At Odds with Startup Culture: An Immigrant’s Challenge Being ‘Open’ in the Workplace

When you grow up with fundamentally different cultural expectations from everyone else around you, it pervades every aspect of your life.

by Archana Madhavan on June 21st, 2016

Transparency. Openness. Communication.

Take any Silicon Valley startup or newly-minted unicorn right now and you’ll find some variation of these in the company’s core values.

It’s actually one of the things that American startups and science research — what I was doing in my previous life as a Stanford PhD student — have in common. You implicitly treat the people you work with as equals, regardless of job title. You’re taught to question and exchange ideas. You’re encouraged to express and challenge opinions. Debate is lauded, not censured. With the open office floorplan comes the open exchange of minds. An intern could interact with the CEO just as she would interact with her direct supervisor. The lines of formal office hierarchy are blurred.

Modern startup (and STEM) culture tells us success is rooted in being confident in our ideas, and to assert ourselves while expressing them to our colleagues. In contrast, I was raised to “know my place,” taught to stay within the boundaries of a hierarchy that placed my thoughts and ideas–as someone younger, less experienced, less educated–below those of my superiors.

Even when I want to be ‘open,’ I face a closed door.

Growing up behind a closed door

A door barely cracked in a dark room, allowing just the outline of the door and a thin trail of light to spill in.

Photo CC-BY Jordi Cerdà.

One day, when I was eight or nine years old, I was sitting in the back of the car at a parking lot, one leg crossed over the other. My father glanced at me through the rearview mirror and said, “Don’t sit like that. You can sit like that when you’re the CEO of your own company.”

I was born in India; my family immigrated to the United States when I was 3 months old, leaving behind my entire extended family of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. I don’t think it would be a generalization to say that compared to America, family and filial duty are the moral fibers of Indian society. That’s why my father had never planned to stay longer than a couple years in the U.S. At various points in my life–in high school, before I started college, while I was applying to graduate school–I’ve thought, this is it, this is the year we’ll go back. But a couple years turned into five, then 10, then 25.

I grew up being told, “This is not our culture,” and so I resisted embracing “American” values of independence (another word for ‘selfishness’), choosing instead to conform. Carpe diem, said the movies, but I was taught to sacrifice opportunity for the family’s sake. Challenge the status quo, I learned in high school, but at home I was told that my elders knew better. I dampened ambition for the sake of culture; while my friends left home for college, I attended a university just 15 minutes away–because unmarried girls didn’t live away from their parents.

I can only speak to my personal experience as a first generation Indian-American, and I grant that my family skews more on the conservative side of Indian culture. Taking that into account, one of the values my family instilled in me is to respect and defer to social status. In essentially any scenario, you evaluate yourself against the other person’s age, education, skill, or experience. The person who was younger and/or had lesser experience deferred to the person who was “older and wiser”.

This social hierarchy dictated not only the things I said, it affected how I carried myself, the expressions on my face, and my own perceptions of myself. A combination of my own introvertedness, a desire to please, and my parents’ active rejection of American outspokenness, I succumbed to “respecting” my social betters the best way I knew how: by staying silent. I bottled up skepticism, so much so that I could barely get through Socratic seminars, where I had to challenge professors’ opinions, without feeling sick to my stomach.

Without even knowing it, the silence, the fear of causing offense, slowly disempowered me. In graduate school, this grew into acute anxiety and imposter syndrome. I would stumble on my words and physically shake when I had to meet with my advisor. Every single day, I thought my ideas were too stupid to say outloud.

I still carry this ugly silence with me; no matter how hard I try to be open, no matter how much my workplace encourages it, it’s still incredibly difficult.

To this day, when I sit cross-legged at my desk, I recall my dad’s rebuke from almost 20 years ago.

Workplace Consequences

Black and white image of a woman in a plain dress leaning in a doorway; on the surrounding walls is the vague impression of dark woods, trees and mosses.

Public domain image via hadania.

When you grow up with fundamentally different cultural expectations from everyone else around you, it pervades every aspect of your life. Just because open communication is a company value, doesn’t mean I can leave behind a lifetime’s worth of cultural upbringing at the door.

The three most prevalent challenges I’ve encountered as a result of being raised to adhere to social boundaries include:

1) Letting experience and professional titles get in the way of open communication.

One of the most uncomfortable experiences of my life was when, as an undergraduate, my research advisor–a PhD scientist with more years of experience than I had been alive–told me to stop addressing him as “Dr.” and start calling him by his first name. It went against everything my parents taught me about respecting people who were older and better educated than myself.

