Management Development ForumVol. 1 - No. 2 (98)
Cultural Impact of Non-Assertiveness
Jensen Chung
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Jensen Chung

Many East Asian Americans are considered as lacking leadership potential because of perceptions of non-assertiveness by their colleagues. To examine this non-assertiveness claim, this study interviewed East Asian engineers and held focus group meetings. The author identified eight major themes from the transcripts. The themes, organized according to theories and personal conceptualizations, include high power distance, reciprocity, long-term relationship orientation, non-confrontational style, reticence, guest mentality, language barriers, and unfamiliarity with social custom. The study found that the assertiveness of East Asian American engineers is based more on others' perception than on group traits. The study also found strong cultural impacts on the assertiveness of East Asian American employees.


The workplace in the United States is becoming increasingly diversified in terms of demographic composition. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (1998), over the 1996 to 2006 period, the Asian and Pacific Islander American labor force and Hispanic labor force are projected to increase faster than other groups, 41% and 36% respectively, because of high net immigration and higher than average fertility. The black labor force is expected to grow by 14%, faster than the 9% growth rate for the white labor force.

Although the Asian American share of the labor force is projected to increase only from 4% to 5% (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1998) in the same period, in several states and cities where Asian Americans are concentrated, the trend toward cultural diversity is too obvious to be taken lightly. This is especially true in high-tech belts because the percentage of Asian Americans working in the high-tech industry is higher than that of other ethnic groups.

Ethnic and cultural diversity gives rise to cross-cultural misunderstanding and conflicts. One of the cross-cultural conflicts is that employees of foreign origin may perceive that they are not being treated fairly by their superiors of American origin. For example, a pilot study conducted by this researcher found that many Asian American engineers were considered lacking leadership quality, and one of the reasons is because they were perceived by their superiors or other colleagues as "non-assertive." According to this pilot study, a greater than average number of Asian engineers had taken or desired to take assertiveness training courses. Many Asian American engineers suffered the consequence of being perceived as being non-assertive. They claimed that some of their colleagues or superiors would take advantage of this perceived weakness and give them heavier workloads or bypass their promotion to managerial positions.

The bottled-up animosity of those who endured such treatment can cause dissatisfaction and conflicts that gobble up big chunks of company resources. A well-known shipping company in San Francisco, for example, was sued in 1997 by Asian American employees for constantly assigning heaviest parcels to Asian American workers. In the case of the high-tech industry, when those frustrated East Asian American engineers leave the company, they may quit and start new companies and create a costly brain drain or even outside competition for the organization. Either staying or leaving, the perceived non-assertiveness is a problem affecting long-term performance and increasing human resource costs. This problem, thus, needs investigation.

Leadership and Assertiveness

Assertiveness, indicated by dominance, contentiousness, low anxiety, and refusal to be intimated by others, correlated highly with measures of verbal intensity, talkativeness, and good communicator style (Norton and Warnick, 1976). Assertiveness has been considered an important element in leadership. Classical books on leadership, Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership (1981), for example, points out strong associations of assertiveness with the emergence of leadership. Four of the seven readings Weaver (1996) suggests for studying assertiveness contain the term “leadership” in the titles. Some publications for management training even include the two words, “assertion” and “leader,” in a title (See Manis, 1984).

Most of the assertiveness literature concentrates on women and minorities (Myers and Myers, 1992). Almost all leadership workshops for East Asians include assertiveness training. Placing emphasis on assertiveness for leadership training for East Asians in America is not surprising. As Samovar and Porter (1995) point out, on one hand, the general American culture exposes its members to countless hours of television talk shows glorifying verbal combat and has more lawyers per 10,000 people (19.6%) than any other culture in the world; on the other hand, East Asian cultures have some values that imply contrary views of assertive communication. These values include interpersonal harmony and confrontation avoidance (Chen and Chung, 1994). At least one study shows Americans to be significantly more assertive than the Koreans, Finns, and Japanese (Park and Kim, 1992). When employees with cultural influences are considered non-assertive, they may be viewed as potentially “wimpy” leaders. This is because, in the American mainstream culture, to lead is to “influence,” and assertiveness is often defined as being able to influence others and articulate one’s own views. When a person is perceived as being unable to communicate his or her views, influencing is limited.

Why do people fail to communicate assertively? In their 1990 book, Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Living, Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons argue that non-assertive behaviors generally are anxiety-based. Their studies consider non-assertiveness as a matter of control. In other words, non-assertive people may fail to control themselves or their relationships when responding to certain situations, personalities, topics, and behaviors because of a variety of feelings, including feelings of inadequacy, fear of being considered unworthy or unacceptable, fear of hurting another person or making him or her angry, fear of getting no reinforcement, or not knowing how to accomplish a desired goal, for example.

This study focuses on cultural reasons of the perceived assertiveness problems of East Asian American engineer subordinates in the high-tech industry. Asian Americans range from recent immigrants to descendants of immigrants of various generations. There are various degrees of so-called "Americanization" or acculturation of the mainstream North American culture. According to the 1980 census, three-quarters of the Asians in the high-tech sector were immigrants (Ong, 1991). This study focuses mostly on the first-generation immigrant engineers from East Asia, assuming that they bear stronger Asian cultural imprints.

Using the framework based on research in the fields of interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, and leadership communication, the author designed a protocol of interview (see Appendix). The author interviewed 37 engineers of East Asian origin and held three focus group discussions, which included 6, 11, or 13 persons. They were chosen according to the approximate ethnic make-up of engineers in the Silicon Valley: 5 Japanese Americans, 3 Korean Americans, 8 Chinese Americans (including 6 from Hong Kong), 17 Taiwanese Americans, and 4 Vietnamese Americans. Most of them were foreign born; only 7 were born in America. Five participants went to both the interviews and the focus group meetings. Among the 37 participants, 22 were male; 15 were female. Their ages ranged from 25 to 49 with an average age of 36. All of them had subordinate status, although one-fifth of them also were superiors. The engineers were all working in the high-tech industry in California's Silicon Valley. The names of the participants mentioned in this report are not their real names.

Cultural Reasons for Perceived Non-Assertiveness

Ten themes emerged from transcripts of interviews and focus group meetings. This report presents eight themes that explain why East Asians are perceived as non-assertive. It parallels existing theories and explains why East Asian American engineers are perceived as non-assertive. Each theme is illustrated with narratives of some of the 37 participants. The eight themes are power distance, reciprocity, long-term relationship orientation, non-confrontation style, reticence, guest mentality, language barriers, and unfamiliarity with U. S. social customs. They are discussed in the following section.

High Power Distance

People from "high power distance" cultures tend to accept power and authority as a fact of life. For example, people in cultures influenced by some sects of Buddhism may believe that their current status is a result of their behaviors in their previous life; they can only hope to be rewarded power or richness in their next reincarnation by accumulating good virtues and deeds in this life. Others who do not necessarily believe in reincarnation may consider respecting authority as the way it is. As a Chinese saying goes, "daughters-in-law can become mothers-in-law as long as they endure," which implies that those who suffer from being powerless (e.g., daughters-in-law) can one day attain power (e.g., mothers-in-law), and then they can treat the powerless the way they were once treated. Confucian principles demanding obedience to those in the higher hierarchy and respect for them reinforce this belief.

Geert Hofstede (1980) originated the power distance research and coined the term "power distance." According to his research, power in low power distance cultures is relatively more equally distributed, and status is less marked. They tend to challenge inequality in society. Subordinates consider superiors to be "just like myself." The United States, Canada, New Zealand, Austria, and Israel are in this category. People in high power distance cultures, such as those in Singapore, Taiwan, and the Philippines, tend to be in the opposite. They tend to accept the unequal power.

Subordinates in high power distance cultures tend to communicate more respect and deference and may appear to be less assertive toward their superiors. The following remark by a Japanese engineer illustrates the power distance felt by East Asians:

To many East Asians, showing respect for the boss is polite behavior, but in other cultures, East Asians' politeness is often perceived as a lack of confidence. This is especially true when the nonverbal messages are communicated differently. For example, the following cues showing good manners in many East Asian cultures can be interpreted in the West as appearing timid to the boss: bowing down too much, nodding too often, smiling too constantly, and shifting eye contact away from the boss too often.


Mr. Aoi's remark stresses a point which often is neglected by Western managers: the reciprocity between superiors and subordinates. Mr. Aoi's remark shows the expectation by East Asian employees for superiors and subordinates to help each other and reciprocate each other's favors. Especially in Confucianism-influenced cultures, superiors should not take for granted the obedience and respect from subordinates, because subordinates expect superiors to reciprocate by supporting, advising, and protecting them. According to Hofstede’s research, employer-employee relationship in individualistic societies (e.g., U. S., Britain, and Canada) belong to the “moral model,” and personal goals take precedent over group goals. In collectivist societies, on the contrary, great emphasis is placed on needs and goals of the in-group rather than the self. As illustrated by remarks by the following participant, some East Asian Americans learned that sacrificing their right to accommodate the superior or peers is not a norm and may never get reciprocated:

At my further probe, Ms. Biq said her experiences of not receiving reciprocation in her company had taught her to seize the moment and forget about the future. In other words, she felt she needed to defend her current rights without expecting future reciprocation from colleagues or her group. She said she became more "assertive" than ever.

Long-Term Relationship Orientation

In addition to the concept of reciprocity, the way East Asian people develop their interpersonal relationships also affects the perception of assertiveness. It takes longer to develop an interpersonal relationship in East Asian cultures. When there are conflicts, those in the relationship rely more on the established relationship—sometimes called guan shi in the Chinese language, to help resolve the conflict. Before maturing the relationship, however, it is more difficult for them to engage in joint transactions or collaborations, but they can tolerate conflict more easily with the hope of future understanding and thus closer relationships. The tolerance is often interpreted as a non-assertive "grin and bear it." The comments of Chi and Doshi indicate this tendency:
In their 1978 book, The New Managerial Grid, Robert Blake and Jane Mouton point out, when handling conflicts, people consider two options: cooperativeness or assertiveness. Cooperativeness is the concern for the relationship with the conflicting party, and assertiveness is the means for achieving one's personal goals or interests. When our concern for the relationship is high, we back away from conflict. This withdrawing style in dealing with conflicts naturally makes one appear non-assertive. Chen and Chung (1994) point out that East Asian cultures not only emphasize developing a relationship before carrying out tasks, but also encourage developing long-term relationships. Such emphases naturally encourage people to take a non-assertive position in dealing with conflict, as shown by the remarks of the study respondents Chi and Doshi.

Non-confrontational Style

Another reason people of East Asian origin are perceived as non-assertive is that they take a non-confrontational style in dealing with conflict or a potential conflict. This style results not only from the orientation of long-term relationship discussed in the previous section, but also from the value of harmony and "face."

East Asian cultures have been strongly influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and (especially in China and Taiwan) Taoism. Confucian principles set harmony as the goal of many teachings in interpersonal relationships. Taoism stresses the value of non-action and non-strength. "Survivors are the flexible and the weak," argue Taoists. Buddhism, introduced to East Asia from India, maintains that everything in the earthly world eventually will pop like a bubble and, therefore, nothing is worth the hassle of a fight. From the Buddhist perspective, as Mary Pat Fisher and Robert Luyster point out in their 1991 book, Living Religion, one must destroy one's ego to alleviate suffering and use communication in the service of truth and harmony.

The value of harmony has geared conflict partners more toward the style of accommodation, instead of assertion or aggression. This value leads to the non-confrontational style in interpersonal conflict situations. The narrative of a female Taiwanese engineer illustrates this style:
"Face" is another human relationship concept in East Asian cultures that makes people less aggressive in asserting their right or hurting their esteem. To save face is to preserve self-esteem or others' dignity. To avoid causing other people to "lose face," one must use indirect language, and sometimes ambiguous language, to refuse or to accuse. As communication researcher Yum (1988) states, "indirect communication helps to prevent the embarrassment of rejection by the other person or disagreement among partners, leaving the relationship and the face of each party intact." Another remark by Eva illustrates this point:
When harmony is a goal in interpersonal relationships, endurance, suffering, and tolerance are parts of the process working toward that goal, but they also may be indications of non-assertiveness. The observations of Furuta, a second-generation descendant of a Japanese immigrant, support this point:
The word “endure” is synonymous with “suffer.” To endure for East Asians is non-assertiveness in the Western environment.


Anthropologist Edward T. Hall categorized cultures as being high context or low context. He said:
High-context cultures tend to maintain tradition and change little, therefore, when people communicate, they can rely on information provided by the setting or the communicators, rather than verbal messages as in the low-context culture. Silence is often a sufficient message.

It is well known that East Asians are reticent at meetings. One Confucian saying clearly has been imprinted on the communication behaviors of East Asians and even East Asian Americans, that is: “Those who are clever in talks and flattery in facial expressions lack Jen.” Jen can be translated into English as kindness, and is the heart of Confucianism. In East Asian cultures, teachers have traditionally done all the talking in classes. In families, parents often told their children: “Children have ears, not mouths.” As a result, people with East Asian cultural background—even in their second or third generation in North America—are characteristically more reticent.

Several participants in this study pointed out that the fact that they are quiet does not necessarily mean that they are not effective communicators or leaders. A computer software engineer who is an immigrant from China expressed her opinion:
Not speaking regularly may be perceived as being unable to stand up for one's own rights. But we still need to find logic for such a claim.

Guest Mentality

The older generations of Chinese believed that people should die, or at least, be buried in their hometown, otherwise, their spirit might wander around. “Fallen leaves return to the root” is a common Chinese saying, which means everyone eventually will need to return to their homeland. This “guest mentality” is diminishing, as early waves of immigrants give way to new immigrants. But new immigrants, most of them marginalized in U.S. society, still have nostalgia about their homeland. They read immigrant newspapers or receive Chinese news broadcasts. They even debate their homeland's politics. This guest mentality somewhat influences their communication style, as can be indicated in the narrative by this Taiwanese-American engineer:
This guest mentality may exist, at least in the early stage of immigrants' careers. Most participants in this study said they could manage to change this mentality, but were not sure if non-immigrant colleagues would notice this change.

A “reverse guest mentality,” however, is beyond the control of people with East Asian origin. East Asian Americans, because of their physical characteristics, may still be regarded as immigrants. An engineer from a third generation immigrant family complained:
The above reasons for non-assertiveness of Asian-American engineers, power distance, non-confrontational style, reciprocity, long-term relationship orientation, and guest mentality are at a deep cultural level. The language barrier and social custom themes, as follows, are at a relatively practical level and are more common to new immigrants.

Language Barriers

Sometimes, failing to communicate assertively does not result from cultural value, attitude, or habit. It may be because of an inadequate mastery of vocabulary or expressions or lack of understanding social rules of communication. This may result in the person deciding to be quiet, or sounding too submissive or too rude.
Limited word choice apparently often put non-native speakers of English in a quandary: either one should appear rude, aggressive, or appear reticent or non-assertive.

Unfamiliarity with U.S. Social Customs

When does one start calling the superior by her first name? When does one raise one’s hand or express opinions at meetings? What or which words should one choose to make critiques more appropriate? All these questions raised in the previous sections point toward a need for understanding social rules or customs. Social rules regulate and guide interpersonal relationships. Sometimes, however, these rules are not easy to learn or apply. The following is an example:

Like language barriers, inadequate understanding of social rules often causes employees raised in a foreign culture to appear non-assertive.


This research identified eight root causes which would make employees of East Asian origin appear non-assertive. This study shows that assertiveness perception is related to leadership perception. The perception of non-assertiveness actually may be the misperception of reservedness, modesty, or a combination of some of them. The misperception may be, in turn, a lack of understanding of the imprints of cultures and their roots coming from Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and other origins of cultural values. These traits may not necessarily be evidence of lack of leadership ability.

The perception of non-assertiveness also may be reinforced by such psychological phenomena as primacy effects and the reverse halo effect. For example, as a consequence of the primacy effect, the earlier impressions about non-assertiveness may linger to the latter days of that person's organizational tenure when, in fact, she or he has become assertive. As a consequence of the reverse halo effect, if managers consider a person as having a number of “negative” qualities such as reticence, the managers are likely to infer that this person also has other “negative” qualities such as non-assertiveness.

This study indicates that problems arising from non-assertiveness are mainly in two areas. First, superiors misunderstand subordinates who appear to be non-assertive and underestimate their leadership ability. Second, subordinates who are perceived to be non-assertive have to suffer the consequences of the misunderstanding and their own behavior.

To reduce the cost of mismanagement of human resources, we need to look into deep roots of cultures. Misjudging leadership abilities because of failing to understand cultural reasons behind certain behaviors displaces leadership or managerial talents. For example, East Asian American subordinates, who are from high power distance cultures, may show more respect or subservience to their superiors and do not look like “leadership materials.” But once they are in the superior position, they may be more assertive with their subordinates because of the power distance factor.

The findings in this study provide managers, human resource personnel, and consultants with insight into the non-assertiveness problem in relation to developing and measuring leadership. The same findings, however, also show East Asian employees the gaps—and causes of the gaps—between the assertiveness expectation by the mainstream culture and the “baggage” or heritage from their mother culture.

East Asian Americans include those who were American born and those who were foreign born. These two sub-groups are influenced by various degrees of East Asian cultures. This study put emphasis on cultural impacts on the foreign born participants, who are only a part of the East Asian American population. How much the native-born Asian Americans are influenced by the culture inherited from their families needs to be further investigated.

APPENDIX Interview questions

1. What do you think are East Asian American engineers' strengths and weaknesses for leadership?

2. How do your superiors think about your assertiveness, which refers to how well you act or speak up to show who you are, what you want, and what you think, especially when you need to protect your rights?

3. How do your colleagues think about your assertiveness?

4. What do you think are the reasons why you are perceived as assertive or non-assertive?

5. What do you think are the cultural reasons, if any, that your superior or subordinates perceive that your are assertive or non-assertive?


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Jensen Chung is an associate professor in organizational communication and leadership communication at San Francisco State University. He holds a PhD degree from the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has published numerous articles in communication and management journals on issues relating to leadership communication, intercultural communication in organizations, and conflict resolution. He has experience as a government department head, newspaper publisher, and sales manager.

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