Interpersonal difficulties? Maybe they stem from cultural differences

Each of us comes to the table with our own special blend of cultural influences that shape our values and how we interpret others’ words and actions. Considering where others may be ‘coming from’ – literally – could improve our professional and personal relationships*.

I went to a book launch party a couple of months ago to celebrate the publication of a new book by Hazel Markus, a Psych professor at Stanford, and Alana Conner, a writer & science communicator who got her Ph.D. with Hazel:

Clash! 8 Cultural Conflicts that Make Us Who We Are

Hazel and Alana read excerpts of the book out loud & graciously answered a host of random questions, and I went home and promptly ordered the book online. It was an interesting read, with individual chapters devoted to specific cultural divides.

If you’re having trouble seeing eye-to-eye with someone, perusing Clash! just might help.

Addendum: Watch Alana’s TEDx talk about this book here

*Of course, we need to avoid reducing each other to facile stereotypes… I wouldn’t want you to rely on factoids about my upbringing in lieu of getting to know me, but knowing that I was raised in Canada as the daughter of immigrants from South America would certainly help you to understand my values and perspective on life.


About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
This entry was posted in Interpersonal, Relationship with your advisor. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Interpersonal difficulties? Maybe they stem from cultural differences

  1. D says:

    This is great advice, but sometimes I have trouble telling which culture some faculty are from. In which culture are people brought up to be hell-bent on personal gain at the expense of any concern for doing good science or for the well-being of others?

    • Silvia Bunge says:

      I’m not a clinician, but what you’re describing sounds like sociopathic behavior – either that or, more likely, a very unfortunate misunderstanding. Let me first say a few words about sociopathy, and then get to the bigger issue of misunderstandings between students and faculty.

      Individuals with sociopathic tendencies are attracted to power, so you’re likely to find a disproportionate number of them at the top of any hierarchy (university, company, government agency). The most fascinating book I’ve read all year is “Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight”, by M.E. Thomas. It’s an autobiography by a law professor — absolutely chilling. When you run across someone who displays these tendencies, there’s probably not much you can do other than to steer clear.

      Having said all of this, the vast majority of people – including faculty – are *not* sociopathic. Most faculty genuinely care about their students and want to be good advisors, even if they have no idea how to do that. Every student has a different approach to work, a different personality, and a different career path, so what works for one will not work for another. To make matters worse, faculty don’t generally get feedback from students as to what is or isn’t working, so they don’t know that they need to make a course correction. Or, maybe they’ve made a course correction in response to another student who needed something different.

      The very same faculty member may be accused of being either too hands-off or too hands-on; of treating everyone differently or of not recognizing an individual student’s needs. S/he may be ascribed ulterior motives despite genuinely having the students’ best interests at heart. The student/faculty relationship can be further eroded when students complain to each other without providing any context, painting their advisors in the worst possible light. Over time, a well-meaning advisor might feel like there’s no way to win – and might eventually stop trying, thereby further exacerbating the problem. Talk about a culture clash!

      My advice to students: 1) Give faculty the benefit of the doubt: operate under the assumption that they *want* to be helpful. 2) Find a way to communicate your needs clearly and non-confrontationally. 3) If you’ve been unable to resolve your issues with a faculty member, seek advice confidentially from your department’s graduate advisor.

  2. Silvia Bunge says:

    P.S. I’d like to emphasize the point that 99% of people are *not* sociopaths – and that of course one can never be sure without a clinical evaluation. The take-home message of this post is that, in the vast majority of cases, faculty really do care about their students.

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