Friday, September 21, 2018
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Asian shyness

A reader in her mid-20s wrote: After the United Airlines incident where a Vietnamese was dragged off the plane, my dad says that Asians are shy, so they are often exploited by other people. I am shy by nature, but in my MBA classes in the US, I learned to be less shy. Now that I’m back though, my dad says I have to be respectful. Are there non-shy Asians who still succeed in business in Asia?

My reply


I don’t think Asian shyness is the reason Dr. Dao, an American who is Vietnamese by birth, was dragged off the United Airlines flight last April 2017. The official reason was that the flight was overbooked, but whatever the cause, the airline did not handle the situation well and justly suffered worldwide condemnation. United has since settled the case with Dr. Dao.

But your father has a point about Asian diffidence. Studies say that this trait is prized in Asian culture (as exemplified by the ultra-polite Japanese), borne out of centuries of Confucianism and related philosophies, where societal hierarchies were (and still are) paramount. Such hierarchies have permeated families, schools, and inevitably—the workplace.
This has led to the so-called bamboo ceiling, where self-effacing Asians in the West might not reach the very top even if they work very hard and perform very well.

I am not sure if the Asian youth today are as diffident as most of their forebears, but while shyness might work in Asia, it probably might not be as much of an asset elsewhere.

You say you are naturally shy—the more precise term is you are an introvert. You have become less shy. Would this be an asset in Asia? It depends.

Several businesses run by open-minded founders encourage the younger generation to speak their mind—since you studied in the US, your father might be one of them.

Your father reminds you to be respectful. I agree. Whether or not you are shy, wherever you are, you need to respect what your elders have achieved. You can be both assertive and respectful.

Immerse yourself in the culture of your family business. What norms are followed? If you do not agree, then discuss the matter—respectfully—with your father or other elders.

Forbes Magazine publisher Rich Karlgaard writes, “Entire books have been written on the bamboo ceiling and theories of shyness and introversion … [They] are not the same thing. Introverts aren’t necessarily shy. They simply prefer to restore themselves through solitude and a good book. Extroverts feel energized by other people. The worst thing to be, however, is an extrovert who is shy, admitted an Asian HR manager … ‘You are energized by people, but fear holds you back.’”

Cecil and Gigi Chao


There exist Asians who are not shy and who head successful family corporations. Take the Hong Kong father-daughter tandem of Cecil and Gigi Chao of property group Cheuk Nang Holdings.

In 2012, Cecil offered $65 million to any man to marry Gigi, who already had a wife. He got 10,000 replies, and two years after, he doubled the amount, until Gigi publicly demanded that Cecil respect her wishes.

Not only did the father—himself never married, but with kids from three different women—finally accept his daughter’s choice, he made her his heir.

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TAGS: Asian shyness, Dr. Dao, United Airlines incident
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