Breaking Down Stereotypes
Asian women speak out on “Speaking Up.”
By Corin Ramos
Born and raised in China, Yun Li was only 25 years old when she came to America nearly 20 years ago. Like many immigrants, Li worked hard to achieve her American Dream. For Li this included learning English, earning a Ph.D. in physics and establishing a successful career in the high-tech industry.
Despite her accomplishments, Li felt hindered by what she called “a language and speech handicap.” She also had been thinking about leaving her high-tech life to answer her inner calling of helping people as a life and business coach, a vocation that required her to overcome her fears and anxieties about public speaking.
To improve her speaking skills, Li joined a local Toastmasters club in Albuquerque, New Mexico, four years ago. At the time, she was the club’s only Asian female member, and common misperceptions about Asian women quickly posed a challenge for the self-proclaimed “recovering physicist.”
For one thing, she felt insecure because of her accent, and members frequently corrected her grammar as well. “People thought I wasn’t smart or educated because I spoke differently,” she says.
Her friendly personality also seemed to work against her. “I smiled a lot, which made people think I was passive and not as serious or ambitious as other Western business women.”
Li’s experience is common for many Asian women, even those born and raised in the United States, according to Helen Hsu, a licensed clinical psychologist and international speaker on bicultural and Asian American issues.
“Asian women are stereotyped as being shy, passive and submissive; therefore, they may be seen as followers and not leaders,” explains Hsu. “Many Asian women also face assumptions that if they speak with an accent, then they must not be articulate.”
On the other side of the coin, even those without an “accent” are not immune to such remarks. Hsu, who was born in the U.S. and worked as an English writing tutor while acquiring advanced degrees, says she still is asked how it is that she speaks “without an accent.”
“The enduring popularity of these stereotypes does have a negative impact on young Asian girls and women,” says Hsu. “They tend to be treated as ‘outsiders,’ as if they are foreign workers or recent immigrants rather than authentic Americans.”
The public speaking arena, where Asian women still are a rarity, poses additional challenges. “Stereotypes can contribute to anxiety,” Hsu says, “and an Asian female speaker may find that she has to make an extra effort to establish credibility. First impressions do matter, and an Asian woman has more negative stereotypes to overcome or disprove when she speaks in public.”
“I have to work a lot harder to break down stereotypes and biases. Some presentations are like pulling a two-ton suitcase up a steep mountain.” – Yoon Cannon
That’s not news to Yoon Cannon, a 38-year-old, Korean- born business coach and speaker based in Philadelphia who often speaks in front of “older, male Caucasian” business owners. “I have to work a lot harder to break down stereotypes and biases,” Cannon says. “Some presentations are like pulling a two-ton suitcase up a steep mountain.”
Michael Soon Lee, author of Cross-Cultural Selling for Dummies, and the first Asian American Certified Speaking Professional, advises Asian female speakers to establish their credibility “the moment you walk out on the platform.”
“Because of these stereotypes of Asian females, it’s important to overcome that stereotype and connect with the audience immediately, especially when speaking to predominantly male audiences,” Lee advises.
In one of her presentations, Yoon Cannon established that connection by telling her own story as a business owner. “Even if I’m Asian, female and at least 15 years younger than most of the audience members, we could all relate to the same struggles and challenges of business ownership,” Cannon says. “Throughout the presentation, I could feel their interest and energy growing steadily.”
Clint Cora, an author and speaker who has coached many Asian females in speaking before Western audiences, has this advice: “Loosen up, speak up and don’t be so self-conscious when speaking.” She says female Asian speakers tend to have very soft voices. “This not only reinforces those negative stereotypes of being passive and submissive, but it makes it difficult for audience members sitting in the back of the room to hear you!”
Cannon agrees. “Don’t be afraid to have strong stage presence. You don’t want to be perceived as a delicate mouse.”
Cultural Juggling Acts
Despite these difficulties, Asian women are continuing to overcome these barriers and embrace public speaking. They also have learned to tailor their presenta- tions when speaking before non-American audiences abroad, which can pose a whole new set of “rules” and challenges.
Based in Singapore, Bennett Porter is head of marketing for Yahoo! Emerging Markets. Half Caucasian and half Asian, she has been speaking in Asia since mid-2006 to seasoned, older executives (both male and female) as well as twentysomethings who are new to the industry.
