Sep 27 2011 Published by under advising, students

Below are excerpts from an e-mail I received from a reader. After much thought, I decided to "hide" part of the e-mail, even though doing so may make the resulting comments less useful to the person who e-mailed me. Before presenting the e-mail, let me explain why I am not including certain adjectives.

The e-mail is about graduate students/postdocs from a certain part of the world; in fact, I don't think it will be difficult to figure out which part of the world is in question. I can relate to the scenarios described, but have not found these problems to be quite so confined to students and researchers from one particular part of the world. Unfortunately, these problems can be universal (and I am including Americans in that universe), although the person who e-mailed me presents a convincing case for success advising a diverse, international group with the notable exception of students from a particular part of the world.

With that introduction, here is the e-mail and a respectful request for advice:

I seem to have the same fundamental problem in all cases: I ask the {deleted} researcher to do a task. He/she nods. The task doesn't get done. I follow up. He/she slightly evades the question, gives some information about something else he/she has done, or even flat out tells me that he/she has in fact performed the task. I end the conversation, and check again more carefully and see again that the task is definitely not done. I realize that the scholar either (a) decided that I was making a dumb request, and thought it would be more polite to verbally accept the task but not do it, than to object outright, or (b) didn't know how to do the task but thought it was culturally unacceptable to ask the appropriate questions to learn. But I don't know whether it was (a) or (b) and I don't know how to find out. I've tried explicitly laying out options (a) and (b) and asking the scholar in question, but all I get is more evasive but generally polite and affirmative answers. I've tried conducting these interactions verbally and in writing. I've tried being nice, I've tried being firm, I've tried threatening. I've tried explaining very explicitly that I have read about their culture, that I know they feel it is rude to say no or to object, but that here, in American culture, it is much worse to say something that is untrue, and that I welcome well-considered objections or questions. But I just can't figure out how to get honest (by American standards) answers.

.. I don't know how to handle this: how can I trust a researcher with $1M equipment, if every single question I ask is answered with "yes", and if I can't trust the researcher to tell me truthfully whether they have actually performed X task?

How can I break this cycle? I guess the obvious answer is that I'm an idiot to keep hiring {deleted}. But I can't bring myself to believe that.There are many brilliant and extremely hard working scientists in {that part of the world}, and I feel that there has to be some way to enable them to function productively in America. After all, the labs work smoothly enough there in {deleted}, and fantastic science is performed, and fantastic papers are written. How can this happen, if the researchers there aren't honest with each other? They must be honest with each other, but somehow I am failing to ask the right questions to get the honest answers here in my own lab.

Do you have any suggestions? Do you think any {deleted} readers of your blog {from that part of the world} would have any useful insight?

Readers? No matter where you are from or where you are now, if you have any positive or negative experiences with advising or collaborating with students and researchers from very different cultures, do you have any advice?

For reasons related to my incomplete anonymity, I prefer not to address this question directly from personal experience, although I will say that I have had a not-too-long-ago experience with a student -- not from the same part of the world as the one my correspondent describes -- who was unable or unwilling to give (apparently) honest answers to even simple questions and requests. I never did solve this problem, so it makes more sense for me to ask for advice than to give it.

This is not an invitation to bash people from a particular part of the world. The general question is how to deal with advisees who don't give you straight answers, including when it is critical for them to do so.

I didn't include the entire e-mail, but my impression of the person who wrote it is of a caring, thoughtful person who really wants to be a good mentor and who has tried many different approaches to improve the advisor-advisee relationship. I therefore hope that, despite my deletion of {a part of the world}, there will be some constructive advice from other readers about breaking through the cultural communication barrier in the advisor-advisee relationship.

28 responses so far

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Had it. Mostly from the, ah, middle-south NorthAmerican region actually. No idea how to break it or get past it..

  • Anonanon says:

    The only thing I can suggest is not to take verbal answers any more. If the question 'did you do x?' doesn't get an answer, ask 'show me how you do x' or 'show me your data from x'. It will be slower but at least it should be possible to get the relevant info.

  • puck says:

    If I'm inferring the part of the world correctly, then this answer may be relevant:

    I've worked with technicians and assistants from {deleted} as well and was also quite frustrated at first. Everything was "fine", everything was "no problem", everything was "15 minutes" even when there were actually major issues that I needed to know and deal with Right Away.

