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I started my PhD two years ago in Germany as an international student.

Initially, everything was fine but after half a year all my labmates stopped talking to me. It began with them switching to German at lunch. I am an international student and hence don’t understand and speak German very well and it was also not a requirement to join this position. When I requested them to speak in English (which they all are fluent in), they refused by saying that lunchtime is a time for them to relax and speaking English stresses them.

Soon things turned for the worse, and I began to get targeted by them for mistakes that they did and didn’t want to own up. Lately, I discovered that they also meet outside the lab, which should not be any of my business; nevertheless, I felt really sad for being the only one to be excluded. Nowadays they make faces when they see me in the lab. I have not had a fight/argument with anyone whatsoever. I don’t know what suddenly turned them against me.

A few weeks ago, I had an accident and had to undergo an emergency surgery. Due to this, I was on sick leave for two weeks but when I returned to the lab, no one cared to ask me what had happened. Where I come from, it is basic manners to offer help to someone who is sick or if you don’t know them well, it is at least expected to wish them good health and a speedy recovery.

I have tried talking to them about all these issues and many more that I can't recount here but nothing has changed. Things improve for a week or so and then it is the same again. I also discussed this with my professor and he tried to mediate by hosting barbecue at his home last summer. Everyone was very cordial and inclusive in front of him but as soon as we left the party they started behaving in the same manner.

I have worked in two international labs before but never did I have such a problem. I am polite (sometimes too polite), approachable, and easy to work with. I have made some friends outside the lab, so I don’t know where am I going wrong. As I spend most of my time in the lab, I really miss having someone to talk to in the lab. On some days I just feel like crying on my desk. This has also started hampering my productivity now.

Does anyone have any suggestions on how to overcome this?

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    My main suggestion would be that you dedicate significant effort to learning German. Whether it is a 'requirement' or not, it is common courtesy to learn the language of the country you are in. I did a postdoc in a foreign country. Sure, all science was done in English. But, yes, coffee and lunch were in the local language. So I learned it. That helped in all kinds of ways outside of work as well.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented May 30 at 16:47
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    @JonCuster: Given the rest of the question, I am pretty confident that the language thing is just a pretense to avoid the company of the asker (for whatever other reason). I have never met any academic in Germany who expressed that they were stressed by speaking English. (Rather I had international scientists complain that they are lacking opportunities to learn German because Germans never speak German in their presence, even at lunch.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented May 30 at 20:29
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    Is this the same lab as your previous question?: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/190711/… If so, is it possible that your opinion of the lab staff and professor as all being incompetent has also affected the way they think about you?
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 31 at 15:07
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    – cag51
    Commented Jun 1 at 18:44

4 Answers 4

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Going by your description, you are not merely missing out on social integration, but you are actively ostracised, possibly bullied. This is taking an emotional toll that does not appear to be sustainable in the long run and makes it unlikely that you finish your PhD without taking major damage (unless you are on the verge of submitting). You therefore need to address this in some way, probably rather quickly.

I suspect the reason something more serious than a language barrier or cultural differences, e.g., a broken social dynamics, a (perceived) serious faux-pas, or even you being caught in an obsessive spiral without noticing.

There are two general routes to take, probably simultaneously:

  • Try to find out what’s going wrong. Even if you succeed, there is a good chance that your relationships cannot be mended anymore. However, it may help reducing the problems to a bearable level and give you closure, such that you can finish your PhD in the lab.

  • Try to change to a different environment. For example, maybe you can finish your PhD during some sort of visit to another group.

Some more detailed suggestions on how to proceed, for which you have to judge whether they are applicable to your specific situation and whether they differ from what you did so far:

  • Try to have a serious one-on-one with whatever member of the lab is best suited for this. Tell them that you are feeling really bad because of what is happening and have no clue what the reason for this is. Ask them whether they can shed any light on this. Be prepared that the blame will fall on you, whether justified or not. I am suggesting a one-on-one because it makes it more likely that the other person will open up, free of whatever social dynamics exist in the lab.

