How to ask sensitive demographic questions in surveys: Cross-cultural sensitivity research

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Posted Jun 19, 2023
Rositza Dobrikova

The annual AAPOR conference is always a hotbed of innovation and insight, with the brightest minds in research gathering to share and discuss their latest findings. As a devout contributor in the realm of market research and insights technology, aytm stepped into the limelight to unveil a recent study that focused on a cornerstone of our industry: demographic questions in surveys. This important study took on a topic both delicate and crucial, namely the art of asking sensitive demographic questions in a cross-cultural context. In this article, we’ll go over the background for our research as well as share our key findings and implications. Let’s dive in!

Setting up the dance: Why this study is important

In our increasingly interconnected world, the significance of culturally sensitive research is paramount. To understand and accurately represent our diverse, global society, we need to consider the cultural specificities of the populations we study. This becomes especially important, and indeed challenging, when we delve into sensitive personal traits such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, country of origin, disabilities, and religious affiliation.

Each of these aspects forms an integral part of an individual's identity and can significantly influence their life experiences and health outcomes. Moreover, they shape societal structures, inform policy decisions, and play a critical role in addressing social disparities.

So let's imagine our surveys as a grand party, and our respondents as the esteemed guests. Now, if we’re organizing this soirée, we’ll want all your guests to feel comfortable, welcomed, and respected, right? That's exactly what sensitive demographic questions aim to do.

Think of it this way: When we ask a demographic question, we're essentially asking our respondents to share a piece of their identity with us. That's a big deal! We’re inviting them to step onto the dance floor under the disco ball. Some may twirl right in, while others might feel more comfortable tapping their feet from the sidelines. If we're not sensitive in how we ask, we might inadvertently make some guests feel like they have two left feet—or worse, that they don't even belong at the party!

Sensitive demographic questions are the charming hosts of our data gathering shindig. They make sure everyone feels included, no matter where they come from, how they identify, or what their life experiences might be. They ensure that the party doesn't just start off on the right foot, but that it's a smash hit, with everyone feeling at ease to be their true selves.

What's more, these sensitive questions aren't just important for the attendees—they're crucial for the party planner too (that's us, the researchers!). By ensuring everyone is comfortable and feels represented, we get a fuller, richer understanding of the party dynamics. We see the complete guest list, not just those who love to boogie in the spotlight. This leads to better, more accurate research, and a truly rocking party of insights!

However, the dynamics of these demographic aspects can vary drastically across cultures, influenced by societal norms, historical contexts, and legal frameworks. Traditional methods of demographic data collection often struggle to capture this diversity, resulting in data that may not truly represent the population being studied.

With that in mind, our research aimed to bridge this gap, focusing on two culturally diverse European nations – Germany and France. We sought to explore the best methods of posing these sensitive demographic questions, ensuring not just the accuracy of the data, but also respect for the individual's experiences and identities.

Our methodology: A two-step on both sides

At aytm, we've cultivated a strong reputation in the field of market research over the past two decades. Our team of dedicated statisticians, researchers, and developers continuously work on refining our sampling automation and algorithms. With our robust predictive modeling and multi-layer fraud detection mechanisms, we can ensure the speedy and high-quality completion of surveys.

But we don't just support the production of survey data; we create our own through our proprietary panel, PaidViewpoint. This unique community of global respondents provides us with high-quality, representative samples for our studies. So, truth be told, we’re not just researchers, or “party planners” in this dancing metaphor—we’re also a valuable tool for other party planners! We've also developed a fully automated insights platform that streamlines the research process from start to finish. That’s why this study is so important to us, and it’s why we were so excited to present at the 2023 AAPOR conference. 

With that being said, our approach to this delicate dance was two-fold. First, we conducted extensive secondary research to understand the consumer profiling laws and best practices in Germany and France. Then we designed a five-minute survey, which we administered to a census representative sample of 500 respondents in each country.

Our survey was meticulously balanced to represent different age groups, genders, and household incomes. So we posed different variations of each demographic question and asked respondents to evaluate each based on their comfort, ease of understanding, feeling of inclusion, and availability of expected response options. The data in each of the countries were compared to the US, which more or less served as a control group—as many of these measurements have already gained popularity and are commonly used in US based research (e.g., non-binary gender, ethnicity, etc.).

