JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

Another month has passed, communication is still ripe, and it's on the menu again. My own failures to communicate (and the failures of those I live with) have recently led me to move out of my roommate situation into my own apartment and true graduate-school poverty. How and where to begin. ?

Last month, I described some effective ways of communicating with colleagues; one way involved observing them to determine how they interact with others. I must now add that this approach isn't perfect; sometimes we misinterpret things.

In addition, if we can read others this way, they can read us the same way. The way we carry ourselves is another way we communicate things to anyone who pays attention ... including things we may not have intended to share. And they get it wrong sometimes, too.

Like most people, I tend to carry myself in a certain way. It's not a prescribed look; most of the time it's just the way I feel. One example is my haggard "I'm tired, overworked, and just want to be quiet right now" look. This, I've learned recently, is sometimes misinterpreted as a "get the heck away from me, I'm angry" look. I hadn't the slightest idea.

Proper communication, whether verbal or nonverbal, like it or not, takes a great deal of time and effort. If you're not willing to put in the time and effort to forge a productive relationship with your coworkers and/or cohabitants, then you probably won't end up with a satisfying work environment and/or home environment. Even if we put in the time and make the effort we still may get it wrong, but our chances of getting it right are better.

When it comes to communication, I've gotten along okay at work--no major disasters. Home ... now that is another story.

I could've done better with my situation at home. I could have worked more normal hours and spent more time bonding with my roommates. But lab demands took precedence over home demands--chores, cooking, bonding, and such--and made me tired, irritable, and not particularly fun to be with when the mask I wore daily came off. I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin around the house; I never invited my friends over; all of the fun that I had was not at home.

Priority-wise, home was just a place to crash, a pit stop where I kept my stuff. For many of us in graduate school, that's what we need home to be: A stress-free place that lets us just be ourselves, without having to work at anything and without worrying about stepping on someone else's karma. That's what I wanted, but that's not what I got. Home caused me more stress--in addition to the usual work-related stress--which I carried around like yet another sack of flour; one more thing to worry about, one more set of relationships to manage, another set of people that may or may not understand me as much as I understand them.

I manage my relationships at work constantly, ever testing the waters to see who is pissed off (at each other or at my advisor Jeff), whose project isn't working, what supplies are gone, what machinery isn't working, and--oh, yes--I also manage my own work and how my project happens to be going. All that managing takes its toll; when I got home I just couldn't do it any more.

My priorities were not the same as my roommates' priorities; some things just didn't bother me the way they bothered them. I will admit that I am relatively oblivious to some things. If I've never had to do something before in life (say, mowing the lawn for example) it's not something I immediately notice. It isn't anger, apathy, or cruelty; it just hasn't been brought to my attention in a way that makes it a priority for me. Once I understand the gravity of the situation, then I can deal with it, but not before. It's just like the situation with Daphne and Jeff; she told him, he knew it, but he didn't really get it until something drastic happened that rearranged his priorities.

Knowing our own priorities and motives as well as the priorities and motives of others we work (and live!) with helps us communicate more effectively. Knowing yourself and your pet peeves in advance of forging new relationships is always helpful. I know now that I need space and time to just vegetate, not worrying about the look on my face and if anyone is interpreting my going to my room immediately after coming home as anger or aggression rather than the sheer exhaustion it actually is. I also know that I don't like other people moving my things; if you want it moved, ask me, I'll move it, no problem.

If you tell someone that something is important to you and why it's important to you, up front, expectations are set in a manner that everyone can understand. If they've listened and understood, you have the right to be upset and have a conversation with them stating what the problem is ... not attacking them, but clearing the air about the present situation working back towards the foundation established up front. If, after that, it continues to be an issue, gentle reminders are nice; some people respond to that, some people don't. And if that doesn't work, you can try jumping up and down and waving a red flag. Personal attacks and passive-aggressive behavior do nothing but aggravate the situation. Trying to navigate like a mature adult is not the easiest thing in the world, but taking the high road is far better than acting out a horror story. If nothing works, you can move on, up, and out into a different pasture.

We can't assume that we are all sensitive to the same things. We're not. We're human beings; we're different; we have grown up in different households and cultures. We tend to forget this and assume that, because we're all adults, we should know. Wrong answer: we often don't know; walking around with an attitude about a situation that you haven't confronted does nothing to alleviate your stress or theirs.

The person who committed the atrocity is no wiser; and they'll unwittingly irritate or offend you again. How often have you stewed in your own juices over a problem--someone leaving an instrument on or using the last of the mustard--that you could've simply and kindly addressed before it got to the point that you wanted to stab them in the eye? We gloss over, forget, or ignore behavior that we know irks us, because we want to be nice maybe or because we think our needs are reasonable and that the other person should just know.

Of course being explicit about your wants, needs, and expectations can be taken to extremes. Some people make sure that all their wants and needs are known to everyone and walk around expecting them all to be met. You know who you are, you "my way or the highway" types. This does not promote a great living or working environment. Sometimes compromise is necessary. Minor slights must be tolerated with finesse.

Effective communication takes effort. We have to be willing to put in the time required to understand others and have ourselves understood by others, in the lab and at home.

As for me, the situations at home and at school have worn me out. School I can't leave yet, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Another home, however, has been found, and I'll soon be out on my own--no one to share the rent or utilities, use up the mustard, or take offense at my unmasked, "I'm tired now," face. Soon, the only captive relationships I'll have to work on are the ones at work, and that's enough to stomach until I graduate. Wish me luck folks, and good luck to all of you as well. ?

Comments, suggestions, pity, scolding, or encouragement can be sent to micella_phoenix_dewhyse@hotmail.com>

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the , , , or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.