Assertiveness across cultures

A few days ago I ran assertiveness training which focuses on basic principles of assertiveness. The training was delivered by me – a Polish trainer experienced in working with both Eastern and Western cultures, and attended by delegates representing various cultures but all living in the UK and working for a local company.

To me, assertiveness has no fixed boundaries. It can be situational and may depend on a person we talk to. However there are some universal principles that distinguish assertive, aggressive and passive communication styles from each other.

To my surprise, at the very beginning of the course, while setting expectations for the training that was about to happen, some delegates clearly expressed they were interested in learning cultural differences in assertive communication. It was great in the first place to see that people acknowledge cultural differences and are eager to learn about it in depth. 

It reminded me about all my efforts made in the past when I moved to the Philippines and tried to teach people how to be more assertive (in my definition of the term). It is even a bigger shame to admit how judgemental I was every time I heard ‘Yes, ma’am!’ and responded ‘Can you ever disagree with what I say? Or at least ask questions? Stop saying ‘yes’ to everything for God’s sake!’ So that was me before I got to know Filipino culture. And then I became ‘half-Filipina’ as some people say. I had to learn quickly how to be more adaptive and thus effective in functioning in Filipino culture. And then I left the country and came back to the Western world… and struggled again, I bet I was perceived as less confident or indirect than I was before.

What does assertiveness mean in various cultures then?

Dorland's Medical Dictionary defines assertiveness as a form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person's rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one's rights or point of view.

Within each culture there are certain expectations from the way people should communicate. That is why it is often much easier to relate to our countrymen. Once we face anyone representing a very different culture we look at them through our own lenses and compare to what we are familiar with - ourselves.

Individualistic cultures may be perceived as more assertive as they put a bigger emphasis on ‘I’ rather that ‘we’. Expressing individual needs ‘assertively’ in collectivistic cultures may not be perceived well. Low context cultures are supposed to communicate in a more direct way thus will be perceived as more assertive. How about low power distance and its impact on more egalitarian and direct expression of one’s needs and opinions? 

People whose cultural values are individualism, low power distance and low context may perceive the other extreme side of the scale as passive! 
Another interesting aspect to look at is a non-verbal channel of communication. Rich gesticulation, loud voice, strong intonation, intensive eye-contact may be perceived as aggressive by some.

Is non-assertiveness based on perception rather than actual traits then? 

Since assertiveness is a balancing act and its boundaries flex, are representatives of certain cultures assertive towards each other and communicate differently when facing foreigners? What is your experience? Personally I have observed much more assertive behaviours within the same culture groups. It seems like we are more confident and comfortable in a group of people we are familiar with and who are more similar to us.

A more effective way to consider one’s assertiveness is suspending judgements and generalizations and getting to know individual intentions instead. Aside from that, consideration of and adaptation to one’s cultural values and personality should help to communicate effectively and ultimately reach a mutual understanding.