“I love telling stories,” says Porter. Although she ends up taking most of the humor out of her presentations (“because of the language issue”), she says she can’t recall any negative experiences due to her gender or ethnicity. “Asians go out of their way to be nonconfrontational, so even Q&A can sometimes be light.”
A frequent speaker on cross- cultural leadership in China and other countries, Helen Zhang can relate to Porter’s experience when speaking to a more subdued Asian audience. Based in Beijing, China, Zhang is the founder of China Time, Inc., which advises both Chinese and foreign corporate leaders on business strategies.
“When speaking in front of Chinese audiences in China, I adjust my own expectations and style of delivery,” says Zhang, author of the book Think Like Chinese. “Chinese audiences are often reserved, polite and would not ask many questions – if at all. They prefer to write down their questions, then pass them forward to remain anonymous. They don’t want to lose face or speak out in a crowd.”
Yao-Hui Huang also has a special perspective when it comes to speaking to Asian audiences versus those in America. Based in New York, Huang is founder of The Hatchery, a venture collaboration organization, and is a frequent flier to Asia, where she leverages business deals between companies there and in America.
“With American audiences I tend to be more dynamic,” says Huang. “With Asian audiences, I tend to emphasize a teaching persona because Asian audiences are more studious in their approach.
“Asian audiences are tougher audiences because they often have more perceived personal obstacles to overcome and may not accept the ease by which I offer advice and solutions to problems. I tend to begin my talks with humor, and carry the weight of the presentations with case studies.”
Yoon Cannon performs a similar cultural juggling act. When speaking to Asian audiences, especially women in their 20s to young 30s, Cannon says she has “a lot more fun with bringing out the bolder side” of her personality.
“However, if I am speaking to a more culturally traditional and older Asian audience, I am careful to present myself and my perspectives in a more conservative tone, and make sure I cross all my t’s and dot all of my i’s in terms of Asian etiquette,” she says.
Yingdan Liu, who is this year’s District 85 Lt. Governor Education and Training from Shanghai, China, says the biggest difference between speaking in the U.S. and in China is “the confidence, passion and enthusiasm” demonstrated by American speakers.
“Americans are much more expressive than the Chinese,” she says. “When Americans use big facial expressions and exaggerated body language, it looks natural. But as an Asian woman, I don’t have much expression on my face, and I won’t use body language. Also an American audience will laugh very loudly, but I don’t want to laugh too loudly, to influence the people around me to – just chuckle, or use my hand to cover my mouth.”
Cultural juggling act aside, the speakers agree on one main point: “Be yourself.”
For Zhang, this means not making a major issue of gender or ethnicity. “It is who you are and what you are about to say that really matter.”
“Just be you,” echoes Yun Li. “When I pretend to be someone else, it’s a disaster.”
For Li, taking her own advice and sticking with her club has paid off.
In 2007, she gave in to her inner calling and founded Yunexis, which provides consulting, coaching and training services to organizations, businesses and individuals. She speaks in public regularly, and loves it.
Last year, she became club president, and often touts the benefits of joining Toastmasters. Despite the cultural barriers and off-base remarks of the past, Li said she was made welcome by club members. Most importantly, it gave her the opportunity to practice public speaking, which she now describes as “fun and very interactive!”
Cannon says she is always aware of her gender and ethnicity, but it just makes her that much more motivated to deliver stronger content. The payoff? “It’s always a great feeling to know you made a positive impact on people and that they appreciated it.”
As with all public speaking, practice is key, regardless of gender or ethnicity of the speaker, says Helen Hsu, the clinical psychologist. Her advice to female Asian speakers can help anyone who wants to enjoy a more powerful speaking presence:
- Prepare well and practice aloud with someone who can give feedback.
- Learn to speak assertively.
- Take speech or media training classes.
- Use a strong voice, good data and some well-timed humor – these all can put the audience at ease and help dump the stereotyped baggage of the speaker.
Regardless of their experiences on the podium, the female members say their Toastmasters clubs give them a safe haven to improve and broaden their public speaking skills.
To attract other culturally diverse women, Yun Li has this advice: “Make them feel comfortable, and don’t be picky about their grammar or accent. Asians, especially, prefer that you build a relationship with them first; after that you can correct their grammar!”
Corin Ramos, is a member of the Yorba Linda-Placentia Toastmasters club in Yorba Linda, California. A first-generation Filipino American, Corin is president of Walson Communications, a multi- cultural public relations and marketing agency based in Orange County, California. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.