    However, I recently took a language/travel class on visiting {deleted} that delved into cultural practices and was quite illuminating. In {deleted} (although not exclusively there, to be sure!), there is a very strong emphasis on "public face" versus "private face", with the belief that the "public face" should always be extraordinarily polite and respectful (even if at the expense of truth/honesty in some cases), while the "private face" is the place for concerns, negative emotions, imperfections, more of your "true self", etc. Situations in which revealing your public vs. private persona is permissible are quite complex and based in part on seniority - dropping your public face in front of a superior, especially in a work setting, would be considered extremely gauche.

    For me, at least, this was helpful in understanding why everything was always "fine", "15 minutes", etc. - the public face is giving you the answer you want to hear, and it's up to the private face to do damage control and make good on whatever you've promised. Throw in some good old universal nerves in lab, fear of your adviser, or embarassment over being confused about something, and saying "Yes, X is done" while X continues to not get done makes much more sense. (I mean really; how often has anyone from ANY country heard "Did you do X?" and responded brightly with "Oh! Yeah! X! Oh yeah, that's almost done!" while internally thinking "Crap!! I totally forgot about X!! Just keep smiling, and run off and do it as soon as they walk away...")

    As for dealing with it: that I'm not sure about. It sounds like the writer has been clear that saying "no" or "I don't know" is preferable to lying. My only suggestion would be to make it nice and clear, through actions and interactions, that someone saying "No, I didn't do this/I don't understand/I need your help" is actually a very good and acceptable interaction to have in the lab, to help deemphasize the potentially-deep-seated impression that such behavior will be seen as impolite or unprofessional.

  • Speaking from the perspective of an IT consultant who regularly work with teams from other parts of the world (perhaps even {a part of the world}), I've found it hard to overcome the cultural differences, such as the ones described in the post.

    One useful tool I've found is to:
    1) Demonstrate what I want done, the first time I want something done. This handles situation (b).
    2) Try to talk with someone with that particular cultural background, who have lived in my country for a while, allowing them to identify cultural differences, and ways to overcome them. This will help in situation (a).

    One comment regarding (b) - it's worth remembering that often the cultural bias against asking questions is not there in order to protect people from appearing ignorant, but rather there in order to avoid insinuating that the person who explained it, did a bad job in doing so.
    This might not be the case in the situation, but it is worth taking into account when explaining things to people - e.g. by getting them to demonstrate things afterwards.

  • Yeah, I have had this, too. My impression has been that people from some areas of the world learn that teachers are to be treated with absolute complete deference and to be told what they are perceived to want to hear. They are thus afraid to contradict what a professor says or--even more insidious--to tell the truth if they think the truth is going to be displeasing to the professor.

    What I was told by someone from such a country who has overcome this cultural norm that is completely at odds with the necessary robust hypercritical approach that effective science demands is that this is built upon respect for professors. Accordingly, I have explained to the few people in my lab that have had a problem with this that I consider it deeply disrespectful to not be completely open with me when it comes to scientific issues, and a show of great respect for me to tell me I'm wrong when I am wrong.

    I explain that complete openness and honesty with our intralab scientific discourse--while sometimes uncomfortable--serves to protect us from the potential for much more uncomfortable situations involving our relationship to the broader scientific community. Such uncomfortable situations can--at the extreme--include paper or grant retractions and accusations of fraud.

    These explanations do seem to have sunk in on the few occasions I have felt the need to employ them. I also say regularly to my lab members, "Hey, it is a major part of your job to tell me when I'm full of shit!"

    • muddledgrad says:

      "My impression has been that people from some areas of the world learn that teachers are to be treated with absolute complete deference and to be told what they are perceived to want to hear. "

      I know what this means as I was brought up with this culture (there are several regions in the world which seem to have this), but have out grown this as my tertiary education was elsewhere and I was exposed to students and profs from different parts of the world with different expectations.

      My question is how do you deal with a prof who hasn't outgrown this! He was trained in the US and is scientifically very good, but when it comes to communication he seems work in a very hierarchical structure and also difficult to put points across that are different from his way of thinking. I have made it through and called it quits when he wished me to keep working for him as I cannot be productive in such an environment but I see others who have the same cultural upbringing get timider and timider in public. And I find it detrimental to be in a position where you are too scared to contradict your supervisor on scientific points. How does one deal with this kind of situation?

