Being Assertive in a Multicultural World

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In our current culture, there are many issues that people strongly disagree with one another about. Often, it seems that the people who are loudest and most forceful are seen as the winners of debates, but angry yelling rarely leads to meaningful understanding or solutions. Instead of emulating aggressive behavior or withdrawing from a disagreement completely, assertiveness is the ability to express yourself openly and honestly while also reflecting a genuine concern for others. It is about having the confidence to be yourself, being true to your values and beliefs, and speaking up when needed. Acting assertively increases your chances for honest relationships, helps you to feel better about yourself, and gives you a sense of control in everyday situations. However, asserting yourself will not necessarily guarantee you happiness or fair treatment by others. Just because you assert yourself does not mean you will always get what you want.

When confronted with difficult situations, people can sometimes respond passively or aggressively. People who respond passively tend to lack confidence when expressing their thoughts and feelings. Therefore, they often think about appropriate comebacks or what they should have said long after the situation has ended. They are often anxious and this can lead to them allowing others to depreciate their value. Other individuals may respond aggressively to difficult situations. People who respond aggressively express their feelings but often at the expense of others. They may get what they want, but they may also lose the respect and trust of others in the process. Assertiveness falls in between these two responses.

Components of  Assertive Behavior

There are several important aspects that contribute to assertiveness—it involves not only what you say but also how you say it. Keep in mind that there are cultural variations in what is considered appropriate for assertive communication. Many of the components listed below are embedded in a Western context, where self-assertion is considered valuable in developing more direct and open communication and a greater sense of equality in relationships, but some cultures place more value on avoiding disagreement.

There are ways to express the content of your message such that other individuals will be more likely to hear you. For example, you could choose to express your feelings and take responsibility for them rather than labeling or blaming the other person. You do not need to put someone else down to express yourself.

Be as specific and clear as possible about what you want, think, and feel. Vague or tentative statements will likely lead to misinterpretation. State what you want, what you do not want, and what you feel is best and why. “Own” your message. Acknowledge that your message comes from your frame of reference and your perceptions. You can acknowledge ownership with personalized statements such as “I don’t agree with you.” (Instead of, “You’re wrong.”) Blaming statements will likely foster defensiveness and resistance rather than understanding and cooperation.

Ask for feedback and then listen carefully to the other person.Ask the other person questions such as, “Does that makes sense?” to ensure they understand your perspective. Asking for feedback can make it clear to the other person that you are expressing an opinion, feeling, or desire rather than a demand. Listening to their feedback and engaging in a discussion can correct any misperceptions either of you have. Encourage others to be clear, direct, and specific in their feedback to you.

Realize how you say something is just as important as what you’re saying. Researchers who study nonverbal communication estimate that about 80% of what is communicated is not through words. Consider how the eye contact you’re making, body posture, facial expressions, and voice tone communicate to others. If you’re unsure of how your nonverbal communication is seen by others, it’s a good idea to ask for feedback from others you trust.

Cultural Variations in Assertiveness

As mentioned before, this brochure approaches assertiveness from a Western culture perspective. While we hope these tips will enhance your assertiveness while living, socializing, and communicating in U.S. culture, we recognize that there are important variations in interpersonal communication across cultures that impact the “what” and “how” of assertive communication. For example, traditional Asian cultures value subtlety and indirectness in communication. More direct or confrontational styles may be viewed as disrespectful and lacking in understanding.

The meaning attributed to nonverbal communication may vary across cultures. For instance, individuals from Latino, African/African American, Arab, or South American backgrounds may tend to stand much closer together when conversing than what is typical for Europeans or Americans. In terms of facial expressions, while demonstrating your inner feelings through your outward expressions is usually helpful, it is important to remember that in some cultures (e.g., Japanese and Chinese), restraint of strong emotions such as anger and sadness is considered to be a sign of wisdom and maturity. Also, there may be differences across culture in terms of appropriate tone of voice. Many Europeans and Americans tend to speak more loudly than people from Asian countries, but may be considered soft-spoken compared to Arabs. Finally, behaviors used to show that one is listening may also vary by culture. Some cultures may not always look at their conversation partner, nod their heads, or say “uh huh” to indicate that they are listening. Remember that what is considered appropriately assertive can vary by culture. Be thoughtful about how your own cultural background and those of others may play a role.

Barriers to Assertiveness

Many people struggle to develop assertiveness because they believe that they do not have the right to be assertive, lack the skills to express themselves effectively, or feel anxious or afraid to assert themselves. They may also struggle due to social and cultural factors. Since assertiveness tends to require a sense of safety and belonging, individuals who feel different or that they cannot be themselves may be less likely to act in an assertive manner. In other words, when people are afraid or uncomfortable, they often hold back.

For instance, individuals who are a part of a minority group (whether ethnic, gender, or sexual) may fear being judged or rejected for their views so they keep important parts of themselves hidden. Women, for example, have historically been discouraged from directly communicating their wants and needs the same way that men are. Women who do communicate their needs have been labeled aggressive rather than assertive. Ultimately, being assertive is about creating an open and accepting environment that welcomes a diversity of styles and perspectives and enables everyone to be authentic and assertive.

Learning to Become More Assertive

As you learn to become more assertive, it may be helpful to work with a therapist, friend, or family member you trust. Your school’s counseling center is a good place to start. It takes time and practice to reach the goal of acting assertively. It can be helpful to keep a journal about your reflections, goals, and the situations, people, attitudes, behaviors, and obstacles you encounter. Observe your own behavior, keep track of your progress, and set realistic goals. As you practice your techniques, it’s helpful to be in a supportive environment. People who understand and care about you are your strongest assets. Becoming assertive is a process that unfolds over time, and practice and patience will help you on your journey to become more assertive.

Additional Resources

Alberti, R. E., & Emmons, M. L. (2017). Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Living (10th ed.). Oakland, CA: Impact Publishers, Inc.

Bishop, S. (2013). Develop Your Assertiveness (3rd ed.).Philadelphia: Kogan Page Publishers.

Dryden, W. & Constantinou, D. (2005). Assertiveness Step by Step. London: Sheldon Press.

McClure, J. S. (2003). Communication with Backbone...Not Bite. Denver: Albion Street Press.

Paterson, R. J. (2000). The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.

Townend, A. (2007). Assertiveness and Diversity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Galinsky, Adam. (2106, September). How to speak up for yourself. Retrieved from  ted.com/talks/adam_galinsky_how_to_speak_up_for_yourself

Riccardi, Pellegrino. (2014, October). Cross cultural communication. Retrieved from youtube.com/watch?v=YMyofREc5Jk

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