Zoek in de site...

We have big plans for you! - Forms of address in multinational job advertisements

Date of news: 2 November 2022

Some languages prefer to address people formally, others informally. What about the job ads of large multinationals recruiting in Dutch, Belgian Dutch, French, Spanish and German? Language scientists at the Centre for Language Studies (CLS) found that in German - known to be a formal language - there seems to be a shift from Sie to du. 'That knowledge is particularly relevant for intercultural corporate communication.'


Burger King, Vodafone and Greenpeace: large multinationals that recruit in different countries and therefore draft their job ads in different languages. Linguists Maria den Hartog, Marjolein van Hoften and Gert-Jan Schoenmakers investigated how multinational companies address job seekers in their advertisements in Belgian Dutch, Dutch, German, French and Spanish. 'In Dutch, Belgian Dutch, German, French and Spanish, speakers have a choice between formal and informal forms of address,' explains Den Hartog. 'In Dutch, for example, speakers have to choose between the formal 'u' and the informal 'jij' (both ‘you’ in English, which does not have a difference). We know from previous research that Belgian Dutch, Dutch and Spanish tend to favour the informal form, while German and French are more likely to use the formal form.'

Preference for formal or informal

How does that work in the job ads of multinationals? To find out, the researchers collected 485 job ads from companies recruiting in the five different languages. 'We know that social circle is an important factor in choosing a formal or informal form of address in these languages,' says Den Hartog. 'Especially in German and French, there is a strong tendency to use the informal form only for family and friends. For strangers and acquaintances, the formal form is used.' Since a company and the jobseeker do not know each other, Den Hartog and her colleagues expected the formal form to be used in job ads in French and German. In Spanish, Dutch and Belgian Dutch, on the other hand, the informal form is generally preferred. The researchers therefore expected that this would also be seen in the job ads.

For Belgian Dutch, Dutch, Spanish and French, the expectations came true. In the Dutch, Belgian Dutch and Spanish job ads, the informal form of address dominated. And in French, almost only the formal form was used. 'But in German we found something strange,' says Den Hartog. 'There was no clear preference for the formal or informal form.' Some companies chose to address potential recruits with 'du', and others opted for the more conservative 'Sie'.

Perhaps the informal form in German-language job ads is the result of company policy to address job seekers informally? 'Perhaps, but then that would not explain why French job ads from the same companies do use the formal form,' says Den Hartog. 'It could be that the formal preference in French is so strong that company policy is pushed aside for it, and that in German there is currently a shift going on from the formal to the informal form. That would mean that addressing strangers in German might not be as easy as it once was.'

Being friendly and approachable

The research by Den Hartog and her colleagues provides more insight into the choice of forms of address by multinational companies. When jobseekers view job advertisements, they are strangers to the company addressing them. A formal form of address would then be the most obvious choice. But in the texts Den Hartog and her colleagues examined, this was true only for French. 'We think the choice of the informal form is a conscious attempt by certain companies to come across as approachable and friendly,' says Den Hartog. 'It is good to be aware of such differences between languages. That knowledge is particularly relevant for intercultural business communication, for example.'

Read the article Pronouns of address in recruitment advertisements from multinational companies here.