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My PhD advisor is someone who values workplace/personal life boundaries. Sometimes I feel that he gets mad at me for accidentally crossing those boundaries in small ways. The problem is that he doesn't explain when he is mad at me, and this can cause problems in our working relationship - for example, he tries to avoid me online and in real life, probably in order to avoid confrontation.

I confronted him recently about why he was acting mad at me, and it surfaced that he expected me to figure out why he was angry. This is a waste of my time and energy. How can I manage my relationship with him; in particular, what are some steps that we can take so that we understand clearly what the boundaries are in our relationship? How can I encourage him to communicate his boundaries to me, without such a question seeming overly personal?

Has anyone been in a similar situation? What insights or advice do you have to offer?

Thank you!

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    Could you give a couple of examples of ways you inadvertently crossed a personal boundary? – aparente001 Apr 19 '18 at 1:36
  • @aparente001 For example, I might sit in and listen to his meeting with his other students and ask some questions. Or I tried to invite him to lunch and have some casual discussion with him. From time to time I will also try to share my snacks with him as I do to all of my friends. – SKitty Apr 19 '18 at 13:06
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    Some people like causal relationship, some people professional ones... Just, be professional, you don't need a list, just treat him professionally as a colleague or a boss and don't get personal, as he clearly has shown distaste of this. – Ander Biguri Apr 19 '18 at 14:47
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    Thanks for the examples. I agree with Ander. Different strokes for different folks. Live and learn. Accept and appreciate him for who he is. You never know what brought him to where he is. My advisor had suffered severe food shortages in the post-war period. This had a big effect on his outlook on life. Each individual is different. If you think you can learn and thrive with him, then try to fit into what he's comfortable with. – aparente001 Apr 20 '18 at 3:12
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    He expected you to figure out why he was angry? Are you, by any chance, married to your advisor? – Dirk Apr 24 '18 at 11:21
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We all initially learned boundaries as children by testing them individually and then receiving feedback when we crossed some imaginary line. You can learn your advisor's boundaries the same way - by generalizing rules based on specific interactions. Every time something comes up where it seems that your advisor is angry, ask him directly if x behavior of yours was a problem, apologize if necessary, and ask if he would prefer you not to do it again. As you do this over time you'll get a more solid map of what is and isn't acceptable to him. You already have the beginnings of one based on what you already know about him and the advice given in the comments, so you are off to a good start.

(I'm assuming here that you've already tried multiple times to have a general discussion with your advisor about boundaries and it didn't go well. Depending on the situation, you might be able to arrange a meeting with your advisor to talk about the problem the way you would with a manager. Because he's your advisor, it would be best to frame it as you humbly seeking counsel from him on how he would like you to behave, rather than as a mutual problem for both of you to solve.)

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Many times people communicate boundaries in subtle ways. Often they also expect that certain boundaries commonly accepted by the society or general group you both belong to will be respected without any need for even subtle communication. Having to repeatedly clarify my boundaries to each and every or even just one person would take a lot of my time and energy and it would definitely gnaw on my nerves.

There already was some communication about boundaries, as you are certain that they value their boundaries. What you now need is empathy. And that seems to be a little lacking on your part, to be honest. I will try and go through the three examples you gave in your comment:

For example, I might sit in and listen to his meeting with his other students and ask some questions.

This is not only about your professor establishing their own boundaries, it is also about the other student's boundaries and potentially your supervisor protecting those. There is an advisor-student relationship and if it is good there is quite a bit of trust and value in it. Did the students agree that you can participate? One-on-one time with an advisor is a precious good that many cannot afford to pass on. Did your supervisor agree that you listen? He might need to discuss issues with the other students that are none of your concern. Even if they agreed that you stay and listen, they might not have the time to explain and discuss everything with you. It is them working on their project. Meetings can be lengthy and hard and if you want to avoid that you need to be effective. An outsider actively joining is often disruptive to that effort.

Or I tried to invite him to lunch and have some casual discussion with him.

As every person, they have a right to not want to go to lunch with you. As your supervisor and someone who is going to grade you somehow in the future, with all the friendliness that can be involved it is more common in a group setting. Going for lunch alone with one of your students can lead to talking behind their back for them. And you won't profit from that either. In life there is a general guideline that in a friendship between people in different levels of the same hierarchy, the higher up should make the next step. They will know how far they can acceptably go and how far they want to take it. Or they might decide to only do this after the supervisor-student relationship as such has ended.

From time to time I will also try to share my snacks with him as I do to all of my friends.

As long as you offer them to everybody else in the room/group/lab as well? Giving out snacks or treats to a specific person can look like bribery. Not everybody would think so, but the few who do are enough to start gossip. But I would rather again offer to share in a group setting. Definitely not walk up to them specifically unless you are also walking up to everyone else who is around.

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I assume, that discussing about boundaries crosses boundaries for your professor ;-). So in my opinion, your negotiation phase aleardy ended (and I think you came to this point but you don't like the result):

No personal communication, no settings which could be considered "private" (like having lunch ect.).

The reasons for such a behaviour can be manifold (from thinking that a professor "should behave like this", fear that a personal communication could reduce level of respect, fear of beeing accused for harassment, fear, that other might think soneone is preferred over others, sociopathic nature of the professor, ...

In fact the reasons don't matter much, you can just decide for yourself to respect whatever reason there might be, or to look for an other position. You can not change someone. You made a very good step by asking for explanations and guidelines (if you would not have done this, this would have been my first advice), but the reaction shows that it would be inappropriate to dig into this issue any further.

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