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How Quietness Can Be Heard in the Workplace: Supporting Asian Pacific Islander Employees

Written by Tony Ho on May 17, 2021

Related content: Diversity And Inclusion, 2U Denver

Tony enjoying a quiet moment outdoors to read, write, and reflect

For most of my life, I have been used to people asking me something to the effect of, “You were really quiet in there—are you OK?” Whether it was in a classroom, a small group project, or a work-related meeting, that question always made me feel perplexed and somewhat frustrated. I never knew how to adequately respond because I thought I was OK, but when someone would call out my quietness with a tone of genuine concern, I would naturally second-guess if I was actually OK.

Is it OK to be quiet?

More recently, I decided to try and answer this for myself. What was it about my reserved nature that invoked worry from others? After all, my Vietnamese upbringing in the United States emphasized the value of being quiet, and how that strategy of “blending in” would be conducive to my survival and success. My parents and many other Asian Pacific Islander (API) refugee families who I grew up around seemed to have a similar message ingrained in their U.S. American-born children. Whenever someone asked me if I was OK, I would internally think, “Yes, I’m OK. Why would I not be OK?! I’m always quiet. It’s who I am and how I was molded to be since I was born…”.

Looking back at those countless moments of inner turmoil where I struggled to answer what appeared to be such an innocent and simple question, I can’t help but laugh now because I understand where all of that prior frustration originated from. Whenever I was around my API community and just being my regular quiet self, no one ever asked me if I was OK because being quiet is not unusual for us, so I don’t have to explain myself. The quietness I was regularly demonstrating hadn’t been a cause for concern in those circles—ever. In contrast, when my quietness was observed outside of the realm of my API community, it was often mistaken for lack of confidence, unwillingness to engage, or inability to communicate.

Although I’ve been jealous of colleagues who have no trouble speaking their mind with lightning-fast responses, I’ve come to appreciate why my Vietnamese culture embraces quietness as a desirable approach in group participation.
— Tony Ho, Student Success Advisor at 2U

On Reverence, Group Harmony, and “Practicing Quiet”

Experiencing these dramatically different worlds and navigating the ever-changing (and subjective) valuation of my quietness inside and outside my API community has helped me gain a lot of personal insight. I have come to appreciate the influence of my Vietnamese culture on how I now maneuver through my professional landscape. Growing up, my parents often told me that I should always be quiet in school because I could learn more from listening to the teacher than I could from talking. They also warned me that if I was too talkative or opinionated, I would risk exposing my own ignorance, so it would be best if I soaked in all of the knowledge from my teachers. This Vietnamese perspective of showing reverence for my teachers (almost to the same level as a parent) and deferring to their wisdom allowed me to lean into my curiosity to learn from my elders. In the workplace, I have found it much easier to approach veteran colleagues and managers by asking for their insights in order to learn how to anticipate the needs of a team.

Another benefit of “practicing quiet” that I have seen throughout my career is that it has afforded me many opportunities to better understand the pain points of a group or organization so that I can help bolster members’ morale. My family reinforced the importance of maintaining group harmony, and messaged to me in both implicit and explicit ways that providing blatant criticism was to be avoided. Whether it was in the context of narrowing their eyes at me for expressing boredom at grandma’s house, or telling me to be wary of answering any employer’s request for feedback about improving work processes (it could cost me my job if they don’t like my answers, my family said), cultivating an amicable environment by keeping my thoughts to myself was highly valued in my community. This practice of verbal self-restraint allowed me to gain a greater situational awareness and would potentially protect me from thoughtlessly speaking my mind.

A young Tony (far left) and his friends just hanging around

Reserved and Engaged

I think that’s why I have typically found myself the last person in a meeting to provide “suggestions for improvement” (if I do it at all) until I collect all the other data points and perspectives from others. I’ve been fortunate to have this kind of conditioning that helps me to see the value of cohesion; it has helped me avoid many “foot-in-mouth” situations by forcing me to be more intentional about how I frame my critical feedback, so as to not weaken the bonds of a group.

Although, for most of my adult life, I have been jealous of colleagues who appear to have no trouble speaking their mind with lightning-fast responses, I have recently come to appreciate why my Vietnamese culture embraces quietness as a desirable approach in group participation. By listening and internally reflecting, I have benefitted from enhanced focus and empathy-building skills as I seek to better understand the thoughts and experiences of others. In addition, I feel a lot more confident in my written communication, since I like to follow up with my peers after I have had time to absorb the topics covered in a meeting.

Celebrating APIand Everyone’sDifferences

I cannot speak for all API people; I can only speak to my experience. There are plenty of loud and extroverted APIs in the world and workplace. For managers and supervisors with direct reports who are quiet, regardless of race or background, I have some tips for creating spaces to recognize and celebrate their contributions. These are strategies and approaches that my previous and current managers have used to help me feel valued in my thoughtfulness and reserved nature. These tips may help the direct reports and others across an organization, too.

Tips and thoughts for people managers:

  • Be plugged in to what is happening within the API world—acknowledge the impact of current events on the community when something difficult or tragic has occurred (this can also be helpful to other BIPOC employees).
  • Discuss culturally specific values with your API direct reports. What types of projects and communications do they respond to best? What are their core competencies and comfort zones when it comes to the process of how they learn?
  • APIs may wait to be tapped on the shoulder as opposed to going for a project. Actively check in with APIs about new projects and ask if they would be interested in joining/supporting.
  • Take time to think about whether you might have a tendency to promote more vocal team members over the others.
  • Don’t assume quietness means a lack of engagement. You could say, “I’m optimistic that this quietness means the gears are moving in your brain. I want to give us a bit more time to process.”
  • Are you setting up space for others to process information (beyond the typical 10 seconds) before moving forward to action items? Take a long pause after you ask a question of the team and set a visual timer of 20-30 seconds for reflection time.
  • When leading a meeting, are you providing an opportunity for less vocal team members to contribute? Try to make sure all voices are heard before moving on to the next topic.
  • Host confidence-building workshops that create a safe environment for employees to explore and choose different ways to demonstrate innovation and showcase “hidden” strengths—e.g., analytical/critical thinking skills, project planning and management, etc.

Encourage team input in different forms (not just verbally in a group setting):

  • Check in one-on-one with each of your team members and encourage them to voice their thoughts and ideas in future meetings.
  • Share topics of discussion in advance so that team members can come to a meeting prepared and not feel put on the spot.
  • Send out a post-meeting email inviting your employees to “reply all'' with their ideas.
  • Ask questions and encourage employees to show thumbs up/thumbs down or choose from a numbered scale to provide a rating/preference (in web meetings or in face-to-face meetings, too).

Embracing the Sound of Silence

Moving forward, perhaps a better question that we can ask ourselves is, "When might it be more beneficial to be quiet?" For people managers, it could be an amazing opportunity to build even stronger relationships with their direct reports and recognize the strengths they can offer to their teams. And for team members who might be inclined to fill “dead air” in a meeting with talk, “practicing quiet” could allow them to be pleasantly surprised by what they hear and learn from the sound of silence.

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