Magazine Series: What Never to Say

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A series of articles in DiversityInc magazine offers tips on what you should "never say" to coworkers about their race, faith, sexual orientation or other elements of their identities. In the first of a series of conversations, DiversityInc co-founder Luke Visconti and Asian American executive Anna Mok discuss what to "never say" to Asian-American colleagues.


Speaking of diversity, the most diverse environment many Americans experience is the office. Your workplace may have a mix of people you don't encounter very often in the rest of your life. But cross-cultural communication can be a real minefield. Sometimes you might wish you had a list of things to say and not to say to get along with your colleagues. Well, now you do.

DiversityInc magazine has published a series of articles about things you should never say to co-workers of diverse backgrounds. The stories cover differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability. So, here on Tell Me More, we're kicking off our own series inspired by these DiversityInc articles.

In honor of Asian Pacific-American heritage month, we begin by examining the seven things you should never say to an Asian-American co-worker. Joining us is Luke Visconti, he's the co-founder of DiversityInc. Also with us is Anna Mok, she's a partner with the consulting firm of Deloitte & Touche in San Francisco. Welcome to you both, thanks for joining us.

Mr. LUKE VISCONTI (Co-founder, DiversityInc): It's nice to be here, Michel, thank you.

Ms. ANNA MOK (Partner with Deloitte & Touche): Thank you for inviting us.

MARTIN: And Anna, I'm going to talk to you in just a minute. I'm going to start with you, Luke. Was there any discussion about the never to say, putting it in a kind of a negative opposed to the positive?

Mr. VISCONTI: We're going to do a positive series also - what should you say to people.

MARTIN: But I can see where the never-say is like the button-pusher. I think a lot of people remember early in the campaign season when then- presidential candidate Joe Biden referred to fellow candidate Barack Obama as articulate, and you know, clean, and all this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: And a lot of people couldn't understand, like you know, what are the black folks so mad about? And was it kind of in that spirit, there are certain things that just push people's buttons. Let's get those out on the table and deal with it.

Mr. VISCONTI: You know, it's interesting, because that's how it started for me. I have a black woman friend who told me a story about being called articulate. And I was fascinated because this normally calm-demeanored person, I could see the anger bubbling to the surface on this. And so, as an experiment I asked my other black women friends about the time they had been called articulate and got the same reaction, and it was very interesting to me. So, I said well, what other buzzwords are there out there that really cause people the most pain? And this came out of it.

MARTIN: So, let's go down the list and Anna, I want you to jump in here, if you've heard any of these, because, I must say this was quite an interesting experience to go down the list. Let's start. You must be the IT person. Why is this a button-pusher, Luke?

Mr. VISCONTI: It goes to a stereotypical assumption on what an Asian person should be doing in the workplace. And it's kind of interesting to me because if you look at Asia, there's billions of people in countries being run very well by Asian people. So, when they come to the workplace, why would you assume that the person who's Asian is the IT person?

MARTIN: And then there's a corollary here, which is Asian-Americans are not risk takers. That's an interesting view.

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, if you look, and I think that the response that the person gave in the article was perfect. They came here, wasn't that a huge risk? I mean, that's indicative of any immigrant group, but it's funny to think that the stereotype is that Asians aren't risk takers.

Ms. MOK: I actually think that's grounded more in people's definition of communication and may confuse how people communicate with whether or not they're taking risk. So, I think many Asians do take much risk. But they may take it in a different way than what is typical.

MARTIN: That's interesting, because it speaks to this other question of. Oh, you've got to be the support person, but you couldn't be the leader. And that, if you had perhaps a way of communicating that isn't as aggressive as people might be used to or a style of participating in meetings, that doesn't speak to your leadership ability. That's an interesting point. Here's one, you don't act very Asian. What the heck?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOK: What is acting Asian?

MARTIN: Yeah, excuse me? Anna, has anybody ever said that to you?

Ms. MOK: Oh, they say that all the time. And I think that's, again, grounded in people believing we're all unidimensional. So either you're Asian or an American and the reality is, most Asian-Americans are a blend of multiple cultures.

I, for example, grew up eating hamburgers and mac and cheese, and white bread and white rice. So, what does that make me? Am I Asian, am I American or am I really Asian-American?

MARTIN: This one is my favorite. Where are you from? No, where are you really from?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: When are you going to go home? How often do you go home? To which you reply, what, Ohio?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOK: You can't be from Ohio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOK: That's usually the response, right?

Mr. VISCONTI: It's amazing to me that if you turned around and did this to most white people, they would truly be offended. Where are you from? I think is one of those questions that can be very loaded, because it could be a way of casting you as the outsider, and establishing that fact in the person speaking his mind as well as everybody around them. And I think that is one of the tricky ones.

MARTIN: But yeah, is there a way, though, to - because well, Luke, I might ask where you are from? Does it have to be inherently offensive?

