During an evaluation of my work performance, a supervisor told me that I could speak more during the weekly meetings. I brought up the point that the weekly meetings often consist of debriefing events that are optional to attend, for which I am not often present due to class or other obligations. My opportunities to speak are partially limited. But their viewpoint remained the same–I was just “so quiet,” which is nothing that I haven’t heard before. “Quiet” accurately describes me, but I still felt defensive because her comment seemed vague and unconstructive. What is it exactly that I need to verbally provide during meetings? More feedback? More ideas? Am I not helpful enough–a more specific critique–or am I just… too quiet? Is my quietness that much of a problem?
It’s hard to not take critiques of my quietness a little personally because it is ingrained in my character. I have always been an introvert to the fullest; I am one to listen rather than speak or at least to ponder before speaking. If I were to speak more spontaneously and more often, my articulations would be messy. I need time to process my thoughts and choose my words.
During a work retreat, I could feel the pointedness of the question when someone asked whether anyone else in the large group who hadn’t shared yet would like to speak. I chose not to talk at that time. Shortly after, I was asked directly if I wanted to add anything to the conversation. I declined but insisted that I was still reflecting, processing, and engaging.
Silence seems to make people uncomfortable. It is interpreted negatively; to be silent is to be awkward, unsociable, or lazy or shy to speak. I am grateful for people who do not poke and prod silence away: professors who don’t grade participation solely off of how many times a student speaks in class, friends who appreciate active listening, etc. The same people are not often supervisors or bosses.
I have a small fear that I will not succeed or be taken seriously in the workplace because I am 1) a woman, 2) a woman of color (Asian, specifically Filipina), and 3) a stereotypically quiet Asian woman. For Asian women, being stereotyped as quiet goes hand in hand with being stereotyped as docile and submissive. Not only is it considered unpopular and unusual to be quiet in U.S. society, but in the professional world specifically, the Western concept of leadership also prizes people who are talkative, extroverted, aggressive, charismatic, and skilled at public speaking. Undoubtedly, traditional conceptions of strong leaders and/or employees help to build the “bamboo ceiling,” the collection of barriers that Asians face when pursuing leadership positions in the workplace.
Recently, I attended a speaker panel with two Filipina professionals. One spoke of her experience of being the only person of color during meetings. Despite being in the middle of the age range among the professionals, she is always treated as if she is younger by her white coworkers, who dominate the conversations. As she put it, they like to hear themselves speak. Initially, she was withdrawn and discouraged from talking. Now, she speaks freely–albeit not as often as her counterparts. But when she does speak, she is very intentional. Her words are original and thoughtful, never a parroting of what someone else said. And they listen closely to her.
Her story gives me hope. I liked that she didn’t change who she was; she communicates well and is respected, while still being relatively quiet. But I remain wary for myself and my professional future, knowing that I probably still have to work on my speaking skills and to accommodate a little to Western ideals until it’s more socially acceptable to be a quiet Asian woman.