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I am a Ph.D. student in a country where everyone is addressed by their first name (professors etc.). I call my advisors by their first names and when we have visitors in our research group I go by this rule. However, now I am visiting a German university and I don't really know how to address the professor who has invited me. Before my stay, I would call him by his first name - but now that I have met him at his university and his Ph.D. students (who seem to call him Prof. X) I am becoming unsure about it. Consequently, I have been very inconsistent with how I have been addressing him.

My questions are:

  • should I apologize for being inconsistent/possibly being rude? Or am I overthinking this?
  • how should I address him?
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    You are massively overthinking this. One of the nice things in Germany is that people will normally tell you if they feel offended and it must be assumed that you are not aware of the customs. As long as nobody complains, everything is right. – Thorsten S. Dec 23 '17 at 19:44
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    @ThorstenS. Almost, but not quite. The Germans in Germany are normally very direct. As for the other nationalities, things can be different. – Leon Meier Dec 24 '17 at 0:33
  • My thought is to start with the more formal form, and allow the professor to invite you to a less formal form. That will avoid any awkwardness for the professor. In other words, if you address him as "Professor Schmidt", he can easily say "please call me Gerhardt"; but if you address him initially as "Gerhardt", he may find it awkward to say "no, you should call me Professor Schmidt". – Dawood says reinstate Monica Dec 24 '17 at 7:56
  • I'd say this is getting very messy... - and not easy to unravel. Some advice that was given in the past here on academia stackexchange, was to see how people respond in emails. If they use their first names in the email, you should be OK using their first name in real life. - If you have been communicating with the Professor using first names before, you should be fine continuing to use a first name - at least in "typical conversation". If you write a letter cc'ed to admin, you may want to use a more formal address. – DetlevCM Dec 24 '17 at 22:27
44

A lot of us who live in both worlds (I am German and frequently visit there, but live and work in the US), we call colleagues we don't know well by their first name when we meet in the US, and by Professor X when we meet in Germany. In other words, we use the common convention of the place we're in. That's probably a good rule for you to live by as well.

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    Things aren't always so cut and dried. There's variability. – aparente001 Dec 24 '17 at 3:50
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    @aparente001 in Germany??? How? – SSimon Dec 24 '17 at 5:59
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    @SSimon - Are you saying that these customs are perfectly uniform and homogeneous in Germany? No variability? – aparente001 Dec 24 '17 at 6:35
  • @aparente001 only if the professor is a foreigner. which is rare. – SSimon Dec 24 '17 at 10:05
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    Of course there's variation. I address my academic friends by their first names in Germany as well. But I think that as a rule, my answer is still a good starting point. – Wolfgang Bangerth Dec 24 '17 at 15:34
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By default, write Prof. Dr. Müller (or whatever his name is) and say Professor Müller at least in German. This is the golden standard. Addressing him in English may but need not be different from the above. In any case, if you start with the golden standard above in any of the two languages, you do nothing wrong, and, after that, it would be up to him to suggest a different form.

If you really wish to touch this topic first, a good manner would be "Wie möchten Sie am liebsten von mir angeredet und angeschrieben werden?" (“How would you like me to address you orally and in writing?”)

  • @Bernhard Where did the OP say that you don't know German? Moreover, you could write "Prof. Dr. Müller" and say "Professor Müller" also in English texts and talks, respectively. – Leon Meier Dec 23 '17 at 22:10
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    "Prof. Dr." is a German construct that I would rarely use in English, even with a German colleague. – aeismail Dec 23 '17 at 23:38
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    @aeismail I see "Prof. Dr. X" constantly used among Germans in English-language official e-mails or in e-mails among different-level colleagues. Still, same-level colleagues usually (not always) address themselves by their first names in informal e-mails. Sometimes they say Herr X or Frau X in same-level e-mails. The prelude to such first-name salutations comes, however, always from an academically senior individual. Everything in my experience, of course. – Leon Meier Dec 24 '17 at 0:35
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    @aeismail I'm German, born and living in Berlin (west). And I find that topic complicated myself in some cases. The "Prof. Dr." works like this: It is a shortened form of the formal name in the passport and is used only in formal references to a person. Like when listing an author name on a paper, or in an email signature, or a contract. Technically, there is no need to mention Dr., because you just need to be Dr. to become Prof. In a normal, polite email, "Dear Prof. Meyer, " is just right. "Dear Prof. Dr Meyer, " sounds odd, like over-polite. But, no need to worry! – Volker Siegel Dec 24 '17 at 2:47
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    @VolkerSiegel Professor is NOT entered into the passport AFAIK. – Leon Meier Dec 24 '17 at 2:59
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You are certainly overthinking it. Your professor has foreign experience, so he knows that there are different cultures. If he would care about your behaviour, he would signal it to you, e.g. resulting in a dialogue of the form:

You: "Peter, hast Du ... ?"

Professor: "Nein, Herr Schmidt, Sie muessen noch ...".

If you are in a situation where you expect that the use of Du/Sie and first name is important, you can use passive constructions to avoid explicit addresses. Then the other person can decide how to response, and you response in the same way.

Another common technique is the use of "Ihr", in particular in shops, clubs, or other groups. Its literal meaning is informal plural address, but it can be understood as addressing the person you talk to as well as the shop as a whole. Using "Ihr" in such a situation signals that you are comfortable with "Du" without forcing your counterpart. However, "Ihr" should not be used to a person which cannot be identified with a group, because in such a context it would appear extremely quaint.

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    Very good answer! (I'm born and living in Berlin) – Volker Siegel Dec 24 '17 at 3:23
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    I just noticed that, in the part of Berlin I live in, I say Sie in the bakery, and, one block away, I say "Du" in a shop selling beverages, sweets, newspapers etc. The difference is related to the interior design of the shop, in part. (It's not required at all to get it perfectly right - "Sie" is technically correct, and only slightly odd in the worst case.) Oh, and it depends on the age difference. No way someone not raised in Germany could ever get that perfectly right. And we know that. – Volker Siegel Dec 24 '17 at 3:37
3

I asked my German spouse, who says there's a great deal of variability in German academia, and recommends asking:

Ich bin ein Bißchen verwirrt, wie ich Sie anreden soll. Was wäre Ihnen am liebsten?

In English:

What do you like to go by with students? OR What would you like me to call you? OR How shall I address you?

As language or cultural mistakes go, this one isn't serious, and an apology isn't necessary.

2

While I generally agree with the above, allow me some additions. - German Professors usually prefer "Sie" because you are in a relationship that requires some distance: that is, the prof may be your examiner or your superior; and it just doesn't feel right to say "Du bist durchgefallen" (you have failed). However, I usually tell my international students to address me by first name in English because that is the customs in English, but that this does not necessarily translate into German, where we should use Sie for the above reason.

Long story cut short: frankly ask your professor what he or she prefers; if in doubt, stick with Sie (I would expect them to expect that anyway). Some prefer (or accept) Sie + first name, which may be an option for you too and is somewhat easier than changing from first name in English to surname in German.

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    This is not really true in the generality implied in the answer. There is huge variability between fields and probably universities. In the computer science departments of the German universities I'm familiar with, essentially everybody uses Du and first names. This includes students as soon as they have any relationship with the professor that goes beyond simply taking their class. (E.g. as their thesis advisor or similar) – Maeher Dec 25 '17 at 11:17
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    A certain person on TV also says "Ich habe heute leider kein Foto für dich" - similar to "Du bist durchgefallen". – Haudie Dec 25 '17 at 17:16

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