  • If the problem is what CPP is referencing, during the training I have them try to replicate something either I or a previous student has done (usually a combination of both, but I'm vague about if it's me or the previous student). Generally there are errors, some of which I know about (and I tell them there may be errors, but not that I know there are). Through this process they find errors and have to talk to me about them, ask me about them, point them out to me. That gets them used to telling me when there's a mistake. They always blame it on the former RA, but sometimes it's something I did (and I praise them extra hard when it's my mistake they've found, and say that even *I* make mistakes and it's part of their job to find them).

  • Twoflower says:

    Ask a person from "there in {deleted} where they do fantastic science" how they deal with their researchers from {that part of the world}.

    Ask a researcher from {that part of the world} who has been in {your country} for 20 years or more (and hence will hopefully reply truthfully!) for suggestions.

  • GMP says:

    I have had a couple of instances of students from a particular country hell-bent on telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. There was this weird focus on trying to make me happy to the point of producing "data" they thought I wanted to see. One of them I also caught cheating on one of my course assignments. I must say that in both cases I ended I letting the student go because, after catching them in fraudulent activities, I could simply no longer trust them.

    I should say that I had other students from that particular country who were excellent scientists and did not shy away from stating their honest opinion; my first PhD graduate was a young woman from the same country and she was absolutely brilliant, forthright, and assertive. My faculty colleagues from the same country expect the same level of rigor, independence, and honesty from their students as anybody else. So many people apparently don't have a problem making peace between being respectful to teachers and stating their opinion.

    I'm not sure what that to tell FSP's letter writer, though. It's an issue of trust, and I don't know how I could trust that particular researcher after evading and outright lying. I would likely sever ties with that particular person.

  • RespiSci says:

    This is not unique to any specific region of the world. I think that the reason the professor referred to this aspect is that there may also be a language difference and as we never want to think we are being lied to, we default that there may be a misunderstanding, of language, culture...anything. You want to be nice but there are more important issues here than being nice. The reality is that you must be able to trust the researchers in your team. If someone is lying about something simple that can be easily verified, then you do have to ask yourself how on earth can you trust them with a $1M research study (or any study!). Remember at the end of the day YOUR research reputation is on the line. You must be able to trust the work coming from your lab.

    Be prepared for an awkward conversation but sit down with the researcher and go exactly step by step through your request to do X. If you aren't getting the answer you want, ask the researcher exactly what you asked in the email: how you can be expected to trust them with the research project, budget, training students etc, if they can't be honest about a simple thing like X? Be reassuring that you won't get mad if honest mistakes were made (I forgot, or I only did half of the samples because I misunderstood, or even I don't know how). Then be very clear and set a realistic timeframe in which the behavior must change with the understanding that a very real consequence will be that you will ask the researcher to leave the lab. I know that everyone wants to avoid such a drastic step, especially if the researcher is from another country and their working visa is linked to this job, but understand that there are actually even worse case scenarios. You may never get any useable data from this researcher, wasting your time and resources which could have been better spent on another researcher. Or you may even have to retract a published paper, leaving a stain on your credibility and integrity as a researcher and a scientist. Once lost, they are extremely difficult to get back.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    "Hey, it is a major part of your job to tell me when I'm full of shit!"

    How do they get anything else done?

  • anonymous says:

    Americans speak more directly than the norm in most other cultures. Asking a direct question, without any lead-in, or preliminary chit-chat, or pleasantries and including vague wiggle room in the reply will not get an accurate reply. If you ask a straight yes/no question, you won't get an accurate answer.

    You need to ask an open-ended question:
    -What ways do you think this can work?
    -When I did this, I had so many problems with A and B and C, and it took a lot longer than I thought, but what kind of luck will you have?
    -We talked mailed about this a few days ago, and now that you've had the time to think about it, what do you foresee the situation will be in a month?
    -What can I provide to do my fair share in getting this done by X?

  • SLAC prof says:

    I think there is lots of good advice here. My only other suggestion would be to find a research student from the same culture who is more forthright and honest with their advisor and have them explain what you want. I always found that many international students were likely to listen to each other when I couldn't break through or American students couldn't either.

