Assertiveness Across Cultures

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Following my recent post on “4 Steps to Assertiveness? Not That Simple“, my dear friend and revered interculturalist, Dianne Hofner Saphiere  posted the following comment:

“Dear Guillaume, in my experience perceptions of “assertiveness” are extremely culturally relative and, thus, should be handled carefully. After working for years in East Asia, for example, my “proud and powerful” presentation stye was perceived by non-Asians as insecure, lacking in confidence and self esteem—which it was most certainly was not. I would add a caution that people not to jump to conclusions about someone’s self esteem due to perceptions of assertiveness. When we speak up, how, with what body language, are closely linked to respect values, harmony and truth values, collectivism and individualism values, as well as assertiveness. Thanks!”

Dear Dianne, as i was saying in my reply to your comment, I cannot agree more. Culture definitely has a huge impact on how people perceive assertive behaviors, body language and words used. So culture impacts HOW we can be assertive, but, in my opinion (and this might be the universalist frenchman and egalitarian blended culture person in me talking) not WHY we decide to be assertive or not.

If assertiveness is a consequence of the individual’s belief that his/her opinion, ideas, contribution is potentially as valuable as anyone else’s, assertiveness is personal thing. If we link this back to Geert Hofstede‘s 3 Levels of Mental Programming, culture will create expectations towards what is acceptable assertive behavior but personality is where assertive behavior happens , or not.

As Dianne so rightly says, there are different  cultural values that can impact how we can be assertive across cultures and the level of tolerance that certain cultural groups might have towards assertive behavior.

Individualistic cultures tend to give a lot of value to assertiveness.  I remember my father telling me when i was a teenager: “If you need/want something, say so, otherwise nobody will do it for you.” This does not mean that cultures with collectivistic values do not tolerate assertiveness but any expression of personal need that is not also linked to to the well-being of the group might be perceived as arrogant, especially if the the pronoun “I” is used too often.

Body language and communication style also playa big role in the perception of assertiveness across cultures, especially in high power distance ones. When I first started working in India I could feel that my habit of giving eye contact equally to anyone when greeting and speaking with them was often perceived as threatening and disrespectful by some of my more traditional bosses. What I have learned to do is to make my point in a less direct way and also by playing down eye contact and my hand gestures. The cultural expectations of the environment I was in had an impact of my style, not on the substance of my message.

Finally, I have to agree with Dianne, again, that what we perceive in others might not be a good gauge of how assertive people are or not as we might be reading things wrong and there might be a lot more happening that we do not see straight away when dealing with people that might seem passive to us.

As a guideline, I keep Dianne’s wisdom close to my mind all the time: suspend judgment, assume positive intention, interpret behavior with what you know of the cultural values of others and then decide how you want to deal with the situation.

Thank you Dianne for being such a incredible guru. What I have learned from you is key to my success. :-)

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8 Responses to Assertiveness Across Cultures

  1. My dear Guillaume, I am so pleased that my comment stimulated your thinking. Please, call me friend, beautiful ;) , kind, weird, but never “guru.” That’s scary! I am so happy you are blogging and helping us get the word out about cross-cultural competence. Keep up the great work!

  2. Also, btw, I do feel that why we decide to be assertive or not varies, as does the how. My desire for harmony and group cohesion vs. for what I want as an individual is a huge motivator of assertiveness, for example.

  3. I agree with Diane: suspend judgment, assume positive intention, interpret behavior with what you know of the cultural values of others and then decide how you want to deal with the situation.” I’d go further and suggest that in this world, in this century, we each have a personal obligation to ourselves and humankind to learn about our own and others’ cultural values in order to be more culturally appropriate in any given situation.

  4. If we were to imagine a continuum on one end listing assertive, to the other end listing aggressive…different cultures would place the transition lines (which behavior fall into which categories) in different places. I was just working with German who was perceived to be “aggressive” by his colleagues (from Korea, Sweden, US, UK and India). In our conversations, he described that what they found disturbing, he found to be an “interesting intellectual challenge.” When he was asked how he thought others might perceive his leadership style if he persisted with this behavior that was typical for him, he paused, and was not happy with what he realized. This was an “eye opener” to him as we also talked about his direct style. We suggested that he was unintentionally not only hurting himself (their perception of him as leader) but also teaching others to sit back and let him do the disagreeing – which was not good for the team either.

    • Thank you Catherine for sharing your experience. The direct communication style of many Germans is often perceived as rude/aggressive by more implicit cultures. In my observation, what adds to this perception is the lack of subtle language skills. Because people have to speak in a language that they are not completely fluent in, they usually tend to reduce their message to basics to make sure they are understood, hence sounding even more aggressive to others. If you add a strong voice modulation and expressive facial expressions to that, it clearly impacts the perception people have of our behavior.

  5. choeferle says:

    Reblogged this on Southeast Schnitzel and commented:
    USA: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
    Japan: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.”
    Germany: “Wes Brot ich ess, des Lied ich sing. [He who pays the piper, calls the tune.]”
    Roman Empire: “Divide et impera!”
    This here is an excellent post by OD expert Guillaume Gevrey about the difficulties on how to gauge one’s behavior in respect to power distance and individualism/collectivism.
    As a German living in the United States I often have to readjust my assertiveness, especially since I was raised in an environment that hammered into me that “Hochmut kommt vor dem Fall” (eng.: “Arrogance comes before the fall”).
    Expatriates across the globe are dealing with similar issues, as it isn’t always easy to find the right belance between one’s learned and culturally determined behavioral preference and the cultural norms in the host culture.

  6. I love the different quotes, Christian! Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  7. Simon Mundy says:

    Hi Guillaume,
    you say “If assertiveness is a consequence of the individual’s belief that his/her opinion, ideas, contribution is potentially as valuable as anyone else’s, assertiveness is personal thing.” “IF” indeed…. I’m wondering if that very formulation of “the individual’s belief that his/her opinion, ideas, contribution is potentially as valuable as anyone else’s” presupposes an individualistic self-conception and a need to establish the value of MY thoughts vis-a-vis YOURs/THEIR’s. Pace’ Dianne’s assertion to the contrary for herself, IMO, it necessarily implies the unsettling possibility that my opinion may NOT be as comparatively worthy as I think/hope it is and the need to show others that (at least) I believe in my worth.

    A more communal cause for assertive behaviour may be, for example, that “our way is being disrespected” which, I’m guessing, is quite free of a comparative assessment of the value of MY opinion versus YOURS. In many communal, pre-modern, cultures, there is simply no question that our way is the right way and that WE all follow the way. Consequently, here is also much less insecurity for me in stating OUR view so that my use of emphasis will reflect level of threat rather than the necessity to establish my self worth in the conversation.

    To what extent we may continue to find pre-individual orientations in a modern business environment, I have some suspicions but no firm idea. After 40+ years in UK, Australian and US based businesses, I suspect that the incidence, although often masked in a shared language of individual orientation, may be higher than we’d expect.

    Robert Kegan at Harvard Business School is, IMO, a useful source of ideas on the development of self experience in culture.

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