendency to address their female teachers as Teacher or Mrs Smith than they do for their male teachers.

There were also some age effects, with older students being more likely to address their teacher by their given name and less likely to address them as Dr. Smith or Madam/Sir. This could again be reflective of a perception of lower social distance between students and teacher for older students.

Differences between countries

Although all students were asked to imagine themselves doing an MBA in the USA, there were very large differences in preferred terms of address between respondents in different countries. So even though we asked our respondents to tell us how hey would address their teacher if they studied in the USA, apparently many of them were still strongly influenced by their home country norms. In the next five sections we will discuss the five most popular options in a little more detail.

Dr. Smith

The most popular option overall was Dr. Smith, with 42% of the students ranking this as their first or second option. However, as Figure 1 shows, large differences between countries are apparent. In the USA, nearly all students picked Dr. Smith as their first or second preferred way to address their teacher.

Dr. Smith was also a very popular option in the UK and Mexico, and in a large number of countries around half of the students would see it as their first or second choice. In some countries (e.g. Greece and Japan) this seems clearly influenced by the US setting of the scenario, as this way of address is not normally very popular in these countries. Countries in which the Dr. Smith option is not popular at all include the Latin countries (Brazil, Chile, France and Portugal) as well as the Netherlands.

Canadian students were quite divided in their choice for this option. Whilst students with English as their native language were amongst the many countries in which about half of the students would see this as an appropriate option, the Francophone students joined the Latin countries and the Netherlands in their limited support for this option.

Interestingly, even within the group of Francophone students there was a difference in the extent this option was preferred depending on the language of the questionnaire (questionnaires were randomly distributed in French and English in this group). Of the Francophone students responding to the questionnaire in French, only 15% preferred this as their first or second option, whilst for the Francophone students responding to an English-language questionnaire, this was 25%.

Figure 1: % of students ranking Dr. Smith as their first or second preferred option

Dr Smith

Professor Smith

The next most preferred option was Professor Smith. Overall, 37% of the students picked this as their first or second choice. As Figure 2 shows, the USA is again at the top of the list, indicating clearly that academic titles are used frequently in the USA. Interestingly, even though Dr. Smith was quite popular in the UK, Professor Smith is not at all popular.

Canada is closer to the US than for the Dr. Smith option. However, this is true more so for the English-speaking, who are identical to the USA in their preference for Professor Smith (71%). Francophone students chose Professor Smith as their first or second option in only 48% of the cases. For Francophone students responding to a French questionnaire, this percentage goes down to 40%.

Other countries in which Professor Smith is a very popular option are Portugal and the Philippines. The Netherlands again scores lowest, with only 6% of the students picking this as their first or second most preferred option.

Figure 2: % of students ranking Professor Smith as their first or second preferred option

Professor Smith

Professor

As Figure 3 shows, the use of the Professor's title without a family name appears to be very popular in Portugal, with three quarters of the students seeing it as their first or second most preferred option. Overall, only 28% of the students do so and there are only two other countries in which this option is popular with more than half of the students: Taiwan and Brazil.

Many of the same countries that did not like the Professor's title when it was followed by the family name, don't like using the title on its own (without a family name following) either. It is a very unpopular option in the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Ireland and France. Somewhat surprisingly, it is not very popular in the USA either, but that is largely caused by the overwhelmingly strong preference for Dr. or Professor Smith, leaving little room for other options.

Figure 3: % of students ranking Professor as their first or second preferred option

Professor

Mrs/Mr Smith

The gender-based Mrs/Mr Smith was a surprisingly popular option. In fact 31% of the students saw this as the first or second most preferred option. However, as Figure 4 shows, the preferences for this option differ greatly between countries, with 58-76% of the students in four countries (France, the Netherlands, Greece and Turkey) seeing this choice as highly appropriate.

Some of the Northern European countries also display some tendency towards this choice, with 30-40% of the students picking it as their first or second choice. In Canada, the French influence again was very apparent. Although only 6% of the native English speaking students chose this as their first or second option, no less than 46% of the Francophones did.

As was the case for Dr. and Professor Smith, the language of the questionnaire reinforced this difference for the two groups of Canadian students. Whilst only 33% of the Francophones responding in English chose this as their first or second preferred option, 70% of the Francophones responding in French did.

In other countries, however, the Mrs/Mr Smith option doesn't seem to be popular at all. In general, students in Anglophone countries do not seem to see this as a viable option. This might, however, be partly caused by the more explicit use of the Ms (to avoid the choice between Miss and Mrs) alternative in these countries. This might have led students to see Mrs as an inappropriate option.

Figure 4: % of students ranking Mrs/Mr Smith as their first or second preferred option

Mrs/Mr Smith

Given name (Maria/Peter)

As Figure 5 shows, country differences for the given name option (Maria/Peter) are even larger. Reflecting the general level of informality in Britain, virtually all of the British students had a strong preference for addressing their teachers by their given name. This tendency was also strong in Ireland and the other Northern European countries (Germany, Netherlands, Sweden and Finland). It was also quite popular in Chile and Brazil.