  • anonymous 2 says:

    If you find that you really cannot work with someone who displays this behavior, I think you can at least partially screen for it during the interview process, in a more delicate way than just not hiring people from a certain region.

    Did the candidate ask appropriate questions while other lab members were describing their research? Did the candidate answer questions about his/her own prior research in a straightforward way, or in a "polite but evasive" way, even when the answer was, "I don't know"?

    You can also ask references questions to probe this:
    "I'm the type of person who likes it when my students argue with me. If someone is a 'yes-man or woman' they don't tend to do well in my lab. Does this sound like a good match for this candidate?"
    "Tell me about a time when this candidate struggled to get a result."

  • anon says:

    When I was a PhD student (for the record, I'm an American), a postdoc in the lab from Another Country had this issue. But she would tell me, the student, the truth (i.e., "I have no idea how to do this" or "...why I should do this" or "I have no idea what he just said."). I am not recommending this as a Good Solution, but what eventually happened was: PI comes into lab, asks postdoc to do something. She says Yes, sure, no problem, 15 minutes. He leaves the room. I ask postdoc, "Do you understand what he wants?" She tells me she has no idea or that she doesn't think it makes sense to do that, etc. I explain to her what to do and/or how to do it (usually writing things down as I explained them was way more effective then doing it verbally). With me, if she didn't understand she *would* tell me so that I could explain it better (but she would never, ever tell the PI she didn't understand something). I'll admit I learned a lot (and that probably helps me now as a PI), but it wasn't a great situation - I basically had to make sure I was within earshot whenever they talked. The PI had a vague idea that I helped her out a lot but I don't think he understood the full amount of it until much later.

    So, all that being said: is there anyone else in the lab that said trainee will talk to *and be honest with*?? Without ruining their ability to do their own job, can you enlist them to ask followup questions and help clarify things and/or figure out what is going on? Maybe if you can have some significant portion of your interactions with this trainee at lab meeting when everyone else is there to overhear it then it would make it easier for others to pitch in if you enlist them...? This is NOT a good long-term solution, but it may be something to fall back on as a short-term stop-gap...

  • Alex says:

    I suspect that I know which country this stereotype refers to, and all I can say is:
    1) My grad school roommate was from that country, and he was 180 degrees opposite that stereotype.
    2) More statistically relevant, my wife works in a place where her supervisors and most of her clients are immigrants from that country, and her impression of that culture is, again, 180 degrees opposite the stereotype.

    OTOH, if you are referring to a country next door to it, yes, I've encountered some people who fit that stereotype. However, my experiences with people from other countries lead me to reject explanations based on stereotypes, and assume that it's about the individuals in question. I'm sure that if I knew more people from that neighboring country I'd see how wrong the stereotype is.

    Of course, even if the stereotype itself is not true, obviously the individuals in question display the behavior that they display. It isn't because of their culture, it's just because of the individuals. This is a management issue, not a cultural issue, and you need to emphasize to the students and postdocs that nothing will happen without open communication.

  • Simjockey says:

    I wonder if this my country you guys are talking. It's either that or our neighbors, or perhaps even both.

    Anyway, my suggestion, if feasible, is to enlist the support of another person from that country who is a friend of the person in question and works closely enough with them that act as a conduit.

    In fact, I think I've performed this role myself - although this was when I worked for a US-based company and not while in grad school. One of my colleagues was having trouble keeping with expectations, and I just sat with him and helped him out with some of the difficult bits. I also used to do a "local review" before an official review with the bigshots from Texas. I'm happy to report that in this particular case, my colleague soon came up to speed and became a competent engineer. He is also one of my closest friends now. SO, good outcomes all around. 🙂

  • Cloud says:

    I think there is a lot of good advice here already. I just want to add: you're not necessarily doing your student a favor by not addressing this directly. I've worked with people like this in industry, and their careers inevitably suffer for this trait. If your student is planning to stay in America for his/her career, it would perhaps be best to sit the student down and directly explain the problem and the way it is perceived to an American.

