Rebecca, works in the City of London, in Finance. She came to the UK from China, nine years ago. On this episode of Shy and Mighty I speak to Rebecca about the contrast between attitudes towards shyness in China and in the UK. We also discuss her work and home personas and how she manages her shyness in the workplace.
“I am naturally a shy person. I think this is just part of my genes.
But, I think there are two me’s; the home me and the work me.
I have very close relationships with my family, like my husband and my parents. But as I haven’t seen my parents for some time, if you bring them here now, I would feel shy and need some time to warm up. There would be no hugs for the first ten minutes or so!
However, since I was young, at school, I was the one who would volunteer or be picked up by my teachers for stage performance and public speeches. Now at work, I enjoy engaging with people.
The personal me is still shy in various situations. When a courier knocks at our door, I would definitely want my husband to go to open the door.
When I’m at work, I am not afraid of challenging senior people or engaging with different stakeholders. The only development area I tend to get year by year for my appraisals is to become more outspoken. The “work me” definitely has been working on this and I can see my confidence of speaking up has been improving dramatically. Otherwise I wouldn’t agree to be on the podcast!
But sometimes I joke that I might have an identity crisis, as I am progressing towards something which is so far away from my original culture background and the home me.
In Chinese culture, we say quietness is the gold. And it is seen as negative to stand out of crowd by being outspoken. In our culture, your work itself would speak up for you.
I was that you always feel honoured when you are serving the greater good.
If I’m working on my own project, for my business, for myself, I’ll speak up for myself, I felt like it was a bit weird. I mean, where’s the limit. How much should I be speaking up for myself? Is it selfish? At the beginning, I wasn’t sure if I was entitled and I worried about how people would see me. But when I realised that it’s about fairness at work and actually getting a promotion could help my work. It would make it easier for me to take greater responsibilities, which would benefit the organisation as well. I felt more comfortable to open up.
In my culture, if you stand out from the crowd for the greater good for your group, for society, it’s definitely a good thing. But if it’s for yourself, it’s different. Women are expected to behave slightly different than men.
In some ways, British people seem to share certain similarities with Chinese culture. You apologise a lot!
When I meet people I don’t know, I need a bit of time to observe and settle in – I don’t know what to say, I don’t have much to say, people might misinterpret that as coldness or incompetence as the first impression of me.
At first, I tend not to speak too much, but then once I get comfortable, it gets a lot easier for me to put my opinions forward.
Although the work me tends not to be that shy, there are some grey areas. Career progression, for example. Because it feels like it’s 99% for my own benefit, but it only happens at the workplace. So, actually, I struggled for quite a long time to know, to open up, to convey, to articulate my career aspirations. I just found it really difficult. But my managers, they, they saw me be really confident in handling big projects, they didn’t expect me to be shy when talking about my aspirations.
When I first switched job, it took me some time to fit in and feel comfortable, due to my natural shyness.
Also, I often get comments that I look young. Asians don’t seem to age! Outside work, it’s not a problem, because we are constantly being bombarded by products designed to make us look younger. But, at work it can be a bit frustrating. People kept asking me if I’m renting a flat with my uni friends. When I’ve been married for 5 years!
The turning point came when one of our senior female leaders talked about her early career in law firms and she said she never mentioned she was married. She made me realise I needed to change.
I guess, that as a naturally shy person, I tend to do perhaps too much self-reflection and to care sometimes too much about other people’s perceptions of me, which put lots of burdens on myself and other people.
Sometimes I need to put in some effort to “correct” people’s misperception about me to gain the expected recognition of my skills and capabilities.
I am sensitive towards others’ feelings and perceptions and so I need some time to build up my psychological safety in a new environment. I have been working on shortening the time I need for starting feeling comfortable in a new environment.
But, the fact that I am sensitive towards others’ feelings, actually helps when I need to engage with people or manage people. When I was leading teams, it was easy for them to open up themselves to me. I can sense group dynamics quite well.
When shy colleagues don’t say much at meetings, I would check with them informally after the meetings to seek their views.
I have been becoming more and more comfortable about who I am and have accepted the different me. But it’s still hard when things fall into the grey area, like career progression. It’s something personal but happens at work.
Wearing my work hat, I have been pushing forward some Diversity and Inclusion initiatives at work, such as around inclusive meetings. Tactics like silent brainstorming could be useful for making the workplace more inclusive for shy people. You ask everyone to reflect on the questions and write down their thoughts on stickers for five or ten minutes and then share them in one go. That way, certain types of people can’t dominate the conversation.
The current trend is to recognise different work styles and behavioural preferences. But, at the end of the day, it’s about whether you feel comfortable with the people around you and whether you can open yourself up in front of your line managers.
I think management training should incorporate this angle to give people who manage people, the tools and the supporting resources to know how to, how to react and how to manage different type of people. We need bigger social and organisational changes at work to create an environment which accommodates different types of people, including shy people.”