Words for Winners: On Cultural Change and the Value of Volume





Speaking ability is an atomic bomb! Just open your lips, and your influence will spread into the twenty first century like an atomic bomb! Speaking ability is a professional need, and someone who cannot speak is doubtlessly a loser!

Advertisement for Dale Carnegie Training, Beijing (translated from Chinese)

“Many years ago I was a loser“, says the man on stage. Shifting and bouncing, he tells the audience, “My eyes are small. I don’t look like [NBA player] Yao Ming, I look like a basketball.” This energetic performer, a man in his early thirties, is competing in a humorous speech contest at a conference organized by public speaking clubs from across northern China. These clubs are affiliated with Toastmasters, a century old American organization, and are expanding rapidly in cities across East and South Asia. Authors on this blog have considered the meaningful silences of their interlocutors. My research has asked how people interpret their own silence, and why many young adults in urban China are earnestly trying to become entertaining, extroverted, and verbally assertive. From 2012-14 I conducted ethnographic research in Toastmasters clubs and other social skills training programs in Beijing. Social scientists have critiqued such self-help programs for producing entrepreneurial subjects trained in the ‘soft skills’ of corporate communication, marketing, and self-promotion. However, economic and social markets do not wholly determine the value of being able to put on a humorous performance. In Chinese self-help groups, postcolonial politics and international migration shape the significance of speech. So too does a society in which speaking loudly is less important than talking to the right person, as well as a cultural system suggesting that truth, ethics, and power can be pursued through measured words and sensitive silence.

Students and college graduates in China often complained to me that, unlike young people in other countries, they haven’t had “platforms” from which to speak. As they study confident public speaking and ‘social skills’, they see themselves as struggling to overcome deficits that traditional schools, parents, and culture have ingrained in their personalities. Thus, in China the practice of public speaking participates in a historical project of cultural self-reflection and modernist reform, a project that was initiated by encounters with colonial powers during a period known to Chinese people as the ‘century of humiliation’. Facing outwards, assertive self-presentation becomes an act of personal and national dignity. The meaning of silence is shaped by histories of racial representation and self-representation: young professionals in China tell stories about universally confident Americans who get ahead while their quiet Chinese colleagues are passed up for promotion. At the climax of a movie dramatizing the life of a famous Chinese English teacher, whose charismatic pedagogy was inspired by Dale Carnegie, a Chinese executive tells his American counterparts: “You hear me loud and clear, in English” (Chan 2013).

The man who says he looks like a basketball tells the audience that he learned to use a blow drier to reshape his oddly formed head. He is speaking in Mandarin. But most public speaking clubs in China hold meetings in English, as young adults strive to develop the linguistic and psychological cultural capital to succeed in a global economy. For Chinese people who study and work in the United States, not only the English language but also the American expectation of extroversion can become a barrier to social and economic opportunity. American educators have worried about Asian students not talking in class (Kim and Markus 2002), while self-help authors encourage Asian people in America to Break the Bamboo Ceiling (Hyun 2006) by adopting habits of assertive self-expression. Individual and cultural differences in self-presentation intersect with categories of gender, ethnicity, and immigration, affecting access to social resources. A few writers intervene in this politics of personality by urging society to treasure introverts (eg. Cain 2012), but many more self-help authors are telling women and minorities to lean in to the extrovert game.

After telling us that he was once a “loser”, our speaker asserts that he found confidence through self-acceptance; but this message is complicated when he shares something he read in a book: “nobody wants you until you make them want you.” Public speaking has brought him valuable recognition; and Toastmasters club members often testify to the transformative power of projecting one’s voice. Yet as American self-help organizations spread globally, they often transmit the message that being quiet means being a “loser”. Volume acquires value from the constant noise of mediated mass societies, but also from particular cultural systems. In English to be quiet is to be ‘dumb’, an association that captures epistemological and political traditions that value confident speech as a practice of truth, faith, freedom, and power. In China, reticent personalities have an enduring association with intelligence and moral cultivation. There is evidence that this is changing, both among lower-class people (Yan 2003: 77) and among the young professionals who are drawn to self-help groups. In popular books on parenting, intimacy, and personal growth, Chinese psychotherapists and self-help authors address not yet liberal subjects, telling them to clearly define what they want and to assertively state their interests. However, young adults in China often told me that they enjoy being with quiet people, that they feel comfortable around them. They perceive that in Chinese society access to resources is often determined by private conversations, by networks that work quietly behind the scenes. And China has philosophical traditions that are suspicious of words, and are reflected in common sayings gesturing at the inadequacy of speech. Over drinks, a Chinese toast invokes the unspoken: “All is in the silence” (一切尽在无言中).

Anthropologists know that silences can be deeply expressive, signifying suffering or ineffable insight, oppression or care. The contingent meaning of silence has implications for political subjectivity, for access to social resources, and for mental health. The way in which our interlocutors understand their own silence is changing. In the overwhelmed attention markets of a mobile mass society, many people are learning that confident verbal expression will make them winners. In rapidly transforming societies worldwide, young adults are learning how to speak up, to win friends and influence people. But despite the potent power of a raised voice, historical and cultural factors also determine whether or not assertive self-presentation becomes a privileged “game of truth” (Foucault 1998) for the self. And it matters a great deal that people not feel like losers if they aren’t being loud.

Amir Hampel, PhD

Department of Comparative Human Development

University of Chicago




Cain, Susan. 2012. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. New York: Crown Publishing Group

Chan, Peter. 2013. American Dreams in China [zhongguo hehuoren]. Hong Kong: Edko Films.

Foucault, Michel. 1998. “The Ethics of the Concern of the Self as a Practice of Freedom.” In Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow, 281-301. New York: The New Press.

Hyun, Jane. 2006. Breaking the Bamboo Ceiling: Career Strategies for Asians. New York: HarperBusiness.

Kim, Heejung S. and Hazel Rose Markus. 2002 “Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Silence: An Analysis of Talking as a Cultural Practice.” In Engaging Cultural Differences: The Multicultural Challenge in Liberal Democracies. Richard A. Shweder, Martha Minow, and Hazel Rose Markus, eds., 432-452. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Yan Yunxiang. 2003. Private Life Under Socialism: Love, Intimacy, and Family Change in a Chinese Village, 1949-1999. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Image caption:

“At a Toastmasters conference, public speaking is a competitive event” (photograph by the author)