Readers might be surprised by the relative informality displayed by German students. German culture is normally considered to be rather formal, with a high importance attached to academic titles. Our results might be influenced by the idiosyncratic nature of our sample: German students enrolled in an English-language MBA program run by an English institution and delivered largely in the Netherlands by Dutch and British lecturers. This choice of sample was necessary because MBA programs are unusual in Germany. However, this direct exposure to different forms of address might mean that our German students were far more likely to adjust their home country norms than students from any other countries. German respondents were also among the oldest in the sample. As discussed above this will also have increased the tendency to see their teachers as peers and hence use a more informal way of address.

In Canada, the influence of the French language was apparent again. Overall, this option was less preferred by Francophones than by Anglophones. However, the language of the questionnaire made a huge difference. Although nearly 30% of the Francophones responding in English chose this as their first or second option, only 5% of the Francophones responding in French did. Finally, in most of the other countries, it is clearly not done to be on a "first name basis" with your teacher.

Figure 5: % of students ranking Maria/Peter as their first or second preferred option

First name

Remaining alternatives

The three remaining alternatives ("Dr. Maria/Peter", "Teacher" and "Madam/Sir") were less popular overall and chosen as the first or second in only a very limited number of countries. Only Malaysian students chose the "Dr. Maria/Dr. Peter" alternative frequently, with 40% picking it as their first or second choice. The only other countries where more than a handful of students chose this as their first or second option were Thailand, Mexico, India, Turkey and the Philippines.

Only Lithuanian students chose the option of "Teacher" frequently, with nearly 50% picking it as their first or second choice. Clearly this is a very common way to address one's teacher in Lithuania. The only other countries where more than a handful of students chose this as their first or second option were Taiwan, Japan, Mexico, Turkey, Brazil and Thailand.

Madam/Sir (without a last name) was a very popular option in France, with nearly 70% picking it as their first or second choice. It was also popular in India and the Netherlands, with nearly 50% of the students choosing it as either their first or second preference. The only other countries in which more than a handful of students chose this as the first or second option were the Philippines, Chile and Canada. In Canada, the French influence was very apparent again. Although only 9% of the native English speaking students chose this as their first or second option, 30% of the Francophones overall did so, increasing to 50% of the Francophones responding in French.

What are the preferred ways to address teachers in each country?

Table 1 lists the top three choices in each country in our data-set. It is clear that there is very substantial variety across countries in how students prefer to address their teachers or how they feel teachers in the USA should be addressed.

However, some broad patterns can be discovered. Students in the Northern European countries (Sweden, Finland, Germany, Netherlands, UK, Ireland) seem more likely to be on informal terms with their teachers, often calling them by their given name. Sweden, Germany and the UK even show a completely identical pattern of preferences in this respect.

The "Maria/Peter" option is also quite common in Chile and Brazil. Gender-based options (Mrs/Mr Smith or Madam/Sir) are popular in France, Greece, Turkey and the Netherlands. Lithuania and Malaysia display unique preferences for Teacher and Dr. Maria/Peter.

If a student would need to need to address his or her lecturer without knowing his or her preference, the safest option might be Dr. Smith. This is the preferred first or second choice in three quarters of the countries in our study. Professor Smith is a good alternative as this is acceptable in most of the remaining countries and a frequent choice in many countries. Only the Netherlands seems to be largely averse to any sort of academic title, with none of the top three choices containing academic titles.

Table 1: How to address your lecturer? Top-3 choices in 22 countries

Country First choice Second choice Third Choice
Brazil Professor Professor Smith Maria/Peter
Canada Professor Smith Dr. Smith Professor
Chile Maria/Peter Professor Mrs/Mr Smith
Finland Professor Smith Maria/Peter Professor
France Madam/Sir Mrs/Mr Smith Professor Smith
Germany Maria/Peter Dr. Smith Mrs/Mr Smith
Greece Mrs/Mr Smith Dr. Smith Professor Smith
India Dr. Smith or Madam/Sir Madam/Sir or Dr. Smith Professor Smith
Ireland Maria/Peter Dr. Smith Professor Smith
Japan Professor Smith Dr. Smith Mrs/Mr Smith
Lithuania Teacher Dr. Smith Mrs/Mr Smith
Malaysia Dr. Smith Dr. Maria/Dr. Peter Professor
Mexico Dr. Smith Professor Smith Professor
Netherlands Mrs/Mr Smith Maria/Peter Madam/Sir
Philippines Professor Smith Dr. Smith Madam/Sir
Portugal Professor Professor Smith Dr. Smith
Sweden Maria/Peter Dr. Smith Mrs/Mr Smith
Thailand Dr. Smith Professor Smith Professor
Taiwan Professor Professor Smith Teacher
Turkey Mrs/Mr Smith Dr. Smith Professor Smith
UK Maria/Peter Dr. Smith Mrs/Mr Smith
USA Dr. Smith Professor Smith Professor

Discussion and conclusions

This white paper showed that there are large differences between countries in the way students address their lecturers. Although all students were asked to imagine themselves studying for an MBA in the USA, country differences are so large that we can safely assume that in many cases home country norms have played a strong role in their responses.

