You’re Talking to my Dad

Research insights on personalized greetings in different languages and countries

You’re Talking to my Dad

Research insights on personalized greetings in different languages and countries

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Pushpinder Lubana

Pushpinder Lubana leads global customer research on content and languages at PayPal and has a PhD in anthropology. She’s passionate about social change and leads the board of a non-profit in Kerala (India) that provides a transitional home for marginalized students who have dropped out of the formal school system.

“Hey there.”
“Good morning, Pushpinder Lubana.”
“Hello, Ms. Lubana.”
“Welcome, Dr. Lubana.”
“Hi Pushpinder.”
These greetings are a sample of what I might encounter on a given day, both online and in-person. Some fit perfectly and others may not fit well at all, either in the tone or the level of formality or informality, given my cultural upbringing and the context of the interaction.

How we greet someone has a cultural, emotional, and social subtext and says a lot about how we perceive someone. It can also say something about how they feel recognized, appreciated, or acknowledged. It certainly influences the subsequent interaction and how much or how little they engage with you.

Greetings are shaped by many factors. They might change due to the level of familiarity, the difference in age or social status, the power dynamic in the relationship between sender and recipient, the subject being discussed, the nuances of culture and language, or the method/platform of communication — email, text, account alert, in-person. The list is long. Our brains are in a state of constant cognitive processing and calibration to modulate the right greetings as part of human interaction. As you might have experienced, the wrong greet-ing can be off-putting, get your defenses up, or make you feel disconnected from the experience.

Products that interface with customers must mirror every-day human interactions to create an engaging and authentic experience. Given the richness and diversity in how people can be addressed, how should products and companies address customers in emails, chat, account experiences, and customer support so that it feels the most appropriate for the context and the customer? Does one size fit all? Should a business tailor its greetings based on customer preference or align its voice and tone with its brand value prop? For example, a gaming company might be more casual in how they address their cus-tomers, while a bank or a financial app might choose a safer, more formal approach given that the context is moving and managing the customer’s money. What works across customer and context?

It may have been two million years in the making, but we’ve come a long way from when early humans are believed to have first used language and started talking to each other as they made tools for daily life and learned to survive. Machine learn-ing and AI can now spin up models that can predict how soon you’ll die, tell us how best to quickly reply to an email, give us more accurate and faster weather forecasts than ever before, and guess our musical sophistication and the music we’ll tend to listen to. Bots can talk to you simulating a conversation with a human as soon as you land on a site or open an app, albeit in less than perfect ways. And AI is being leveraged to send personalized greeting cards, social media marketing, and product recommendations. Some might be even showing up on your Instagram feed or in your email inbox as you read this article.

The why

The solutions that catapult us into a tech-mediated world will miss the mark if not grounded in customer insights and research. The big data approach must be merged with human insights grounded in behavioral research to ensure that the algorithms we build are effective, human-centered, and culturally relevant. It may seem overkill to invest in time- and resource-intensive customer research for as simple a topic as how we address and greet people, but the price of not getting it right from the customer’s perspective is too high. Understand-ing how people think about personalized greetings will ensure that in addressing our customers in personal ways, we establish trust and connection with them, and at the minimum do not offend or alienate.

What do customers think of personalized greetings? How personal is too personal? What’s the right balance of formality and informality? How do people feel when we use one or the other? These are some of the questions we set out to answer through research.

As PayPal builds experiences and products for customers in 30-plus languages around the world — with the list ever-growing — we want to ensure that our greetings are on point with the brand, customer, and context of the experience. This overarching objective was addressed by research in four languages and three regions (US English, US Mandarin, German, and Polish) and is an ongoing research project on personalization that our globalization team is engaged in.

The how

A mixed-method approach was used to understand customer’s perceptions around personalized greetings and how we address them, as part of a larger initiative on personalization.

We did foundational research (review of white papers, secondary academic research) to identify gaps and learn from existing work; qualitative, one-on-one interviews with customers in the US (ten interviews in English and Mandarin); and quantitative research/surveys with 203 Polish-speaking and 205 German-speaking customers in Poland and Germany respectively.

The research was conducted in 2020. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the qualitative interviews in the US were conducted over video. Surveys were conducted in Poland and Germany on Qualtrics, an experience management and research platform.

The qualitative insights from the US research revealed broad themes and information that informed the quantitative research in the other two languages and regions. We also wanted to learn from the uniqueness of each country and language on this topic. We conducted survey research on Polish and German in this first phase because these languages were selected as part of a larger initiative on grammatical gender, personalized greetings, and customer needs. Other languages are to follow.

“…we want to ensure that our greetings are on point with the brand, customer, and context of the experience. This overarching objective was addressed by research in four languages and three regions (US English, US Mandarin, German, and Polish) and is an ongoing research project on personalization that our globalization team is engaged in.”

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 Key insights and themes

The following are from respondents to our interviews and surveys:

“Mr. [last name] is like I’m old. Sounds like you’re talking to my dad” —Male, 35-44, English speaker, New York (USA).

“My preference is based on where I am. If in China, I prefer my last name. In the US, I prefer being called by my first name” —Female, 25-34, Mandarin speaker, Massachusetts (USA).

