Cultural Shock

Academia is not an easy place for non-native English speakers – even if you are fortunate enough to work in the country where you developed your language skills. (Well, it really depends on you what you consider fortunate. I like how cosmopolitan UK cities are, but the summer temperature? Yikes.) I would like to spare a few words for those of us who move away to English-speaking countries for the greater good of our research. Generally, the experience goes something like this:

(1. Initial rant about the local accent – press skip )

2. I finally understand them, and I am introduced to a world of new conversation topics – what on Midgard, Asgard and all the other seven worlds are they talking about?

3. After three months of extensive research, I get most references, but nobody gets mine – except the three people who listened to my detailed anthropological explanations of my background culture.

4. After twelve months, I have settled on one topic that I am interested in and I have become the master of it. Now, most of my break-time conversations at work are with the three people who also share the same interest (the rest are with the other non-native speakers who are equally lost).

5. After four years… I wouldn’t know – I am an ECR in Europe and I have never stayed that long in the same place. Let me know.

This experience can be unsettling. There is a universe of books and films that you love but cannot refer to. There are so many jokes that remain untranslatable. And, especially, there is a different weighing of values and customs that you must choose between abandoning or constantly explaining. If you are a native English speaker out there, working in academia in a country that is culturally close to your background, this is a plea: ask your non-native English speaker friend and colleague to recommend one of their favourite books, films or music artists from their background – you will have something new and interesting to talk about. If they try to make a reference that you do not know, follow up and pay attention to the meaning – if you like it, you can translate it and adapt it to fit into your conversations as a shared joke. If they behave in a manner or make a comment that is slightly off what you would expect in that context, ask them (politely) for explanations – a different perspective on social conventions may throw you off guard and make you think.

For all of those ECRs who are on their way to the UK to start a Master’s or a PhD, here is a list of pop culture topics you may want to study in advance for the best chance at socialisation:

  • Tolkien, Pratchett and other English fantasy and sci-fi authors
  • Superhero films, especially Marvel Studio products
  • Monty Python, Blackadder and other works by comedians from the Oxbridge school of thought
  • Baking


About the author

Edith Invernizzi is finishing her PhD at the University of St Andrews (Scotland), where she researches the evolution of collective behaviour. She is using eusocial insects as a model to study how complex systems (e.g. self-organised collective behaviour, information networks) evolve and adapt. At the moment, her research focuses on the expected network structure when the communication network is optimised for certain tasks, and how the number and characteristics of the individuals involved changes depending on the characteristics of the group. Her methods combine simulation modelling with the statistical analysis of observational data. She has a Masters of Philosophy in human behavioural ecology and has a multidisciplinary undergraduate background in biology and languages. She aims at applying complex systems to human behaviour in her postdoctoral research and is currently looking for opportunities. She is the ESLR vice-chair and works on developing ECR resources and networking platforms through the society’s website.