Expat Eavesdropping

Two cool things (to me) overheard on the Skytrain today from a (probably) British business man to a Thai colleague.

1) British business man, “When I was on the board, we had code names for a lot of our projects so that nothing would be written down when the secretary took notes. The problem was, our chairman couldn’t remember to which project the code names referred. So we had to remind him and each other every time. We did try to have a naming convention but it was always somewhat arbitrary. For example, the CEO of the other company’s name was White so we called our project “Black.” But we still couldn’t remember.”

It’s stories like these that allow me to glimpse into the corporate world, especially into the C-suite.

2) Same British man, “Do you think Thai people need more personal space?”
Thai colleague, “Probably, but not with family and friends.”
British man, “Of course. But, I’m talking about in common areas.”
Thai colleague, “Yes, I think Thai people need more personal space.”
British man, “I agree. I notice that Thai people usually leave more space compared to some other cultures.”

I thought about this and on the one hand I didn’t agree because, for example, Bangkok is so crowded = there is almost no personal space and shops and stalls are crammed together. On the other hand, Thai people rarely touch each other. We don’t touch each other through greetings (the “wai” where we put on hands together and bow our heads down) and for strangers to hug even after some team success (besides sports teams) would be really strange.

Imagine the “horror” when Thai people saw me greet my French friends at the airport!


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Culture, Indirect Communication, and Your Health

Happy New Year! I haven’t had time to think about a new year resolution yet (too many deadlines, yes, this early in the year, life as an academic…) but perhaps one should be to be more consistent with my blog and not let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” (attributed to Voltaire). I have so many ideas for a blog post but keep postponing it because I want it perfect. Out goes perfect and in comes posts!


I was at the hospital with my grandmother and aunt the other day for my grandmother’s knee surgery check-up by the Physio doctor (<–if this blog post were perfect, I would’ve spent extra time to look up what they are actually called, but I’m not going to :-)). According to my aunt, sometimes when the doctor asks my grandmother if she has had any pain at home, she’ll say “No” or that she’s getting better. Also, today, when the doctor was telling my grandmother that she should start pressing on her knee (to get rid of something around the scar), my grandmother said, “Never done it.” And we all assumed that she meant she knew she’s supposed to do it but she never got around to do it at home (like when she’s supposed to do a bunch of exercises for her knees at home).

Here’s where my cultural interpretation comes in.

1) My aunt doesn’t understand why my grandmother (also my grandfather) keeps telling their doctors that they have had no pain at home or that they’re getting better even though they have been in pain and sometimes things aren’t getting better. I think it’s because, in a collectivistic culture like Thailand (yes, I am back in Thailand now, and all my family’s here), the main social goal is group-harmony, and I think that my grandparents are trying to “please” the doctors by saying something they think the doctors would like to hear and not “complain” about their situation.

However, you can see why this is a problem. Doctors need to accurately diagnose the health conditions of their patients and they can’t always use machines to probe…sometimes they rely on verbal reports from the patients. But if the patients are “eager to please” the doctors and not tell them of their actual issue, the doctors can’t help them.

Perhaps there should be a way to educate patients about how to communicate to doctors or doctors ensuring patients that they want to hear the truth because they want to heal them. Or some kind of established norm that might be different from what the patients are used to for their own good.

2) When my grandmother said “Never done it” above, my grandmother meant that the nurse who was rehabilitating her after the surgery never did this one particular knee compression move on her, and therefore she has never been taught or told to do it previously. The confusion is both her fault and the Thai language’s fault.

First, it’s the Thai language’s fault because in Thai, some sentences do not require a subject, in this case, we don’t know who’s “never done it”. Was it my grandmother who’s never done it? (like we all though) or the nurse who’s never done it? (like what my grandmother meant). I am pretty sure because of this Thai is a higher context communication language, consisting of more “implicit, indirect messages” than low context communication, where the message is directly and clearly embedded in the message sent.