“Personal address increases security. Scammers/phishers usually don’t know my name.” —Male, 25-34, German speaker, Germany.

“As long as it is not ‘Hello’ and it is cultural, I don’t see the difference [in personalized greetings]” —Female, 35-44, Polish speaker, Poland.

Key insight #1:

Personalized greetings build a personal relationship with the customer beyond the transaction, but there’s a fine line.

In something as transactional as moving and managing money through online apps, greetings make the experience more personal and human. A few key themes on personalized greetings that emerged across the languages studied:

  • It feels more personal and shows a relationship beyond that of a business and its customer
  • It feels familiar, like being greeted by an old friend
  • It makes you feel appreciated and demonstrates that the company cares.

People like to be acknowledged and appreciated as they use your product, and something as simple as addressing them by their name in a culturally relevant way can go a long way. However, there’s a balance. Overly informal greetings can come across as gimmicky or trying too hard, especially to younger users. More formal greetings may come across as cold or tone deaf, especially when things go wrong. However, when used with an empathetic and professional tone, personalized greetings can make a difficult situation less burdensome (“your account has been locked,” “your PIN didn’t work”).

Recommendation: Build a personal, human connection with your customers through personalized greetings, but ensure that the tone and greetings work for different contexts, especially when things could potentially go wrong.

Key insight #2:

Greetings are a universal human behavior, but one size does not fit all

The diversity of the human experience means that a single localization approach for personalizing names and greetings across languages and cultures will not hit the mark. Our research found that customers prefer to be addressed and greeted in different ways in different languages and countries. For example, the majority of English- and Mandarin-speaking customers in the US preferred being addressed in the product experience by their first name with a simple hello. These findings were unsurprising; while the United States is by no means a monolithic or homogenous culture, a more casual style of greeting is a cultural norm.

Among German participants, the most common preference was “good day.” In terms of how people were addressed, the preference was split almost equally between the following three styles: first name last name, first name, and Mr./Ms. + last name.

Both male and female participants liked first name last name the most. In the next most liked option, male participants preferred their first name, while female participants preferred Ms. + last name.

Younger males (age under 44) preferred their first name more than older males, but no age differences were found in female preferences. Among Polish participants, the preference was to be greeted by “good day” and their first name, or Mr./Ms. + first name.

Most Polish participants (over 60% for both male and female) prefer to be addressed by their first name only, followed by pan/pani (Mr./Ms.) + first name for 42% of males and 56% of females. Additionally, most participants (49% male and 56% female) preferred to be greeted with dzień dobry (the neutral form of good morning/good day).

Overall, the results indicate no statistically significant differences by age, gender, or educational level as influencing factors on the level of formality or how people want to be addressed.

Recommendation: Understand cultural nuances and preferences in different languages/countries to define your localization and translation approach to greetings. A word-by-word source translation will fall short of delivering an experience that builds a connection with customers in those languages and countries.

Key insight #3:

Addressing the customer by their preferred name builds trust and enhances security in digital interactions

Trust and security are top-of-mind for people as they navigate digital apps and online platforms that require their financial details. Being addressed by their name in a personalized way conveys an assurance to the customer that they are being welcomed and that they are logged into the right account. This assurance is amplified if the customer has set their greeting and name preferences themselves as part of the account set up. Respondents said things like: “if a product uses my name as I prefer it, I can be sure that the email is from them and then I’m more likely to open the email” and “seeing my personalized greetings and name the way I’m used to assures me that I’m not being scammed.”

Personalized greetings and name preferences set by the customer can be a “green flag” telling them that the message or the web page that they clicked on was actually sent by the company or organization. This green flag builds confidence and a sense of safety in the product experience, and encourages continuing engagement.

Recommendation: A sense of security and trust builds engagement with your product. Personalized greetings are one way to build this sense of security and trust among your users. Invest in learning about the unique needs and preferences of your users for greetings in different languages, and use those insights to build customer-centric experiences.

Continuing to shift

One reality of COVID-19 has been the seismic shift from in-person to online shopping worldwide. More and more people have gone online in the past year and have had to navigate digital interactions in new and bewildering ways. In June 2020, Statista estimated that there were a record 22 billion monthly visits for global retail traffic, with the highest traffic seen for every-day items such as groceries, clothing, and also retail tech items. Brands and products used by customers on a daily basis have an opportunity to not only do the right thing given this constantly evolving reality, but can also build product adoption and engagement, and consequently impact business.

We need to build experiences that are human and personal through the use of personalized greetings. But we also need to do the hard work of ensuring that the greetings are appropriate in different contexts, especially when conveying complex information or when things go wrong.

Further, we need to localize greetings based on a deep understanding of culture, language, and preference. Simply translating source content is never the right approach, but this is especially true when it’s something as personal and culture-specific as greetings.

Personalized experiences can convey a sense of security and trust. As new users come online and navigate the digital world, your brand has an opportunity to build their trust and sense of security through simple approaches like personalized greetings.

As we build and localize product experiences, let’s ensure that our approach reflects a deep understanding of the needs of the humans at the local level, even in seemingly simple ways like how we address and greet them. Delivering the right greeting to the right customer in the right context will ensure your products come across as human-centered and empathetic. 

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