It started with my daughter. One evening, when she was eleven years old, we were sitting in a Chinese take-away restaurant waiting for our order to be made up and she was watching the people coming and going with intense interest. After a while she told me that she had noticed something. People who came in and sat down always seemed to be making their decisions according to some sort of hidden rule. I watched with her and she was right. So long as a particular seat was empty, it would be occupied by the next person to enter, after a show of looking around and choosing. It seemed their chair choosing behaviour was reliably predictable. Something as apparently innocent of meaning and significance as sitting down undoubtedly had rules that were widely and (we suspected) unconsciously obeyed. Our observations became a game and we got very good at predicting where any customer would sit. My daughter is planning to study psychology at university and I think she’s made the right choice.
This little bit of anthropological amateur fieldwork came back to me when I started working as a careers consultant at Birkbeck College, University of London. A student came to me to ask for my help. She was working in real estate – letting out apartments. She was badly paid and wanted a more rewarding job. The problem was, she told me, she could easily get invited to an interview but was failing at this stage and didn’t know why. I asked her if she had received feedback and she said she had; employers telling her that she seemed not to be interested. I’ve spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe and I suspected that the problem might be the way Eastern Europeans tend to behave when confronted with authority and power. So I suggested we try to role play a job interview and my student bravely agreed to go along with it. Instantly, as I tried out a few standard interview questions it was obvious my guess was right. Her eyes were down, she folded her hands in her lap, she spoke briefly, quietly and deferentially, expressing no strong views. In Britain this is easily read as lack of interest or even hostility. For her, it was the correct level of politeness and deference required to impress a potential boss. It seemed that sitting in a chair the wrong way could easily cost you a job.
So what did we do? I remembered something several academic colleagues had said to me at one time or another – that international students are often convinced that British people speak and behave according to an impenetrable code designed to keep strangers on the outside. I have to say (being an immigrant myself) this is often true or, at least, often seems true. The solution was obvious. My student was going to have to learn to sit in a chair – the British way.
I will always remember our next meeting with great joy. As I taught my student to sit up, look the interviewer in the eye, vary the pitch of her voice and smile naturally while fielding questions both of us kept bursting out laughing at the ridiculousness of what we were doing. But she did it. By the end of my chair training session she could handle sitting in a chair like a natural born Brit. I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised when I heard, a couple of weeks later, that she had a new job and a good salary increase.
So what are we to draw from this? I think the big lesson is that cultural differences are not trivial. If you don’t understand the local customs, access to education and work can become difficult, if not impossible. If, as an organisation, we want to serve our students as well as we can, we need to pay attention to this and help them. I’m hoping, some time in the near future, inductions for international students will include chair sitting, small talk about the weather and the ever important skill of complaining about the uselessness of the national football team. If it does, it will bring us all close together and make us all richer.