I've recently began working as a research assistant (in the humanities), mainly helping a professor with a book she is editing and with lecture notes for a future course.

The problem is that it is sometimes very unclear to me what she wants me to do. For example, when communicating by mail (which we do often), instead of saying "Please do X" (which I realize only after asking for further clarifications), she might say "We will do X" or "There is some importance to doing X"...

It is quite obvious that she has very little experience in this kind of work relations. I, on the other hand, have some experience in managing people (i.e. in telling people what to do), and I think she could use a few pointers.

The question is, is it appropriate (and if so, how) that I give her some specific suggestions (such as the above) in order to communicate with me more clearly?

I'm on good terms with her and she will possibly be my advisor quite soon, and I don't want to ruin this.

  • 4
    Suggestions? No. Clarifying questions? Yes.
    – Mad Jack
    May 27, 2016 at 18:40
  • 1
    This is not an answer, but if you're male and she's mainly worked with females in the past, this communication issue might be in part due to issues Deborah Tannen writes about in her book You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. May 27, 2016 at 19:55
  • 2
    "You may want to do this" sounds more polite than "Do this! Now, first thing!" Dutch and German people like direct statements, most other people I know don't. You have to translate yourself, it is not a good idea to ask others to translate into your language, it is less costly and risky to understand their style. May 28, 2016 at 11:25
  • I think the advisor is simply polite and gentle. Being bossy is not a positive trait (in my values), and so I would not advise on telling her how to boss you. Of course, this is only my opinion.
    – Dilworth
    May 29, 2016 at 17:28

2 Answers 2


For now, I would suggest with responding to statements such as "We will do X" or "It is important to do X" with something along the lines of "Agreed. Shall I start working on that now?" Perhaps she'll take the hint and start communicating more clearly, in which case the problem is solved. In any case, over time, you'll probably get better at understanding which of these statements are general statements about the future and which are implicit requests for action.

If asking for more clarity doesn't work, have a chat with her and explain that you find it hard to tell when she's asking you to do something and when she isn't and asking her to be a bit clearer. I'm sure she won't be offended and, if she is, that's a huge sign that you need to find another advisor!

  • 4
    At some point, once you gain expertise in the type of work and its scope, you may even come to like her management style. It sounds as if she has more experience working with people who prefer a bit of freedom deciding how to best achieve various outcomes.
    – Carol
    May 27, 2016 at 21:02

Which is the better way to communicate depends on your cultural norms and personal style. Many people find "please do X" too direct - even outright rude - in many circumstances. Women who use such a direct style also risk being viewed as bossy or abrasive.

She might also be choosing this style because she wants you to interact with her as an equal: even if she has final say, you can contribute to the discussion and planning about how to do the work. (Though "we will do X" sounds like a pretty direct final decision to me!).

Nonetheless, if you are having trouble understanding what she wants you to do, that is a problem. Feedback is likely to be better received if you frame it as being about communication with you rather than her communication style in general. Say, for instance, "We have different communication styles and I sometimes don't realise that you are asking me to do something: can you please be more direct with me and give me clear action items?" She might be able to generalise the lesson if she has been experiencing the same problem in her communications with other people.

  • 1
    Good answer. But I wouldn't say "we have different communication styles". It sounds slightly patronizing. You can simply say: "I sometimes don't realize ...".
    – Dilworth
    May 29, 2016 at 17:32

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