The Role of Silence in Asian American Families

Senior mother and adult daughter having coffee on front porch

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Communication can be difficult, especially when adding in generational habits, cultural values, and societal expectations toward standard communicational patterns. Communication is also very different in Eastern cultures from their Western counterparts. Traditional Eastern cultures have been known to prefer silence, quiet, and harmony over any type of strong reaction or outburst. 

Asian communication patterns stem from a variety of cultural structures and continue to influence generations even after immigration. Children of immigrants tend to adopt many of the same patterns as their ancestors, though with a more Western lens. But in moments of heightened emotions, a common type of reaction still comes forth strongly in Asian families: silence. 

This silence happens in many different ways and can be both healthy and harmful for families. Though not all Asian families operate in the same manner, it’s been commonly researched that Asian ethnic groups tend to veer away from seeking help for mental health, choosing to cope in silence. Many Eastern families also prefer to use non-verbal cues to convey meaning throughout their daily life as well. 

Collectivistic Eastern culture believes that harmony in the household should be prioritized, which can lead to many non-verbal confrontations in lieu of verbal arguments. This can sometimes show up as silence or the use of the silent treatment, which can become a form of control. But conversely, Asian families also place a higher value on service-based forms of love, showcasing their love and care through action rather than words.

Individualism vs. Collectivism

One of the core differences between Eastern and Western cultures is the contrast between the importance of the self and the importance of the community. While Western cultures emphasize individualism, focusing on autonomy, personal achievement, and independence, Eastern culture places importance on collectivism, valuing the needs of the group and community over the individual—generosity over selfishness, and harmony over conflict.

Understanding Asian values of collectivism is necessary for realizing the communication style of Eastern cultures. In an effort to preserve relationships, Asian cultures often default to suppression in order to maintain social harmony. The needs of the group take precedence over the individual’s needs and communication is often more indirect to avoid potential conflict or embarrassment. 

Being a part of a collectivist society also means that Asians and Asian Americans tend to be more attuned to having a greater sensitivity toward the needs of others, paying greater attention to others rather than themselves during communication.

High Context Communication vs. Low Context Communication

With the needs of the group outweighing individual concerns, self-control (including emotional response) is highly valued in order to maintain the group’s harmony and comfort. The tendency to control emotional response comes from cultural values of high context communication. 

High context communication places less emphasis on direct communication and more emphasis on indirect and nuanced communication patterns such as inferring meaning, interpersonal sensitivity, using feelings to guide behavior, and using silence. Western cultures, on the other hand, tend to use low context communication which emphasizes focus on the individual. Low context communication depends on words to communicate information in direct and explicit ways and includes being dominant, animated, open, friendly, and confrontational.

Dr. Jenny Wang, psychologist, author of "Permission to Come Home: Reclaiming Mental Health as Asian Americans," and founder of asiansformentalhealth, says, “There’s something valuable about having a community that is so outward-facing— wanting to connect and wanting to be there for each other.” But she cautions that with less direct forms of communication, it may “lead people to make assumptions, causing us to make inappropriate or inaccurate inferences about what each other needs or wants from the relationship.”

Within high-context communication, negative feelings are expressed in an ambiguous manner so that the interpretation of the message is flexible. This is done in order to preserve the harmony of the relationship and save face of those involved in the conflict situation. Although the receiver of the message may be able to interpret the communicator’s negative feelings, the responsibility falls upon the receiver to negotiate the meaning of the indirect message. 

Dr. Wang says that being more clear about your emotions may be more beneficial for both parties’ mental health, saying that “even though being clear might feel uncomfortable for both of us, it might actually allow us to love each other better, to serve each other more effectively and to really meet each other’s needs.”

Silence as Love: Service-Based 

Asian values emphasize anticipating the needs of others so there isn’t a need to verbally express what is wanted or needed. This type of anticipatory action comes from highly trained inference skills, a strong sense of tradition, and keen observational ability. This is one way Asian families showcase love—through service-based action. Some examples include cooking and serving meals, fulfilling family obligations, sacrificing one’s wants for another, or going out of one’s way to make a family member’s life easier.

Dr. Jenny Wang, psychologist & founder of asiansformentalhealth

Even though being clear might feel uncomfortable for both of us, it might actually allow us to love each other better, to serve each other more effectively, and to really meet each other’s needs.

