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Culturally Speaking

By: Lily Qi

A friend from South Asia told me about his recent conversation with a colleague, who told him to “calm down” because he was making a strong point and got a bit animated with hand gestures. He found that remark condescending and objected to the perception that he was not calm or collected just because he felt strongly about something.

I can completely relate to him and feel his frustration as I have been in his shoes many times. It is not unusual for American-born or -bred colleagues and friends to misinterpret the communication styles of those who grew up elsewhere. When we passionately talk about something, we are perceived as being emotional, even irrational or unreasonable. To be told to calm down in the middle of an engaged and serious conversation is humiliating, especially given how important face-saving is for many Asian cultures, unless we have clearly violated your personal space and are rude or aggressive.

For many foreign-born professionals, verbal communication is our last frontier in career advancement and personal integration with other Americans, for several good reasons.

First, vast majority of immigrants who came as adults, including some from English-speaking countries, have some degrees of accent no matter how well we speak English, not to mention many who still struggle with spoken English in spite of having advanced degrees in this country. Second, as self-respecting adults, we tend to be conscious of how people perceive our linguistic competency and tend to hold back if we don’t have to embarrass ourselves.

Over time, the lack of practice in verbally articulating our thoughts, coupled with the lack of vocabulary for some to adequately express ourselves, can lead to serious lack of confidence when we do speak. Finally, either due to cultural habits or our tendency to compensate for inadequate verbal skills, we tend to get animated with our gestures when we speak, making us look as though we are overly emotional, or less leader-like.

As individuals it is to our detriment if we don’t pay attention to how we come across to others. The American cultural norm assigns great value to being cool and collected under any circumstances. The well-educated and civilized are expected to conduct themselves with impeccable manners, including how we speak. The little things we don’t pay much attention to can be big traps that erode people’s comfort levels with us. How we cut people off before they finish their sentences, how we use our hand gestures, eye contacts, and postures, all affect the quality of our interactions and ultimately our relationships with colleagues and friends.

Another issue that comes up every time in my cultural competency training class is people’s resentment towards colleagues speaking a language other than English at work. As our workplaces become more multicultural and multilingual, it is almost unavoidable when people choose to converse in their native tongues. What is important is for both individuals and organizations to develop some awareness. When we speak another language at work, we need to be mindful of how our conversations may sound to others who don’t have any clue what we are talking about. On the other hand, it serves to remind ourselves of the power of languages as a bond for individuals as most people are much more relaxed, lively and gregarious when they speak their native languages. In addition, speaking one’s native language is a more productive and effective way of communication than speaking a second language.

The fact that many American expatriates working overseas choose to hang out with their fellow Americans and speak English whenever possible tells you it’s not just the non-English speakers who love to speak their native languages. We all do. Language humanizes us as people.

Cultural competency goes both ways. For immigrants like me, personal cultural competency takes lifetime to perfect. For organizations, cultural competency takes purposeful actions on daily basis, such as paying attention to communication dynamics, especially in group settings, when conversations are often dominated by native English speakers and the agenda is less structured in terms of who speaks next. It helps to draw out less vocal individuals and encourage them to comment on something they feel comfortable talking about or have expertise on, or to give them a heads-up that you expect them to speak at the next meeting so they can be prepared. Awareness combined with thoughtful practices can go a long way in developing our individual and institutional cultural competency.

Lily Qi can be reached at or via her blog site,



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Due to a proofreading oversight, this column’s title in the previous issue expressed the opposite of the author’s intention. That title should have read, “Why Asian Americans are a Swing Vote.” We regret this error.

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