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Collaborating with International Colleagues, or Should It Be Inter … Colleagues?

1 September 2013 648 views No Comment

geert Geert Molenberghs is professor of biostatistics at Universiteit Hasselt and Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. He has co-authored several books on surrogate markers in clinical trials and on categorical, longitudinal, and incomplete data. Molenberghs is founding director of the Center for Statistics. He is also the director of the Interuniversity Institute for Biostatistics and Statistical Bioinformatics (I-BioStat).

I am not an expert on international interaction from a sociologic, anthropologic, or psychological point of view. That said, I have been privileged to work in an environment with a variety of faculty, staff, and students. It means I learned through a good amount of practice and a bit of theory.

The universities of Hasselt and Leuven in Belgium offer international master programs in statistics. The student population, enhanced by government grants, finds its origin in all continents. A number of students tend to go on to PhD training in our research institute. Some eventually become academic researchers and faculty.

Not unrelated to this, many of us have been having intense research- and education-oriented collaborations with the rest of Europe and the rest of the world. Especially collaboration with other European countries is geographically and historically natural for us.

Belgium is tiny, with about 11 million inhabitants and with 200 miles being the longest distance one can travel as the crow flies. From Hasselt, the trip to Maastricht in the Netherlands is a mere 20 miles. The distance to the French-speaking city of Liège is 25 miles, while Aachen in Germany a 30-mile trip. If that is not enough, high-speed rail connects us to Paris in France and London in the United Kingdom in just a couple of hours. The equivalent to domestic travel across the United States and Canada brings us all over Europe, while the Americas and large parts of Africa and Asia can be reached with reasonable travel efforts.

The ease of international contact does not mean it is always easy or evident, even though the international nature of our profession makes it multicultural. As a consequence, it is helpful to develop a certain amount of intercultural knowledge, intuition, and practice. A necessarily incomplete set of examples might clarify this.

Cultural differences have been described and quantified as “cultural distances.” Geert Hofstede, a Dutch anthropologist, has done considerable work to this effect. When I travel to Japan, I expect a larger culture shock than when I travel to the Netherlands. I have been to Japan four times, but how many times I have been to the Netherlands? I can hardly guess. Proximity is not the same as familiarity, however. Visiting a place, near or far, as a tourist is different than visiting it as a professional collaborator. When I bring an unplanned memo to a planned meeting in Belgium, this may be considered a pleasant surprise. But, in the Netherlands, one might suspect a hidden agenda that is going to be railroaded through. Let us call it the fallacy of seemingly close cultures.

One is often deceived by linguistic and geographical proximity. Hofstede said, “Flanders, the Dutch speaking part of Belgium, is separated from the Netherlands by a common language, with the Dutch and French speaking parts of Belgium are united by a different language.”

Language can appear to be a hard divide. As a covariable, it is an easy one, but not the only one. Cultural differences are multifaceted and cannot be reduced to language. Belgium and the Netherlands have different religious and political heritage, going back centuries.

Interestingly, if we transplant this example to the United States, English-speaking Canada, and Québec, a good number of conclusions carry over. The aforementioned does not mean language should be downplayed. In many languages, it is common to be euphemistic; others are more forthright. In Europe, the Germanic, Roman, and Slavic languages are different in this respect, with a special place for English because of the language’s multiple-root history on the one hand and its lingua franca status on the other. The statements “I am not quite sure I agree” and “You may want to take a preparatory module” are clear from a figurative standpoint, which goes well beyond the literal. The subtle differences in English usage/use between the various English-speaking countries in the world—some contiguous, some far away, even in spelling—is a paradigm for a broader system of cultural differences, some obvious and some hidden, but far reaching, like the root system of a tree.

I mentioned history. After a while, let’s say, 2,000–3,000 years, cultural heritage tends to become ingrained in people’s systems to the point we don’t notice it, except when we meet and closely interact with people from a different culture.

What’s the best way to deal with it? Intercultural science has become an extensive and multi-disciplinary field, so studying it at a deep level may be discouraging, unless we plan a career move. At the risk of simplification, it fortunately isn’t too difficult to get a good feel for the basics, helped by academic curiosity and … by being statisticians. We tend to understand the concept of signal-noise, trend-variability rather well. There are many variables that explain cultural differences between people, which go well beyond the obvious ones like nationality and language. There is gender, age of a person, age (time frame) of the culture, professional area (academe, industry, government), political system in the home country, individual-oriented or family-oriented culture, being a serial or multi-tasker, being a mathematician, etc.

Take the type of culture as an example. It has been observed that cultures that place the individual at a higher position than the group (e.g., family, tribe, town) might be slightly more open to scientific careers, in search of the unknown, in search of improvement of the known. The family culture may be beneficial toward collaboration, thus beneficially mixing various skills. So, which of the two is better? The trick is not to think in terms of better-worse, but rather in terms of difference and variety, together with the advantages this brings. It sounds like anthropological genetics!

Take plagiarism for example. People with a western heritage may detect an instance of plagiarism in writings by a student or colleague from a distinct heritage, so blatant that it is hard to imagine the rationale for such a clumsy fraud attempt. The trick is not to think in terms of fraud, but rather to try to understand it from a cultural perspective. In several cultures, citing ‘the words of the master’ is a sign of deep respect; not citing the master’s name thus increases the status further by assuming it is obvious who the words are from.

Should we accept this? In many cases, the answer might be “no,” which is not a problem as long as the system we operate under is described in clear, factual terms, without claiming superiority; this does not preclude stating the time-honored advantages of our conventions, but still with respect for the other system. To quote an analogy, “Which is the better bibliographic system, Harvard or Vancouver?” Rather, it is more constructive to think about relative merits and disadvantages.

Take running a meeting or a session, for example. Like train punctuality, meeting time punctuality is a not so slowly varying function of the globe’s cultures. To know what to expect, take a look at how trains and buses are run locally and consider it a marker for meeting culture. One might expect punctual meetings and presentations in Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden.

But isn’t it better to make sure meetings run on time? Again, we prefer switching to the advantages-disadvantages paradigm. Running the meeting on time allows for easy, convenient planning, but also for easy upsetting of the apple cart. It works well when it works well, but if something mildly serious goes wrong, the whole schedule might collapse. Under the alternative model, the elasticity may be larger. Also, meetings-on-time may stall discussion.

Sometimes, we learn most from the discussion after a talk. This does not imply judgment, but rather that good old ‘British-style’ discussion, even controversy, aids understanding. Good examples can be found in the read papers with discussion, from say the middle of the 20th century, published in the RSS journals. Strict adherence to the schedule may postpone and sometimes cancel discussion. Should we try to find a compromise? Sometimes, but not always! Rather than trying to coerce everything in a bland model, it is good to be aware of various models; there is a place and a time for all of them.

Cultural differences may be found interesting by some, but discouraging and even treacherous by others—discouraging because there seems to be a lot to learn, even at only a superficial level, and treacherous like quicksand because when you notice, it is too late. However, apart from general awareness and a healthy interest in the subject, practice will naturally build up skill. A simple trick is to tell your culture you don’t know when you don’t know. Making clear that you don’t know how a certain thing is said or done conveys the message that you are aware of potential cultural differences and willing to learn.

International or intercultural? Perhaps simply interesting.

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