Second, it’s my grandmother’s fault for not clarifying this issue at the doctor’s office; it was only revealed that it was the nurse who’s never done it after we got home and my aunt was telling my grandma to do that move. But then again, it might not be her fault as to again her motivation to not cause a problem/conflict with the doctor or the nurse (i.e. telling the doctor that the nurse has never done it could mean the doctor scolding the nurse).

In this case, perhaps the doctor could be trained to probe when there is ambiguous communication. “Who’s never done it?” would’ve clarified the situation. Also, my grandmother, again, could’ve been reassured of the need to reveal all information for the doctor to help her better, so that she is more motivated to reveal information than conceal them (again, characteristics of a collectivistic culture, whose people tend to use high context communication).

A small example of how knowing about a patient’s culture and their communication style can potentially improve their healths and even save their lives.


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Resigning Policies

Just heard about what happens to employees in the financial industry when they notify the HR department of their intent to quit. It’s actually pretty ridiculous. But then again, I have only worked for 4 organizations thus far and they were just internships and part-time jobs so I don’t really know how it goes for other industries.

My friend decided to resign from her company because she was going to move abroad with her fiancé who was relocating. So she called up her boss on the phone to inform the boss of her decision. Now, the boss did give her a warning about what was about to happen if she decided to resign but with her implicit communication, my friend misinterpreted the message. The boss said, “Are you absolutely sure? Well, you know all our phone conversations are recorded anyway, so if you are sure you want to resign, I’ll have to call the HR department and they will deal with the situation immediately.”

What my friend thought the boss meant was that the HR people will come give her paperwork to sign right away, which would be a good thing so she can get it all over with a month ahead of time.

But my friend wasn’t prepared for what happened next. A few minutes after she hung up from her boss, some HR people came and asked her to sign some papers, told her to log-off her computer, pack up her stuff, and escorted her out of the building right away without letting her say bye to any of her colleagues!

So, my friend was very confused about this procedure (she’s resigned from other companies before and this has never happened to her) but turns out when she discussed this with others in the financial industry, they said that it’s the norm.

What I wonder about is two things. The first is why show such low trust in the employee once they decide to resign? Don’t employees have to sign some kind of contract when they are first employed with the company that says something like “You are not allowed to share information from our company up to at least one year after you resign”? I was an external consultant for a small project and even I had to sign a form like that! The way the company treated my friend was as if they never trusted her all along. Also, my friend was more confused than mad…it’s like if you’re in a good relationship and one day your boyfriend, out of nowhere, breaks up with you and escorts you out of his apartment; there’s more confusion than anger or sadness.

Procedural justice has been breached for sure. But the HR department was at least good at using interactional justice to alleviate the situation. My friend said, “Well, at least the HR people were nice about it,” to which I replied, “Of course they were nice to you. They know what they’re doing to you is a jerk thing to do so they have to be nice.”

The other thing I wonder about is, why would a company do something like this because now employees would go bad mouth them and give them a bad reputation? At least I now view that company badly in terms of how they treat their employees.

I think there are better ways for companies to deal with honest employees who are resigning for an honest reason who are giving the company a heads-up about their decision.

Has this ever happened to anyone else?

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Diversity Issues in Assessment Centres and The Human Factor Project in Nuclear Facilities

Yes long time no post, but I was busy with finishing my Master’s thesis and looking for an internship. Both a success because my thesis has been approved by the Graduate Studies Office of the University of Waterloo (if anyone cares, a copy can be found here: http://hdl.handle.net/10012/6016), and I’m now an intern at the Talent Development Service of GDF SUEZ in Paris, France!

I’ll do a “What I’ve learned from my internship” post at the end of my internship in October, but I learned 2 things today that is quite relevant to the IO field that I thought I really should post.

