The Power of Silence (and the little green (wo)man)

Earlier exquisitors had shouted and ranted confessions out of people. Vorbis never did that. He just dug deep silences in front of them.
“Small Gods” by Terry Pratchett

The blog of “The Thesis Whisperer” is in my RSS feeds and for a good reason — she’s providing some very good content. Her latest piece is called “Feeding the crazy” and it’s well worth reading. It describes the story of a person who does a lot of work for his prof yet is kept out of the loop. There is no real communication between the prof and him. To make matters worse, he is also isolated from his colleagues. So even simple mistakes (like him seeing a piece a paper in the office printer that his prof forgot to give him) turn into incidents that disturb his peace of mind for days. Read the whole story and her comment on how important it is to manage the communication between a prof and the people who work for him/her.

And that story struck a chord within me, actually two.

Not because a simple non-issue like a forgotten piece of paper can cause three days of mental anguish. I mean, if you told someone this story … waow. Perhaps if it were the CIA rooster for China. Or the breakup letter to your lover (you’d be surprised what some people print via the office printer). But this … waow. Imagine you’d have a heart attack and that would be your final contribution to this world. And yeah, I totally believe the story because I’ve seen these things happen. Communication is important and lack of communication is one major sign that there’s a conflict brewing — or already at work.

But nope, there are two things that came to my mind:

1. The Power of Silence

As the comments to Thesis Whisperer’s post already mention, silence can be a powerful conversation tool. In the usual back-and-forth (or side-by-side) conversation, one person saying nothing completely derails most people. Whatever they wanted to say, if the other person says nothing and just looks at them … waow. It can be very powerful to get information or confessions. It can also impair the relationship with the person, because let’s face it, at times, it’s an asshole move (tip: just switch to the meta level and ask the person why s/he isn’t saying anything, if they do not reply, offer to continue the ‘conversation’ another time and leave). And there are of course situations where words … just don’t belong. Where just having a person with you to share a blissful moment or one of bitter anguish is more than enough.

2. The Little Green Man (or Woman)

The person who was used for “high stakes, last minute projects” was the typical little green (wo)man. Working in the background, excluded from the “intellectual circle” (“people who collaborated with the think tank or came to its seminars”) — his work is not seen. Not only was the disconnect between the prof and this person damaging to this person’s health and ruined his present. It also impaired his future. How can this person move on? How can this person show others what he can do, or did do? All the contributions are nowhere to be seen. Sure, I’m guessing there was an informal “I know what you did and you can mention it in your CV.” But what if the prof gets hit by a car? Or the relationship sours? The best thing to hope for is to have all the work-related communication available under one’s control (copies of emails and documents on one’s own storage device). At least this way you can (theoretically) show the contribution. But I wouldn’t want to be in that situation. Personally, I have seen assistants who did impressive work, yet were always in the background. And it does not matter whether this person is a secretary or a PhD student/Post-Doc … if the work is not recognized it’s a very bad place to be. At the very least all people in the group should know who did what. And in many cases, it’s crucial that those outside also know it. After all, science is a social enterprise — you can’t get noticed for your work if people don’t see it. Work needs to be recognized and correctly attributed. And to quote Twain, it’s the mark of a small person who uses his/her assistants this way:

Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions.
Small people always do that,
but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.
Mark Twain

So yeah, that posting got me thinking. If you don’t work in an environment where your work is appreciated do what the person in the story did — leave.

It’s not only better for your health, but also for your future. And the long you wait, the less you have of it.