When east meets west in the lab

Germans and Indians communicate very differently – which can be funny sometimes. Aruna Dhathathreyan reports on her experiences.

Coming from India from a different culture I had started my journey at the Max-Planck Institute with a typical Asian perspective. My initial lessons began with the encounters I had with Professor Kuhn on most Friday afternoons after 5.30 pm, at the institute at Göttingen. He would be in his office still at work and would gleefully greet us with “Wie geht’s?” (How are you?) or “Was ist los?” (What’s up?) when we met him in the corridor. In response, at the beginning, I would launch into a 5-minute monologue on the awful Göttingen rainy summer, the insipid vegetarian menu in the Mensa or the poor bus services over the weekends. At the end of these encounters, both Prof. Kuhn and I would look quite puzzled at each other and would rush back to our work. It was only later during coffee break chats with the lab mates that I understood that Prof. Kuhn’s questions were about something else: about the status of our experiments, about the progress in our projects etc. and wasn’t meant to be a personal account of one’s lives. I wondered as to why Prof. Kuhn as the department head could not have demanded information about my work!


Then someone in passing mentioned that Prof. Kuhn, a Swiss wasn’t used to talk about work the way his German colleagues did. This baffled me a little because I mistakenly assumed that the Germans and the Swiss - they all spoke German and therefore their style of communication must be similar.

Students disagreeing with the professor

At this time, I was starting research in a new area of Biophysical chemistry, a subject I was just then getting familiar with. I was trying simultaneously to learn not just German but also to develop a sensitivity towards my German colleagues.

In India, people use a lot of body language to convey things and sometimes even silence is a valuable means of communication. Also, I was told from my childhood that not saying “no” is an important part of politeness and “saving face”.

In Göttingen, I saw students disagreeing with the professor when something at work was tedious, when an experiment wasn’t working or if they had decided to go on a road trip when a long experiment was being planned over the weekend. During this time, in lab meetings, even if I had opinions that were crucial to the experiments but was not keeping with the tenor of the discussion, I would desist from saying it. In India, most of us had been brought up in a culture where the Professor or the mentor has to be obeyed and any conflict at work could be stated rather than debated. In my country, hierarchy is a big part of the culture. When a transaction was at stake, I thought it was extremely rude to state one’s opinion directly, especially to a senior professor while my German friends considered it to be normal to state an opinion directly.

At the beginning, this was a ‘culture shock’ to me because in India, I had been told that it was always polite to say things that other people would want to hear. In Germany, my lab mates and colleagues considered facts, and precision of words a lot more important than context. This in turn encouraged them to speak out and explain one’s point of view in detail and directly. I saw that my German friends would say directly when they thought I was wrong about something: No sugar coating, no beating round the bush!

Critique and questioning is not dissent

Once when a graduate student who was doing a sensitive experiment in the lab shouted at me because I hadn’t paid attention to the notice on the lab door which said “Empfindliche Messung, Vorsicht!” (sensitive measurement, caution). I was quite upset. In my student days and later as a tutor in college in India, I had never annoyed anyone. During the coffee break in the afternoon that day, the student came to me and apologised and told me she should have written her notice also in English.

Later on, working in two other labs across Germany, I understood that our etiquette and interactions with lab mates are all influenced by culture. Over time, the years at Göttingen taught me that critique and questioning were important in the process of learning and were not signs of dissent. I also learnt to speak in a more straightforward fashion and it made my life simpler.

Only occasionally, I saw my German friends get emotional and debate heatedly when they discussed Bundesliga – the first soccer league in Germany – score boards and football matches. I could see that my German colleagues considered football a religion and get into hefty arguments on the merits and demerits of the different football teams.

Reverse culture shock

After almost 7 years, when I got back to India and started my work at the national laboratory, I had a reverse culture shock. I found that my ‘straightforward’ style of speaking learnt over 7 years in Germany was considered abrupt and even rude in Chennai. Now, I had to deal with lively colleagues who tried doing many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance of each appointment.

I had to relearn some forms of addressing my seniors and some style of handling my colleagues at work. Funnily, I found this more disconcerting than my initial months at Göttingen when I not only had to learn German, but also understand what Prof. Kuhn was trying to communicate to me.

  • Aruna Dhathathreyan Aruna Dhathathreyan

Aruna Dhathathreyanis a Professor and Emeritus scientist at CSIR– Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai, India. Her fields of work and research include biophysics, biophysical chemistry, and surface sciences. Since 1983 she has been to Germany more than a dozen times and has carried out research in biophysics in Göttingen as a postdoc with a DAAD scholarship. Further stays 1996 at the Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research, then in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2014. She received an INSA DFG Visiting Fellowship at Max Planck Institute for Colloids and Interface Research (2010). She was among 98 scientists featured in Leelavathi's Daughters, a compendium of female scientists in India created by the Indian Science Academy. Aruna Dhathathreyanis a mentor on the Alumniportal Deutschland and publishes articles about her time in Germany regularly.

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August 2021