1) Diversity Issues in Assessment Centres

GDF SUEZ is a large, multinational company and hires external consultants for assessment centres (AC). Although my team mainly focuses on developing the talent after they have already been identified as such, my bosses still attend the AC sometimes or at least meet the candidates beforehand. The interesting practice GDF SUEZ does is that they give AC to different groups based on nationalities. For example, Northern Europeans (mainly Scandinavians or Dutch, etc.) would all be in one AC session while an American would only have interviews because if they put the American in the Northern European group and they have to do the AC in English, there is unfair advantage for the American person. So on the one hand, I think it makes sense with the language issue (the Northern Europeans also get to do the AC in French I believe) but the weird thing is, if the American person does pass the test and starts working for the Group, he/she will be working in a culturally diverse (but mainly French) company, so his/her experience with only English interviews do not reflect the real work environment, whereas the Northern Europeans would’ve had been tested in a situation that has higher fidelity to the real working environment. So there could still be an issue of fairness there. For example, if the Northern European in the group AC did poorly, could they argue that they were not given a fair opportunity because an American got “private” treatment for the selection process?

Side funny European cultural thing: if there is one French person in the Northern European AC, the Northern European complains because the French person (from the “South”) would talk too much. LOL.

The weirder/even funnier thing is regarding gender diversity. They try to set up 50% males and females in the group AC. However, there was a particular incident that 2 of the males did not show up. Turns out one male complained that he couldn’t perform well because there were too many females! Now that is a first (for me). My reaction when I heard this was, “Wow, so we know who’s not making it far in [the working] life.” Reality is that there are some industries or departments or teams with more or less males/females and one would just have to adapt to that. But on the other hand, if a female were to complain that there were too many males and she can’t perform well, perhaps that would be viewed differently, for example, “Yes, she has a point, we need to be fair to the woman.” So perhaps this is my own personal bias and that males have the right to complain that way, but it’s still strange to use that as an excuse for one’s poor performance in an AC.

2) The Human Factor Project in Nuclear Facilities

One of my bosses got sent a video that she couldn’t view and because I’m more tech savvy (it’s funny because I’ve helped 2 people with “how to watch a video that was sent to me” already!) I figured out how to watch it (I’m actually surprised at how quick I can solve these problems, too, because I’ve never encountered watching a video through a security-enabled ftp site before). Anyway, the video was about safety at a nuclear power plant in Russia. The video started with “errare humanum est” (“to err is human”) and they talk about how people make mistakes, but with a culture of punishment from management, employees would hide their mistakes and it could lead to disastrous consequences, especially in a nuclear power plant. So this particular plant started implementing a Human Factors Project (originating in Belgium) where they want to change the culture of the organization so that employees would report their mistakes and there would be an investigation board to help prevent the problem in the future and not punish or blame the individual who made mistakes. The point was that progress could not be made if people keep hiding mistakes. Someone in the video was saying that this was a difficult shift for the mindset of some Russians because it’s a culture with high authority and employees are used to being “scared” of management. They had to work to get the employees to trust the management so that the would actually report the mistakes…a “progressive change of mentality.”

They even had psychologists on the team (yay, representing!) and this one lady talked about how when someone makes a mistake, they tend to blame the machine because they feel guilt and shame. So they had to find ways to work around that to, again, build trust and, although they didn’t use these words (I’m sure this is the same point), psychological safety.

The concept of “transparency” also came up in the video and although I don’t study that at all, I’ve heard of it more now because GDF SUEZ’s policy is also one of transparency. So to me, I thought that was the norm for companies, but apparently being “transparent” is an “innovative” thing that companies that want to be leaders are trying to do and promote. My response, “Well, duh.”

So many things I’m learning here, I’m so glad I got this internship! 🙂


Filed under Culture, Diversity, I/O Psychology

How to think like a Department Chair

When do you get a rare visit from the Department Chair?

a) He owes your money
b) He wants to collect the item the aforementioned money was paid for
c) He wants to pitch an idea to you
d) All of the above

Today our Department Chair paid a visit to the VP of the Graduate Association of Students in Psychology and I (the President) to collect the psych tshirt he ordered. He then took this opportunity to pitch us an idea that he’s had for awhile that no GASP exec has actually taken up.

I actually like the idea a lot and would love to get it started. The Chair proposed that we should have an intra-departmental poster session for graduate students. These posters can just be the ones students have already presented at conferences around the world. In this way, students and faculty members from different divisions can see what amazing research we’re all doing.