  • Ask your professor whether they have any idea what’s going on or whether they can inquire amongst your colleagues about this. The situation you describe doesn’t sound like it can be solved with a barbecue.

  • Tell your professor that the work atmosphere is becoming unbearable for you. It is amongst their responsibility to care about these things and offer solutions. Mind that some professors are not good at handling this responsibility, so you have to judge whether yours is.

  • Consult your second supervisor (if you have one), your department’s PhD counselling service (or similar) or your university’s general counselling services.

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    The immediate, and most important step should be to inform the professor about the unbearable situation, and then to escalate that to the university level. Universities these days should have counselors responsible for dealing with such situations. The counselor should be able to advise on how the university can help to rectify this situation. At this point, trying to find out what's going on without help of a counselor seems unlikely to work, and will probably just cause further harm to the victim of the bullying.
    – fgp
    Commented May 31 at 13:12
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People in general are friendly/nice to people who are friendly/nice to them. People tend to ostracize people who are arrogant, rude, unfriendly to them. This group were friendly/welcoming to you for the first 6 months you were there... And then suddenly they started treating you badly?

If they were biggotted etc.. against you on the account of your lack of German they would have ostracized you from the start. That they didn't tells me that something happened that caused them to change how they treated you.

I have 1 working theory as to what that was.

Your mask slipped and your labmates learned what you really feel about them as seen in this post you made a year and a half ago. Your labmates which you referred to as "incompetent", only there to 'work their hours and leave'. That post showed a rather, low opinion of your labmates. They didn't like what they saw under your mask. And now you are ostracized because of your disdain for them. Is it nice? not really, but it is a completely human and very understandable reaction.

In other words. you internal attitude towards you co-workers has effected how you treat them. And they being regular human beings now are treating you how you internally viewed them. Though it sounds like your professor is still unaware of how little you think of him.


What to do:

  1. Look for things to like about your co-workers instead of obsessing over things that you don't like.

  2. Treat people with respect both outwardly and internally (cuz just outwardly is 2 faced and you will slip up eventually).

  3. Eat some humble pie and realize you aren't in fact better then your co-workers.

  4. Get a life. Your co-workers apprently have one (hence hwy they 'work their hours and leave') while you don't do that. Its important to balance work/life. Germans tend to be much better at this than a lot of other cultures.

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    A long way of saying, "You reap what you sow."
    – user186240
    Commented May 31 at 23:23
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    "Du hast den Nagel auf den Kopf getroffen"..! :-) Commented Jun 1 at 16:05
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    @nanoman From the OP's post ~6months after joining the lab "Unfortunately, he has also hired other staff in the lab just as incompetent as him." The OP's words give the reader the impression that the OP considers him-/her-self to be surrounded by incompetents... but that they only exposed incompetence in dealings with the OP, while other students achieve "stellar work." Note: other students under the same leadership and in the same lab, perhaps... Taking the OP's assessment of the environment at face value may be a mistake...
    – user186240
    Commented Jun 2 at 2:30
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    I think the “stellar students” are in other labs. So I do think the “incompetent staff” was a reference to the same staff that are giving OP the cold shoulder if I’m reading the linked post above correctly.
    – bob
    Commented Jun 2 at 2:37
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    @Fe2O3 that is sad. Intention of this answer was to encourage OP to perform some self introspection. not chase them away.
    – Questor
    Commented Jun 4 at 21:12
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Speaking from a close friend's experience of doing a PhD in Germany.

There are various possible explanations for what you describe:

  1. Germans have unwritten social norms and expected behavior patterns that are easy for foreigners to unknowingly violate. For example, Germans are not into small talk. You can easily upset a German by asking about their salary, failing to keep a promise, being even slightly dishonest or tricky, or not discussing things openly and directly. A too-casual tone can also be seen as inappropriate.

  2. One common reason why Germans do not feel like socializing is that they find a person "shallow" or "not serious." Many foreigners come across this way due to small talk, expressing layman-like opinions, or talking too much.

