It sounds like a trick question, doesn’t it: where should the professor sit? Worse yet, it’s a question that could lead to any number of seemingly irreversible and unsavory outcomes. Answer correctly and the professor might spend the rest of the semester sitting next to you, the newly self-appointed teacher’s pet. Answer incorrectly and she could get offended and spend the rest of the course punishing you for your suggestion. Avoid the question entirely and she could assume that you don’t know the answer—which you don’t—or don’t care. You don’t really care where as long as she just sits down already!
I asked my business Spanish students this not-so-innocent question recently, although not to torture them. Rather, I hoped to demonstrate what a question like ‘where should the professor sit’ might reveal about how students, as participants in complex cultural and discursive paradigms, interpret concepts like power and hierarchy.
As I had suspected it would, my question first led to confused looks and even a few how-should-I-know smirks before it did any real answers. So, to move the experiment along, I took a seat at the head of the rectangular conference table, lecture notes in hand, and asked that the students address me as Dr. Kaplan, or in Spanish, Dra. Kaplan. When I asked them what impression my decision about where to sit had made on them—what they thought it was ‘communicating’—they replied with words like ‘official,’ ‘serious,’ and ‘distant.’ Indeed, the distance between the students and me was as physical and measurable as it was symbolic.
I then moved to a central seat along one of the table sides and found myself sitting among the students, my eyes focusing on them instead of on my lecture notes. The difference was palpable—and the students made sure I knew it. “¡Es mejor!,” one of them cried out. For her, this new, more egalitarian spatial arrangement felt better, more familiar.
From this position, I was finally ready to begin a more nuanced class discussion about perceptions of power—who has it, how they wield it, and why—and the important role this plays in business and intercultural communications.
Argentine writer and thinker Jorge Luis Borges once famously remarked, correctly or otherwise, that the Koran makes no mention of camels, and really, why would it: “It was written by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, had no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them.” In this way, until we experience practices different from our own and the modes of thought that inform them, we are often blissfully unaware of our cultural norms and habits, content to live without giving them a second thought, let alone a first.
That is, in part, why the students found our round of ‘where should the professor sit’ so disruptive. More than trying to find a seat, I had asked students to define how they view authority and the amount of power someone in my position should wield, how they should display it and, just as importantly, in what context—perhaps theretofore underexplored terrain for them.
I then highlighted that members of more hierarchical societies than that of the United States might view my position at the head of the table as the more natural and appropriate place for a professor to sit or stand, and that taking a seat among students could actually be viewed negatively and misunderstood as the professor being weak, unsure, or uncomfortable with her charge. Just as the group of mostly American college students had voiced their preference for a more egalitarian relationship with their professor, so too could a group of students from a more power-distant country—say, Mexico—respond with their inclination toward seeing and interacting with their instructors from, well, a distance. By this point, the class had experienced two important lessons: most intercultural misunderstandings happen without either party even saying a word, and it’s the easily taken-for-granted practices of daily life and social interactions that make or break business relationships.
Although I remained seated among them—which they probably expected I would—the students left class seeing for themselves that knowing who sits where, how, and why will help secure them a seat at the table in their future international business dealings. And by that point the question will have become: where should they sit?