Another thing the Chair proposed was to start a booklet that contains all the poster/presentation abstracts from all the conferences students have presented throughout the year. Doing so will allow the psych department to have permanent records of these presentations, and we can build a library of this collection.

Now, this is the part that made the aforementioned ideas go from “just a thought from some old, famous psych prof” to “a thought from the forward thinking Department Chair;” he proposed that we should forward these booklet/evidence of research awesomeness to the Associate Provost, Graduate Studies; Dean of Arts; and other Senior Administrators, etc.* because, I paraphrase, “Some departments are better than others.”

My respect for our Department Chair just went up 10-fold.

*Whoever can figure out the political structure of universities, please fill me in.

This picture isn't that relevant, but you get the idea. Also, I think it's funny, and I want one.


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Problem Solving in a Group

I’m reading this incredible book by Daniel Levi called Group Dynamics for Teams (2nd Ed.) and I wanted to share one part from the book.

The following are characteristics of effective group problem solvers (Beebe & Masterson, 1994; Janis & Mann, 1977):

– Skilled problem solvers view problems from a variety of viewpoints to better understand the problem.
– Rather than relying on its own opinions, an effective group gathers data and researches a problem before making a decision.
– A successful group considers a variety of options or alternatives before selecting a partiular solution.
– An effective group considers a variety of options or alternatives before selecting a particular solution.
– A successful group’s discussion is focused on the problem. Too often, groups have difficulty staying focused on the issues, especially when there are conflicts.
– An effective group listens to minority opinions. Often the solution to a problem lies in the knowledge of a group member but is ignored because the group focuses on the opinions of the majority.
– Skilled problems solvers test alternative solutions relative to established criteria. The group defines what a criteria a good solution must meet and uses those criteria when examining alternatives.

(Levi, 2007, p. 186)

Think about this the next time you are trying to solve a problem in a group setting!

Random note: If you visit his faculty page in the link above, the first selected publication is “Levi, D. & Kocher, S. (2008). International visitors’ experiences of Chiang Mai’s Buddhist temples. Journal of Human Sciences, 9, 86-102.” haha awesome!

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The Dark Side of Academia

by Svelte

The Dark Side

My graduate friends and I had a gathering yesterday, and I heard an upsetting story from one of them.

One of my friend’s supervisor discourages her to present any work-in-progress at conferences. I thought it strange because I have already presented preliminary findings at two conferences and recently submitted another paper to an upcoming conference. Also, doing so adds credentials to your CV, which can help you get more scholarships.

Here’s the reason why. This supervisor was a PhD student at an ivy league school in the states, and she presented her preliminary findings for her dissertation at a lab meeting. There was a student (or post doc?) from another institution who attended this talk.

Awhile later, this supervisor received an email from a professor who was reviewing articles that someone just submitted an article about a study that was practically the same as what the supervisor was doing. So that professor rejected that submission.

Another while later, another professor also reviewing articles told the supervisor that there was an article about a study that was practically the same as what the supervisor was doing! So that professor also rejected that submission.

Turns out, that bastard student/post doc who attended the supervisor’s PhD talk COPIED her ideas, conducted a study on it, and tried to get it published before her. Luckily, that field is kind of small and those two professors who were reviewers knew about the supervisor’s work. In the end though, that bastard still got published because he/she submitted to a European journal, and no one knew the supervisor there.

The story ended well in the sense that the supervisor still managed to get her PhD and is now a professor at my institution, but the story doesn’t end well in the sense that she is forever paranoid about others stealing ideas. Academics make their name (and money) out of being the first to come up with ideas or studies, so they have to be guarded with their novel research.

Luckily, in my lab, my supervisor did not have that experience and encourages knowledge sharing and collaboration*. Instead of going through graduate school in fear, we are experiencing a more supportive, growth inspiring, and collaborative culture. For that I am also thankful.

(*Also, from presenting preliminary findings at conferences, we learned that someone else is doing something scarily similar to us. Because we learned about this early, we get the chance to mitigate the potential negative consequences.)

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