  3. Germans tend to treat their coworkers more formally compared to some other countries.

  4. Germans can be very welcoming initially but may become "colder" over time, reverting to how they treat people they are not socially close to.

  5. Unfortunately, some Germans may frown upon foreigners, especially those from developing countries. They might believe in the superiority of the German way of life or thinking and may not want to socialize with foreigners.

Suggestions:

  1. Don't obsess over being socially distanced. You can't force people to like you. Enjoy your research and socialize outside of work. Since you didn't mention any bullying, there doesn't seem to be a major problem. If your German coworkers had an issue with you, they would probably address it directly.

  2. If you did something wrong, apologize directly and make things right.

  3. Adjust your behavior to local customs. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

  4. Be friendly but reliable and serious. Only say and promise things you are sure about. Speak directly and to the point.

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    "Since you didn't mention any bullying, there doesn't seem to be a major problem." OP stated that his colleagues are blaming him for their mistakes and making faces when he walks in. This is bullying and xenophobia before anything else. I live in Germany and German people don't make faces when you walk in and don't ask how surgery went just because of their culture. When a substitute teacher gave birth, the other teachers and the class got together to offer her flowers, when my coworker that shows up to the office once every two months had surgery, we all wrote him a postcard.
    – maliebina
    Commented May 31 at 11:55
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    @maliebina why xenophobia? They probably just don't like him personally. People who say of themselves that they are too polite and approachable are often not that nice to live with.
    – Shautieh
    Commented May 31 at 12:20
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    I'm a native German speaker, and while not from Germany, I have interacted with German PhD students during my own PhD quite a bit. I find none of the explanation you offer for the behavior of his colleagues to be particularly convincing. PhD students are typically quite relaxed, a small violation of perceived "Standard" (which differ throughout the country a lot anyway) is unlikely to cause the behaviour the OP describes. What the OP describes is either horrible xenophobic bullying, or something very serious (say, an authorship dispute or such) has happened that he neglected to mention.
    – fgp
    Commented May 31 at 13:17
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    -1 from me, I really don't like these broad-scale characterisations of nationalities. None of these claims really jive with my experience of Germans, and one close friends experience doesn't make for any rules.
    – user438383
    Commented May 31 at 15:08
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    I agree with others...your "suggestions" seem useful but the characterizations of Germans seem...off. First, most of the points can be changed by simply replacing "Germans" with "People" or "Some people". People have unwritten social norms that can be violated. Many people are not fans of small talk or shallow/not-serious conversation. People are often superficially friendly at first meeting but this wears off over time if friendship hasn't developed. Many people frown upon people who are different from them; I don't see Germans as having any special tendency there.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 31 at 15:26
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There are interesting answers already, and I hope they will help you. However, it is often very difficult to face those situations alone. First and most importantly because this is a heavy weight, and second because by definition you will have an insider's view point on all issues.

I suggest that you seek help and advice from people outside the lab. Ideally this can be done with the support of the professor head of the group, but it doesn't have to if this proves unpractical.

I am not knowledgeable about the organisation of human resources aspects of PhD students in Germany, however here are a few ideas based on other countries systems:

  • occupational medics if you have access to such a service
  • human resources of department/university/doctoral programme/funding agency if you have a work contract with some employer, else the head office of any of the above
  • either of the above may refer to you to a psychologist -- while appearing to be wrong because they'll focus on you rather than the other PhD students, medics or psychologists are intereting people to talk to for you to define more precisely what the matter is.
  • PhD student or student's union, workers union if you have a salary person status

Tell them clearly at all stages what you expect from them: just advice, possibly that someone visits the workplace (with due authorisation if it's not in their attributions) and give their own analysis, or finally if you trust that they have the right approach, whether you'd like them to intervene (e.g meet with supervisor / organise a meeting of all group members / ...).

One advice in all interactions: try to describe what you feel rather than what you think the causes are and even more who would be responsible, especially when talking to hierarchy people or HR people.

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