Key findings: Putting a new spin on demographics

Our research unveiled a treasure trove of insights, showing that crafting sensitive questions requires meticulous attention to cultural nuances. Here's a glimpse into our findings:

Going beyond binary: Approaching gender

In the realm of gender identity, our research confirmed that traditional binary categories often fail to represent everyone's experience. We found that both standard and non-binary gender options performed similarly in Germany and France. Yet, France showed a preference for the standard 2-option style, while questions about pronouns were less popular across the board.

Results from aytm's cross-cultural research into best practices for asking gender identity questions in surveys across the US, France, and Germany.

Gauging comfort: Questions on sexual orientation 

Our study revealed that respondents were more willing to answer sexual orientation questions when asked upfront, in all three markets. This underlines the importance of transparency and respect when asking personal questions.

Results from aytm's cross-cultural research into the best way to ask sexual orientation questions in surveys. Results shown from the US, France, and Germany.

Navigating nationalities: Asking country of origin

Germans showed a preference for questions about immigration level rather than a specific list of origins. However, both types of questions performed similarly. This finding underlines the importance of question design flexibility to cater to diverse preferences.

Results from aytm's cross-cultural research into asking country of origin questions in surveys. Results shown from the US, France, and Germany.

Counting everyone: Disability and religious affiliation 

When it came to disability and religious affiliation, our study found that French respondents were more comfortable answering disability-related questions than Germans. Regardless, the overall willingness to answer these questions was high in both countries. Crucially, our research demonstrated the necessity of a "prefer not to answer" option for such sensitive questions, as it offers the respondents the choice of disclosure, ensuring respect for their comfort and privacy.

Results from aytm's cross-cultural research into asking disabilities and religious affiliation questions in surveys. Results shown from the US, France, and Germany.

Changing the dancefloor for demographic surveys

The findings from our study carry significant implications for the field of demographic surveys and beyond. First and foremost, they underscore the importance of cultural sensitivity and respondent-first approach in survey design, especially when dealing with sensitive demographic aspects.

We can safely say that cultural contexts matter in how people respond to different demographic questions—and that this understanding can significantly enhance the inclusivity and accuracy of demographic surveys. This leads us to more representative data that can not only inform policy decisions but also support social interventions and direct marketing strategies.

This research also provides a blueprint for addressing sensitive demographic questions, which can be adapted and extended to other cultural contexts. This has the potential to revolutionize the way demographic data is collected and utilized, paving the way for a more inclusive and culturally sensitive research ecosystem.

And finally, the insights from our study can inform the design and management of online panels like PaidViewpoint. By incorporating these insights into our panel management strategies, we can better nurture our panel community and ensure the quality and representativeness of our data. That’s huge for us—and for our clients!

Waltzing towards a more inclusive future

As we continue to evolve in an increasingly interconnected world, the need for culturally sensitive and inclusive research methodologies will only grow. Our study presented at the AAPOR conference is a step towards this future. It brings to light the nuances of asking sensitive demographic questions and underscores the importance of a culturally attuned, respondent-first approach in survey design.

As we forge ahead, we remain committed to refining our methodologies, exploring new territories, and sharing our insights with the wider research community. We're already excited about the next AAPOR conference – where we’ll continue to push boundaries, engage our audience, and uncover new possibilities in the world of market research. Until then, let's continue to explore, innovate, and strive for a research ecosystem that truly reflects the diverse world we live in.

New grooves to enrich the research ecosystem

The insights generated from our research at the AAPOR conference come with a strong potential for application across a range of sectors. For policymakers, understanding sensitive demographic data can be instrumental in designing laws and services that are equitable and inclusive. For healthcare professionals, this data can guide interventions and strategies that cater to the specific needs of diverse populations. And for marketers, these insights can inform customer segmentation and targeting strategies, creating more relevant and personalized experiences.

But perhaps the most significant potential lies within the research industry itself. Our study can serve as a guidepost for other researchers looking to navigate the complex terrain of sensitive demographic data collection. It highlights the importance of a respondent-first approach, respect for cultural nuances, and the necessity for flexibility and choice in survey design.

In our quest for high-quality, representative data, it's critical that we continue to prioritize the comfort and dignity of our respondents. This not only leads to better data but also nurtures a more respectful and inclusive research ecosystem.

We'd love to share more details from this study. May we have this dance?

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