When I started graduate school, my mind rebelled against criticizing research articles (a common assignment for PhD candidates)–after all, these papers were written by PhDs with years more experience than myself. What could I possibly think of that they haven’t?

Later, as the new co-founder of a young startup, that mentality was a detriment to the company. Again and again, I deferred to the CEO, kept thoughts to myself, and stayed silent at critical moments. What did I know? I wasn’t a business major. I had never held a management position. I had never had a job outside of academia. My ideas weren’t valid.

2) Failing to recognize and call out racism, sexism, and misconduct.

I can’t count the number of times someone in my family has touted an opinion or viewpoint and justified it with “so-and-so who has a PhD from insert-Ivy-League-School-here said so.” I came to care about the meritocracy so much so that when figures of authority demonstrated microaggression, I didn’t speak out about it. When they threw out something casually sexist or racist, it didn’t even bother me. It wasn’t that I was afraid to speak, it was that I genuinely believed that because such behavior came from a person of influence, it was acceptable.

3) Unable to express praise or criticism.

Feedback is a magical word in the world of startups. When you’re small enough and your company operates almost democratically, everything from product design to office operations can be molded by feedback.

Raised as I was to defer to someone’s education and expertise, for the longest time, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was not only inappropriate, but also disrespectful to express how I felt about something I didn’t have any knowledge in. When I used to offer feedback or present original ideas idea to upper management, I’d default to qualifying myself on so many different levels: “Obviously I’m not an expert on this but…”, “You probably know better but…” “I’m not really sure but…” The result? I sounded uncertain and unsure of what I was doing and, most likely, ended up looking less capable than I really was.

On the same vein, it was a challenge to compliment people, especially those that were not on my “level” as an individual contributor or a student, whatever the situation was at the time. It was perceived as condescending and presumptuous to “praise” someone perceived to be of higher social standing than myself. I took to submitting praise and feedback anonymously, but that wasn’t fixing the root of the problem: my perception of myself compared to others.

Strategies for Inclusion

Hand on a door, opening it into a bright, day-lit room.

Public domain image via davidlee770924.

I appreciate the idea of ‘openness.’ I understand its importance. But after years of introspection, I’ve come to realize something. Every time I have to look past a title, talk to someone older, more experienced, or better educated than myself, conscious effort goes into opening that door. It’s not due to a lack of self-esteem or anxiety or fear (though there’s some of that, too). It’s growing up with the genuine belief that to express myself to someone older and more experienced–someone of higher social status than myself–would be disrespectful.

I’ve thought a lot about what’s helped me find validation in my ideas and ultimately be more open and assertive in the workplace. Here are some strategies management can implement to help people like me succeed in a Western workplace culture:

  1. Invest in solid diversity training for managers. Managers have to realize that someone’s cultural upbringing can affect their work interactions in a very real way. Diversity training isn’t going to change anything overnight, but it can help with education and awareness of different cultural norms and to identify preconceptions and biases. Overall, this is the first step to creating a more inclusive workplace environment.
  2. Promote active listening. There’s a general belief that diversity in the workplace encourages diversity of thought. Encouraging diversity of thought is great, but counterproductive if no one knows how to listen to each other. In my case, because I grew up without speaking out, I feared that my ideas would be dismissed as stupid, but being with a team that encouraged my feedback and thought about it critically, helped me express myself more openly. Complement open communication with active listening, and you’ll get more people speaking up.
  3. Make the most of one-on-ones. Use one-on-one time to not only discuss performance, but also get to really know your direct reports. If you notice them having difficulties in communication or fitting in with office culture, ask about their challenges. Use this time to get feedback from them that they may not be comfortable giving in a group setting. Most importantly, ask what you can do to help them achieve their maximum potential. My difficulty was in communication; during my one-on-one, I asked my manager to explicitly ask for my feedback and input during team discussions, so I would be encouraged to participate.
  4. Provide mentorship opportunities. No matter how open-minded or empathetic you are, you can’t really claim to understand those who are different from you. Sometimes the best way that people of different cultural upbringings can learn to be successful is to speak with a mentor from a similar background. If workplaces themselves don’t offer a mentorship program, managers can work with their reports to find suitable mentors with a similar cultural background, who could better help them navigate both their careers and find success in their workplace.

Obviously, I can only speak to my upbringing and how that’s affected me; I can’t make sweeping generalizations about Indian culture or about other Indian Americans. But from the limited knowledge I have of other Asian workplace cultures–South Korea and Japan, for instance–social hierarchies exist both outside and inside the workplace. For managers and others in positions of authority, I hope the challenges I’ve recounted evokes empathy for other immigrants who, like me, may struggle to assert themselves.

Just because we’re quiet, doesn’t mean we have nothing to say.