26 Aug 2019

"Doing the Needful"

Language and cultural challenges in work at the Irish Social Science Data Archive

Highly Commended post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2019. This post is by Ali Cox, working as a Library Assistant within the Research Services Department of UCD Library.

“Dear Mr. Ali…” – so begins another email into the inbox of The Irish Social Science Data Archive (ISSDA). ISSDA is Ireland’s national quantitative data archive, and is based at UCD Library. From here we send out anonymised versions of datasets that have been deposited with us by bodies such as the Central Statistics Office. Although a national service, the datasets we provide access to have international appeal and every day we receive email applications from across the globe. Getting to communicate with people from such a diverse user group is fascinating, and learning about the research that is being carried out in various countries can often be enlightening. This international interaction does however, bring certain challenges and as ISSDA’s administrator my job is to respond to all of these emails to the best of my ability, and to communicate effectively with people whose first language may not be my own.

Although I am not of the male persuasion, I have become accustomed to being addressed as such through my work at ISSDA. "Dear/Respected Sir" are commonly received greetings - surprisingly sometimes from very Irish sounding names! More complimentary and interesting greetings have included “Dear Officer”, ”Dear Organiser”, “ Dear Respectful Professor”, “ Dear Respected Ali”, and my personal favourite - “ Dear Esteemed Commander Ali.”

Sometimes the language barrier can represent a significant challenge to successful communication and email threads can quickly escalate to 20+ replies back and forth as I try to explain what changes a user needs to make before we can accept their application. But ahhh the satisfaction I get when we finally understand each other and I can approve their data request! It truly amazes me how international an audience we have, with requests being received from nearly every continent (I’ve yet to hear from any intrepid researchers in Antartica), and even though most conversations remain brief and business-like, every now and again I can glean insights into other cultures – I have even had an offer of friendship, and a personal tour of the town of Chandigarh in North India should I ever be passing through.

Along with teaching me some much-needed patience, challenging interactions help me improve my ability to interact with people from different backgrounds – an essential skill for any information professional these days. Many times an email might sound to my mind curt and impolite and I need to remind myself that not only is much meaning lost through the medium of email, but differences in culture and language proficiency may also be at play. My job is to act professionally and courteously and to do what is needed to connect our users to the data they require. As our Indian users often say I must “do the needful” and that involves remaining conscious of my own cultural biases and letting my personal feelings take a backseat when something rubs me the wrong way. That I can communicate with researchers across the globe, in countries I will most likely never get to visit is truly remarkable, and I will happily navigate the challenges of international communication for the privilege.

To find out more about ISSDA and the work we do please get in touch or visit our website at www.ucd.ie/issda

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