Mr. VISCONTI: No. But I do say that I think more often than not, that question is loaded with things that are not very savory. And I've been asked that question, because I happen to be half Italian and half Greek. My skin is darker, and I know exactly what it means. It means you don't belong here, what are you doing here, when are you going to go away?


Ms MOK: What I do when I get that question is I don't answer it. I ask for a clarifying question. So, I ask. Do you mean where are my ancestors are from? And I think we have to call the people that ask those questions to the floor, to make sure they're thinking about and have a conscientiousness about the roots of their questions.

MARTIN: What about the fact, though, and I'm not making excuses for bone-headed, insensitive conversation, but there is such a burgeoning interest in genealogy. And is it possible that some people are just very interested in roots?

Mr. VISCONTI: I guess, you know, to me the litmus test would be, would you normally do that to another person of your own race? And, I think if the answer is yes, you're an odd person, because that's not normal conversation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VISCONTI: I don't think people normally do that to one another. I think that that is a sign of curiosity, it could be innocent, it could be sweet-natured, but that question to me is a sticking point because often than not, it doesn't have good intent.

MARTIN: Interesting. OK, here's one. Oh, you speak English good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Or do you speak your language? Anna, has anybody ever said that to you?

Ms. MOK: Oh, quite often. It's usually, Oh, you don't speak with an accent. And I would say, why would I speak with an accent, when I'm 100 percent U.S. educated from birth. So, that also shows just people's assumptions about someone that doesn't look like themselves, and that they are most likely not to be born or raised in the U.S.

MARTIN: So, another assumption that one is foreign, one is the other, one is not a citizen, in a way, interesting. If you are just joining us, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News, and we are talking about seven things you should never say to Asian-Americans in the workplace. And we are speaking with Anna Mok of Deloitte & Touche and Luke Visconti of DiversityInc magazine. Here's the sixth: You're not a minority because all Asians are rich and successful. Luke?

Mr. VISCONTI: It's part of the perfect minority issue, that I think Asians get painted with being the perfect minority, better educated, more wealthy. It's an ugly kind of thing to say to somebody, isn't it? Wouldn't it be pretty tacky, at the very best?

MARTIN: Interesting. Anna, has anyone ever said that to you?

Ms MOK: I think the fact that most people think Asians are not the minority, I do find offensive, because in the U.S. context, Asian-Americans are the minority. And unfortunately, not all Asians are rich or successful, and the community is quite complex. So, the fact that someone believes it's so unidimensional, I think we should pause and think about what that means.

MARTIN: Luke, you make the point in the article that Asian-Americans currently occupy 1.5 percent of corporate board seats among Fortune 500 companies, according to the 2007 corporate board report card. You could see, it's like, it's almost one hand it's like this double bind. On the one hand, you must be the IT person, on the other hand, you know, I don't need to sort of consider you for any of these sort of positions because you're rich and successful. So, it's almost like you have it coming and going.

Mr. VISCONTI: Yeah, we do a great deal of analysis and corporate behavior in our top-50 companies for diversity list. And what we've found even in these companies - representation of Asian people at the top levels of management, it's not proportional, and I think that that is a very interesting thing. And it goes to the stereotypes of Asian people can't run things, those kinds of these we discussed. But the representation simply isn't there, upper levels of management.

MARTIN: And, the final one. You're not Asian, you're from India.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness. Luke, why do people think that?

Mr. VISCONTI: Well, it's unfortunately a reflection of our public school system. I think that people don't know their geography very well.

Ms. MOK: And I think it's tied to the confusion between geography and skin color.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people feel torn when someone says something. People are encouraged to stand up for themselves in this country and to speak up. On the other hand, one does not want to be seen as a troublemaker or overly sensitive. Do you have any sort of any general kind of rule of thumb, when you find it helpful to speak up and when you don't?

Ms. MOK: You're right. Asians are quite challenged by this, because most of us grow up with a deep sense of respect, iIn terms of respect for our elders and respect for a particular culture. So, sometimes to speak out may make us uncomfortable, because that goes against what is one of our cultural values.

When I coach our people and coach others I meet, I just say, you have to be true to yourself, and know what someone says, and whether it's going to be offensive to you and to your core. And also, realize again you have a role to educate and build awareness. If you are not saying it, then who will say it on your behalf?

MARTIN: Anna, is it getting better?

Ms. MOK: It is getting better and as Luke said, this whole political correctness issue. I think people need to change their thinking. It's not about being politically correct or not. It's about adapting to really a changing workforce and a changing business culture. So, I think as we accept that more, these what-not-to-say things hopefully should go away.

MARTIN: Anna Mok is a partner with the consulting firm of Deloitte & Touche, she joined us from San Francisco. We were joined by Luke Visconti, he is a co-founder and partner of DiversityInc, he joined us from member station WBGO in Newark, New Jersey. Thank you both for joining us.

Ms. MOK: Thank you.

Mr. VISCONTI: Thank you.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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