Our data do suggest, however, that respondents in some countries may have made a more conscious effort to adjust to what they thought would be typical US based forms of address. We already discussed the German example above. In Brazil Professor [Family name] is normally not a very common way to address teachers and hence students might have accommodated to what they assumed to be the norm in the USA. This would have been helped by the fact that our Brazilian students were more likely than students in many other countries to have spent some time in the USA.

Finland also provides an interesting example. In general, students appear to avoid direct forms of address in Finland, but in situations where they are "forced" to use a form of address, they will typically use the teacher's first name (as is reflected in our data), although this does depend to some extent on the level of seniority of the teacher. Hence the frequent choice for Professor in Finland might have been influenced by the US setting. Alternatively, the fact that there is no generally accepted norm of address in Finland, might have led many students to pick this generic academic title as their second choice.

Mexican students showed a pattern of preferences that was virtually identical to that of the USA. Its geographical closeness to the USA and the fact that many students have spent some time in the USA might have contributed to this. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that Dr. [Family name] and Professor [Family name] are also a very common choice for Mexican students in Mexico.

Another reason for the similarity between the Mexican and US results could also be that our data were collected in El Paso, very close to the Mexican border and US results might have been influenced by Mexican norms. In order to assess this possibility, we compared students who had Spanish as their mother tongue and had one or both parents born in Mexico, with students who had English as their mother tongue and had both parents born in the USA.

If there was a clear Mexican influence, we would expect the former group to display more "Mexican" norms in terms of address than the latter group. However, this turned out not to be the case. The groups did not differ significantly on any of the options and in fact were extremely close on most options. In addition, the broad similarity of Anglo Canadian norms of address to those displayed in our US sample seems to suggest that it is unlikely that our US results were caused purely by sample idiosyncracies. However, anecdotal evidence does indicate that first name address is common in some universities in the USA and hence norms of address for teachers might display some regional variety in the USA.

In Germany, the use of academic titles is very common and our results are rather at odds with this, showing a dominant preference for addressing the teacher on a first-name basis. It is likely that the direct exposure to Dutch and British lecturers and their penchant for informality has influenced the German students' perception of what appropriate norms of address are in the USA, even though in reality US norms might be much closer to their home country norms.

Some of the significant differences that we found between countries would certainly seem to be related to general cultural differences, such as the higher level of informality in Northern Europe and the generally higher level of power distance in Asian and Latin countries. However, the general lack of formality in the US culture is not reflected in the educational setting. This could be due to the fact that Professor (typically used for all university teachers rather than only for those who are full professors) and Dr appear to be seen more as professional titles in the USA. Hence their use would not necessarily be as reflective of a high level of formality or power distance as it might be in other countries. Gender-based options were surprisingly popular in some European countries, most notably France, the Netherlands, Greece and Turkey. As yet it is unclear why this is the case.

Implications for students and teachers

This informal study shows that potential for confusion and offense is clearly present with respect to the best way to address your teacher. Students coming from Northern European countries would do well to become a bit more formal in their behaviour when they go and study elsewhere or write to academics in other countries. In fact, most teachers would expect written forms of communication to be more formal (particularly in their first interaction with a student) than face-to-face communications. Students from the USA and many Asian and Latin countries might need to suppress their discomfort when teachers in Northern Europe invite them to address them by their given name.

It is important to note that it is not only the relationship between student and teacher that varies within different culture settings and when one either studies or teaches abroad, but also perception amongst students themselves. It is not uncommon for some students who would normally address their teachers formally to find it disrespectful when other students are more informal. These students also tend to find it hard to comprehend why a teacher would accept what they perceive as disrespectful.

For teachers, knowledge of the cultural differences in addressing teachers will help teachers understand their students better and build the rapport that is crucial in maintaining a healthy student–teacher relationship. Being aware about students' different perceptions of "distance" between student and teacher help us to think about different ways to engage students. IB professors are probably more cross-culturally aware than many other professors, but all of the collaborators of this paper still learned something from our results. It certainly makes us want to set a norm upfront in our classes to increase students’ comfort level.

This short paper could function as a case study and an ice breaker for those teaching international students and in international settings, not only to understand why we have variations within the class, but also to debate how one feels with different ways of addressing others. This can be extremely useful in exemplifying how business dealings can also be impacted upon by people's attitude. First impressions are often important!