Friday, October 14, 2011

Do you have a haimish lab?

A few months ago, David Brooks was talking about the concept of haimish, which I confess I hadn't heard before:
Recently I did a little reporting from Kenya and Tanzania before taking a safari with my family. We stayed in seven camps. Some were relatively simple, without electricity or running water. Some were relatively luxurious, with regular showers and even pools. 
The simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables... Two of the Maasai guides led my youngest son and me on spontaneous mock hunts — stalking our “prey” on foot through ravines and across streams... The more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel. 
I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.
Having worked in two academic labs and a number of corporate environments, I believe that there is most certainly a haimish lab environment. Even though most laboratories aren't particularly warm (earth-toned hoods? soft leather benchtops?), there's certainly a warmth that some labs exude and others do not. A few haimish touches:
  • I think chairs and white boards lead to conversation. 
  • There needs to be a careful balance between privacy and isolation -- you want to be able to provide people space for a private conversation, but people need to work close enough together to interact. 
  • A coffee pot and some goodies is always a nice touch; a couch and a breakroom is helpful, too. 
  • The boss has to be wary of where he or she ends up; depending on the environment, he or she can either generate or crush the haimish. 
  • Music, I think, is a key part of generating a little conviviality. 
I think haimish is something that you can find in academic laboratories and small companies; in the larger corporate laboratories I've been in, I've seen less of it. That said, it's still possible. 

Readers, what do you think? Do you have a haimish lab? 


  1. Germans, and there are many chemistry-oriented ones, call it Gemutlichkeit.

  2. Haimish sounds a bit like the concept "good people", where someone is known to be friendly, reliable, and trustworthy to anyone they meet.

    At one company I worked at (quite a few years back, now), culture was very much emphasized by upper management, and stereos, snack breaks, happy hours, and celebrations of project milestones were all de rigeur.

  3. But please keep the coffee and goodies OUT of the lab! ;)

  4. We outsourced our haimish.

  5. Free sodas, happy hours and an charismatic boss are helpful but the really important factor in r building a good research group is to discourage rivalries within, and to chose and lead the group members so that they are considerate to each other: you cannot have a genuine collaboration with someone whom you suspect of appropriating your credit and elbowing for promotion - no amount of cheerful team-building will fix that.
    Repairing shared equipment that was misused and broken by someone (then left so, and/or covered up), or cleaning after a sloppy colleague who used up all your reagents and did not reorder them can also add up (though I would rather work with five slobs instead of one snake).

    Large organizations - industry and academia alike - tend to have more complicated politics, as there is more internal volume and distance between the people who do the actual work and the top management who has the authority to make important decisions. So you get more red tape, more departments heads competing in building their mini-empires, pushing down while kissing up, getting alibi, hiding behind collective irresponsibility and saying politically correct things on the meetings.

  6. good words from milkshake and I agree. In my lab, those within my group compete(for attention, resources, recognition etc) with everyone else in the lab, including others in their own group. In the group, we're all friendly like, but I'm learning that you gotta throw some elbows sometimes, or will end up dead last.

  7. I am Kenyan and I am a chemist ... well, chemical biologist. I am not a maasai though, but I had not heard of this word until today. Haimish probably translates to lolong'iet in my tribe, but I doubt it really describes Haimish well. I once convinced my lab to run a 5k with me, it definitely increased out Haimish ... so, doing something together outside of work helps


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