Saturday, August 25, 2012

culture clash or what?

Since a few months I have a new colleague in my office: smart guy, very focused and concentrated, but always nice and friendly. Somebody you can chat with for 5 minutes and then go back to work. 
All seemed well and the sun was shining innocent in our office and no one expected the thunder storm that recently broke out - or at least I didn't!
A PhD student and I had a discussion in our office while NewColleague was there and suddenly NewColleague switched on his music. At first I thought that was not on purpose, but he didn't stop the music after a few seconds. So I thought, that might be a "hint" that our discussion is disturbing him and I asked him about it, but he negated - twice! So I told him, that his music is actually disturbing us and if he could switch it off. Ooohhh, totally wrong move! He just went so crazy, telling me in a very aggressive way, that there are rules - internationally accepted rules! - for offices and people should stick to them. But he of course could not make people stick to these rules and yes, sometimes discussions turn out to be longer than expected, but still... one has to stick to the rules. And if a discussion takes longer than 15 min, one should leave the office for that, there are meeting rooms and coffee shops for these occasions,.... . 
I couldn't make out his point from what he was saying, because he never said, that we are actually disturbing him. He just went on about internationally accepted rules and that he sticks to them. I told him several times during his speech that in case I'm disturbing him, he must tell me that. But he didn't! And as I thought it was very rude of him to "educate" me in front of my PhD student, I was not willing to follow his un-spoken wish. Instead I turned around after he was finished and continued my discussion. He interrupted us once more to continue his speech and after that I again turned around and continued talking to my PhD student. And finally then he managed to say, that we are disturbing him and we should leave the office - what we then did.
The temperature in the office dropped by a few degrees.
A few days later the discussion continued, after I - not very diplomatic, I know - reminded him of his internationally accepted rules, after he had a discussion in the office, which exceeded the magical 15 minutes. There was nobody else in the office at that time and he got so mad at me, interrupting half of my sentences, was offended, when I asked him to repeat something, because I didn't understand it through all the anger,... .
I offered that we could set up some rules together with the other colleagues in the office, but he said, that's not necessary, because I am the only problem in the office. As I did not agree to his point of view, he decided, that it's a waste of time talking to me and dropped out of the discussion.
The temperature dropped below freezing temperature and there it is.
I know that I could have been much more perceptive in this situation and could have stopped the escalation of the topic. But if I would have given in, while my PhD student was there, I would have lost my standing with both of them - and the situation was just to surprising and ridiculous and rude!

I'm not sure where NewColleagues sudden emotional release came from. I never had any problems in the various offices I worked in and none of my "older" colleagues ever mentioned, that I'm disturbing them.

Three theories:
1) It's a woman-man problem, as I'm the only woman in the office and NewColleague has a problem to fit in his big Ego into the same room with a woman, without being accepted as superior right away.
2) It's a culture problem, as he comes from an Asian country, where people are maybe not used to being direct, when they feel disturbed. From his point of view being direct might be impolite and so he sent subtle signals to express his discomfort. I, on the other hand, don't have the sensing abilities to deal with this, as I never needed them - this might as well explain, why my other colleagues never said something so far, as they come from Asian countries as well ( that's a very generalized statement, of course)
3) I am an unpolite and rude person and was just lucky so far with the offices I've worked in, that the people could deal with it.

Any other suggestions?


  1. It could in part at least be cultural, especially the over-reaction - DrVisit is a research fellow from an Asian country, quiet, mild and a good office/room mate, but when she was annoyed she shouted, immediately, and at first for us this was really shocking, but then we learnt that it didn't mean anything like as serious a level of upset as it would if a UK person reached shouting point!

  2. That's a good point. I guess, there will be a steep learning curve on this topic during the next time. However, the temperature in our office did increase a bit over the weekend and he starts saying "Hi" and "bye" again!

  3. Oh this makes me mad. I come from an Asian culture as well, where it is hard for people to state their needs, but it is not considered polite to blow up and get mad. A person with an anger problem may be able to get away with it his hopme country because people there don't know how to state that he makes them uncomfortable, but they certain don't think it's cool.

    I would say, keep an eye on this one (and maybe lock your computer?) The more patriarchal a culture a man comes from, the less I trust him to be able to handle his ego. It may be cultural, it may be a M-F thing, it may be that he has other problems in his life that he is having a hard time dealing with. Whatever the case, this type of behaviour has a chance of getting him in trouble later in life. This is not to imply that you are responsible for educating him, just a point to remember as you figure out your office dynamics.

    On a less important point, I don't agree with his international rules. Where I come from, when I shared my office space (with international grad students), and if we knew we were going to have a visitor, we cleared it with the other people in the office, and worked quietly at our desk with the visiting person. If having a visitor over at a scheduled time was inconvenient for someone, or someone dropped in when there were a lot of people in the office, we'd step out with the visitor. All else failing, if someone else's visitor was disturbing us, we'd politely ask if the discussion could go somewhere else, or leave ourselves, or put on headphones. Maybe this was a strange pocket of academic universe, but we actually, you know, .... talked.

  4. This is exactly, why it suprised me so much. All my colleagues with Asian background have been very calm characters so far - even or esp. when I got upset with them. A Chinese colleague once explained to me how difficult it was for him to settle in our more "direct" environment and that he passed on, what he had learned about it, to the Chinese colleague, who started a while later with us - very cool!

    Sound like we come from the same strange pocket of the academic universe. So far I experienced "talking about problems to solve them" as a good concept. Maybe I can establish that in my current location as well - otherwise we have to figure out new concepts, hopefully not including insults and mean tricks.