    I'm not advocating for being culturally insensitive. I'm advocating for trying to help the student learn how to be sensitive to the expectations in our culture. It is hard to change behavior that is ingrained in your culture, but it can be done. For instance, I have mostly learned how to lower my voice and not talk over people when I'm traveling or even just hanging out with a crowd of non-Americans. It was really hard at first, but now I do it almost without thinking (I married a non-American and regularly hang out with a group of people from his home country).

  • anon says:

    Bluuuhh... as a particularly honest, blunt, loud, obnoxious American the sort of passive-aggressive evasive behavior that the letter-writer describes is one thing that drives me absolutely insane in co-workers. I don't know about applying it to any particular country-of-origin, though. I've worked with examples that are white southerners as well as various {deleted} countries. It's so stressful... the best way I've found is to avoid saying much and to communicate through an understanding intermediary (boss, coworker, or mutual friend) as much as possible. Not ideal but if it gets the job done, then it's fine.

  • another anon says:

    This is not just one country - for a moment I thought I had written the email! I have found that many of the suggestions above work, especially when laced with mutual respect. I have dealt with this mostly by demonstration (as suggested above) and making sure that what i want is written down (to be referred to and shown around until understanding dawns) - and then follow up regularly and thoroughly. In most cases this has led to a good working relationship in spite of what was (mostly) a language difficulty.

    Good luck to all of you!

  • moom says:

    I've mostly experienced this with people from Bangladesh. I sensed it as a face thing. That it is bad to admit that you don't understand or don't know what to do. This is important in some other countries too. But people from those countries get used to saying they don't understand due to the language issues. That's my theory.

  • Bah Humbug says:

    For all the people who want the truth. As a woman of color probably from the nations your refer to, I get a lot of shit from woman in academia. More stupid shit that wastes my time from them than your average white male chauvinist. You said wanted the truth. ... 😉

    Practically speaking in this situation gather a group of your students and tell them as a group you don't want any BS from them. If you catch them in a lie, there will be severe consequences. Lay out the behavior you find acceptable and unacceptable and then enforce it regardless of race and nationality. Praise the behavior you like. This is easier to do with a group than one on one I find because one-on-one you have to deal with the person's personality and accusations of picking on them.

  • malte says:

    May it be, that the stereotypes as in the letter may be sent by the governing party in contrast to the stereotypes which are exactly the opposite, which may have gotten the scholarships on their own or from other countries, so you have on the one hand those people who needed to please a fascist regime as on the other those who strive for their independence (through knowledge etc.)?

    In the end they are all people and I don't buy that people from one country are more dishonest respectively straight forward than from another, but that those political circumstances might result in those kinds of behaviour.

  • anon says:

    I (a PI, from India, currently in USA) hired an all American (white, born and raised in USA) tech
    who had similar problems. When confronted, she confessed that she had "people pleasing" problems and cannot say no to anything. I had to ask her to leave.

  • Tina says:

    As an European PhD student I spent some time in a research lab in a part of the world with these kind of social rules. It was explained to me that in that culture they already learn as children to read between the lines, so in their conversation they rely much more on "mind reading" than words. They do find it frustrating, but they are good at it. They have told me that they sometimes see Americans like children, who want to hear everything "in words" and rely on words 100%.

    So my suggestion is to change the angle from which you are approaching the problem. Spend the energy on "getting the person do the task" and assuming that the person will never change the way they answer your questions, rather than "getting the person to answer the question honestly" and "figuring out whether (a) or (b) is the reason for dishonest answers".

    Sorry that I'm not giving you specific suggestions on how to "get the person do the task" and it is definitely not easy. But getting the task done is what eventually matters, not whether the person answers your question honestly.

    Another suggestion is to ask open questions, and never yes/no questions (to which the answer will always be "yes") - this is from one of the books I read when living in that part of the world.

  • Cara Becker says:

    If I have the culture correct, you should understand that researchers there generally aren't afforded the level of autonomy and freedom that they are in the U.S. As a result, they are reticent to take action, even if they have been explicitly told to do so. Add to that the expectation that mistakes are "unacceptable."

    In fact, a step by step outline of what you want accomplished, with a firm deadline, may be necessary. You should also be very explicit that it is unacceptable to inform you that something has been done, when in fact, it hasn't. In the U.S. this is perceived as "lying, and covering it up," and that the consequences for that that are more severe than those of simply not performing the task.