Saturday, November 04, 2017

a lab is like a NHL team?

I know, it's a little out there. And it might not be super accurate but the last week I've thought a little more about "what makes a good player/PI/postdoc" and "what makes a good team". It's mostly in the context of some moving a person with specific skills from one environment to another environment and hoping they will thrive in this new place. You know, like it happens all the time in science when a graduate student moves to a post-doc, or a player changes team and moves up to the NHL.

I'd admit, I started really thinking about this yesterday when I read this piece in ESPN and coupled it with what happened with Vegas Knights' player Sjipatjov/Shipachyov (depending on which transliteration you use, Swedish or English). Side note, if you are interested here is the official guide to "how to" from Russia to English from IIHF.

Anyway, back to the issue at hand. Just because someone is a shiny star in one place, doesn't mean that they are going to be shiny stars in a different environment. In certain things, this is obvious. In other situations, maybe not as obvious. And then there is that additional factor of "the majority of people want to feel comfortable" in order to do a stellar job performance.

The first time I encountered the discussion in a lab setting was as a graduate student with a predominantly homogeneous department. Let's say 90% was speaking fluent Swedish. It obviously meant that any visiting scholar was going to be either "changing the entire conversation into English" or "feel a little isolated when everyone was chatting away in their own language".

I've mentioned it before, it might not be an issue to keep all work presentations and seminars in English (common language) - however the small talk between people in the lab is usually feeling slightly contrived if it is in "not your native tongue when you are in majority in the group" (like being 9 native Swedish people and 1 foreigner). Yet, and I've given this spiel before - A LOT of communication and work productivity is lost if some members of the team doesn't pick up on the general chat that goes on. Of course, as I am not outside of the lab - I've missed that a lot of people nowadays wear headphones all the time so maybe this isn't as much of an issue that I had back in the days?

Moving to the United States, this became more diverse and complicated. The majority of the people at my institute were native English speakers. And we had a lot of international post-docs in the labs. A lot of people gathered and got to know each other, some more lucky (?) than others with having a peer group who spoke their native language and getting a taste of home. I still would argue though that if you are in a group of say 6-10 people, I think it is fairly rude to start chatting away in your own language if there is only one or two people who don't speak the language. (Yes, I've been there. As a person who has chosen to live with a person who doesn't speak my native language but hanging out with people who do.... I try and translate and keep him in the conversation since I find it extremely rude and excluding and these situations have decreased.)

It's different if you go off on your own with a small exclusive group, say three swedes go for dinner. There is no reason why we would speak English with each other but rather bond with our native tongue, exploring all the feelings that come from speaking your own language with all the nuances.

I digress from the point of the article. Most often when you talk about language issues and NHL there is a Russian somewhere in there. Why? Because other European countries have more English and do use the same alphabet as English. There have been a few examples of Russian players who come to the United States and start playing for NHL and not knowing any English at all. They have been great at playing hockey, stars of KHL but moving to NHL is a whole different game.

Some teams solve this a little different. There are stories about "host families" who speak Russian and English and take care of the 20-22 year old man who now is living in a completely different world. Others might have "another Russian" on the team and expecting them to guide the new guy into a more American style, interpret and then hopefully get the English going. The rumors around Shipachyov has been that he moved from Russia to Las Vegas as a 30year old who doesn't speak English, no host family or other Russian player on the team and that this didn't work out for him. There is probably a lot of other things, but a lot has been mentioned about this language/cultural barrier and that the owner and manager team might not have done as much as the could.

It's like when some new post-doc move to the new lab from another country and doesn't speak English that well or almost at all. They were good in their old environment, star in the lab, had good publications yet coming to the new lab entails learning where everything is, how things are done, where to go in the city for regular chores etc. Not always so easy and some institutions have a post-doc coordinator or an academic office to help with relocation issues. I know that I benefited enormously from the one that was there to welcome me. I don't know how I would've gotten a bank account, found a car, gotten a driver license and all those other stuff that I fixed the first two weeks of settling in the United States after getting off the plane with two suitcases.

All of this ranting is because I'm trying to avoid being rude. You see, I have a bad flaw when certain people start complaining about "they don't speak English all the time". It sometimes happens when people say similar things about Swedish, although it's easier making excuses for not knowing Swedish (small language, pretty difficult to pronounce), but I'm not as annoyed by it, my bad. My complaint is mainly these people say something to the point that they feel excluded in their own country and that "we need to put our foot down about this". (If you read the ESPN article linked in the beginning, look up Mr Seguin's comment. That's pretty much right on point where my irritation happens.) The unfair thing I want to ask them is "so how many languages do you speak?" Or sometimes, when I'm feel really self-important I'd say "come back when you've learned another language". Partly to point out that it isn't the easiest thing in the world to master a new language. Partly to bring to their attention that maybe, just maybe, they could pick up some new words themselves and make an effort to know something else that their native language?

I realize that it's a lot to ask from a hockey player to pick up Russian when playing in the NHL. And really, if they should pick up something it would be Swedish (109 players in NHL are Swedish, 66 Russian and 44 Czech) but hey - I'm just pointing out that there could be a humility about the fact that even if they are playing in the NHL, maybe that is because NHL is the best league in the world and people want to play there.

Similar to when people want to work in a world famous international lab. Regardless of the lab being in the USA or in France or in Holland, the people want to go there and work with the best of the best in that field. And maybe, just maybe, we have to accept that it means that it will be a little uncomfortable and that everyone, not just the people who move there, will have to make some changes and adapt to make everyone feel welcome and produce the best of their ability?

(Disclaimer; if you read this far - thanks. I personally think that learning the language of your new country is a must if you want to fit in. If my lab had been in France, I would have to speak more French, just as a lot of people moving to Sweden have to learn the language of 10 million people to make themselves more comfortable. What really pissed me off with Mr Seguin's comment was the fact that he lived in Switzerland for a year playing there. While he was there? He didn't speak any of the four languages given as an opportunity but kept on in his American English. So..... I would've hoped that he could've had just a little more understanding and humility than what he explains in the article as "putting down the foot and speak English since we are in the US". I just would've liked him to think that maybe his team mates in Switzerland would have liked to keep talking French/German on the ice rather than accommodating to him. Alas, I have prejudice and doubt he ever went there in his head. Mean me.)

No comments: