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Assertiveness in US Culture

Many cultures view assertiveness negatively. Often, these are cultures that are more collective than an individual in their nature. Take Japan’s proverb “the nail that sticks out will be hammered down.” US culture, on the other hand, is very individualistic. Here, it is “the squeaky wheel that gets the oil.” Especially in the workplace, assertiveness is seen as a very positive trait, often necessary for success. 

What is Assertiveness? 

While many people equate the word assertive with rudeness, it is quite the opposite. Assertiveness relies on clearly communicating your thoughts, beliefs, or boundaries while being open to others’ ideas as well. In other words, an assertive person is comfortable standing up for their own beliefs and boundaries while allowing others the space to think differently from them. Assertive is the sweet spot between passive and aggressive. For instance, if a friend asks you to do something you aren’t comfortable with, a passive response would be to say yes and secretly be upset about it. An assertive response would be to say no politely. An aggressive response would be to attack the person for even asking.


Assertiveness in the US Workplace 

Assertiveness in the workplace is culturally situated: while some work cultures might favor avoiding conflicts at all costs, US work culture often necessitates assertiveness. If you’re too passive, you may find yourself taken advantage of, passed over for promotions, or viewed as easy to push around. This can be especially true for women, who must fight against the stereotype that they’re naturally more passive. Of course, this can be a steep learning curve if you come from a culture that values subtlety over directness. 


Tips for Being Assertive 

  1. Be as honest and direct as possible about what you think, feel, and need. It’s tempting to be vague in an attempt to soften an opinion or be more agreeable, but this often leads to misunderstanding and frustration. 
  2. Use a clear, confident tone of voice. Don’t sound unsure of yourself when expressing something, or, likewise, don’t sound aggressive or hostile, which will often push others into being defensive, no matter your message. In terms of volume, note that those in the US often speak louder than those in many countries. Recognize and match the volume level of your coworkers. If you’re too soft-spoken, others may read this as passivity. 
  3. Be open to feedback. Ask questions to check that others are understanding you, and don’t get defensive if they don’t agree with your viewpoint. View the conversation as an opportunity to understand each other better rather than a fight to be won. 

Learning to Be More Assertive 

Learning to be assertive in the workplace can be quite the adjustment for anyone, even more so if you come from a culture that values indirectness and subtlety. It can be especially difficult when you’re already feeling like a bit of an outsider having just immigrated. It’s important to remember you have just as much right as anyone to have opinions, needs, and boundaries. 

It will likely be helpful to make concrete steps toward building your assertiveness. This could be done with a licensed therapist, coach, or dedicated course. Online providers like Skillshare, Coursera, and EdX all offer free courses in building communication skills like assertiveness.