A lasting impression from my trip to Indonesia is the pleasant smiles and accommodating nature of the locals I interacted with. In contrast, within hours of my arrival in Lithuania, a store check-out clerk brashly told me “No, no, no!” as I unknowingly attempted to purchase something I was not supposed to.
Both of these examples represent the cultural value of assertiveness. Cultural assertiveness reflects beliefs as to whether people are or should be encouraged to be assertive, aggressive, and tough or non-assertive, non-aggressive, and tender in social relationships. When you experience a cultural assertiveness that is different than your own you often feel discomfort. It is also easy to judge the behavior as inappropriate (either too passive or to aggressive). However, these are just cultural norms that define how things are done. After spending time in Lithuania, I have grown comfortable with their direct nature as I have learned that assertiveness does not mean the same thing as being uncaring or rude.
The chart below illustrates some of the most common differences between cultures or individuals with high and low assertiveness. At the bottom of this blog you will find a reference chart which provides specific results for the 62 countries in the GLOBE study.
This idea is supported by Howard Guttman in who specializes in workplace conflict. He believes that one of the sources of conflict is because of differences in our communication style. He labels these styles on as non-assertive, assertive or aggressive (see diagram below). When we encounter someone with a different style than our own, we often feel like a conflict is occurring rather than identifying it as a difference in our styles.
Whether in your workplace or in your travels, you have experienced differences in cultural assertiveness. As Canadians (a mid-assertiveness culture) who are living in the United States, our family has had to work to adjust to the high assertiveness of the US Culture. We cannot rely on others to ask us about ourselves and have to initiate more than we are used to. While it can be frustrating to adjust to different norms, it is a requirement of living in an increasingly global society.
As you understand differences in cultural assertiveness you can:
- Become self-aware: What is your cultural assertiveness norm? Where do you believe your communication style sits on Guttman’s scale?
- Validate your assumptions: Ask others the same question to see if your self-evaluation matches their experience.
- Assess your environment: How does the cultural assertiveness of your situation differ from your own. How do you need to adjust or act in this situation in order to be successful?
- Adjust: Learn to behave outside of your natural comfort zone.
I would love to hear examples of assertiveness differences you have experienced!
NOTE: The content above has been adapted from the seminal work on global leadership commonly called The GLOBE Leadership Study. It assessed 62 different countries and identified important cultural and leadership norms. The results of this massive research project provide us with a goldmine of information which helps us understand cultural differences.
Jeff Suderman is a professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He partners with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and their FutureReadiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman
Guttman, H.M (2003).When Goliath clash.New York: Amacon
House, R., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M, Dorfman, P.W., Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, leadership, and organizations: The GLOBE study of 62 societies. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.