— Dr. Jenny Wang, psychologist & founder of asiansformentalhealth

Dr. Wang says, “Within Asian culture, parents often are loving through acts of service and I think it’s a beautiful part of our culture. It really puts into action the ways in which our parents love us.” She continues, saying, “When our parents offer their love through service, it's something that can be felt, can be touched, can be experienced. If you speak to a lot of children of Asian immigrants, they will tell you that they KNOW that their parents love them and it’s very cognitive-based.” 

Melissa Pandika, a writer for MIC can also attest to her parents showcasing acts of service as their form of love. She writes that she remembers, “My mom constantly reminding me to wear tsinelas so my feet don’t get cold and leaving my laundry folded in neat squares on my bed. My dad checking my math homework after he came home from work, the only one of us still awake, writing the solution to each problem, step-by-step." These declarations of love extend further than verbal cues and orient themselves around the devotion toward their children’s health, welfare, and safety. 

Even in moments of needing comfort, studies showed that for Asians and Asian Americans, implicit social support that does not require active discussion was more beneficial than explicit support.

Implicit social support is defined as the emotional comfort one obtains from social networks without disclosing specifics of the stressful event, such as enjoying pleasant activities together or simply being in the company of close others without discussing problems. 

With the communication style of Asian families being one of action rather than verbal cues, family members will typically anticipate what must be done and accomplish the task independently, rather than asking if one needs help or discussing what the next steps are. Such examples include bringing food, taking elder family members out to eat or shop, or simply being in one another’s presence.

But Dr. Wang also says that having moments of verbal and physical forms of love is also important for a balanced relationship. “When we receive physical or spontaneous verbal affirmation or spontaneous physical affection that is not earned, it gives us a sense of worth, a sense of value that is not entangled with achievement or performance.” 

Dr. Jenny Wang

When we receive physical or spontaneous verbal affirmation or spontaneous physical affection that is not earned, it gives us a sense of worth, a sense of value that is not entangled with achievement or performance.

— Dr. Jenny Wang

Silence as Harm: The Silent Treatment

The silent treatment is a response to a disagreement or argument and can be used to avoid conflict, punish, or control. The silent treatment is a type of covert behavior, a strategic enactment of aloofness, avoidance, and dismissive behavior that serves to discomfort and frustrate recipients.

Kipling Williams is a psychology professor at Purdue University whose main fields of research include ostracism, group motivation, and tactics of influence. He has written a book about the silent treatment called “Ostracism: The Power of Silence," and says that the silent treatment is “especially controlling because it deprives both sides from weighing in,” Williams said. “One person does it to the other person, and that person can’t do anything about it.”

The main use of the silent treatment is to change another person’s behavior and is a manipulation tactic that is highly alluring to conflict-intolerant individuals. Rather than directly addressing their negative feelings, they simply turn off and leave the recipient stranded amongst their emotions. 

But Dr. Wang says that the silent treatment has many layers to it, saying, “People who use the silent treatment as a strategy may not always be intentional with it. It could be a trauma response used when they are feeling threatened or overwhelmed. Their nervous system is so overwhelmed that they actually shut down because they can’t even put together ideas or words to speak coherently or respond.”

During arguments, AAPI children who have more integration towards Western society tend to have a more direct approach to discussion. But within a culture accustomed to conflict avoidance, this creates a contrast in communication patterns. When this type of confrontation happens, it can lead to relationship dissolution and the enactment of stonewalling, an intense version of the silent treatment which often results from the stonewaller feeling so inundated with negative emotions that they withdraw altogether.

Dr. Jenny Wang

People who use the silent treatment as a strategy may not always be intentional with it. It could be a trauma response used when they are feeling threatened or overwhelmed. Their nervous system is so overwhelmed that they actually shut down because they can’t even put together ideas or words to speak coherently or respond.

— Dr. Jenny Wang

Dr. Nicole LePera, creator of The Holistic Psychologist, is a former clinical psychologist who focuses on an interdisciplinary, holistic approach to mind-body-soul wellness. She says the “silent treatment can be so painful because someone is denying our very existence. This can cause a lot of wounding especially if we experience this in childhood when we have to make sense of how someone that lives with us (who our survival depends on) would pretend we are no longer there when we do something to upset them.” 

This wounding can do much harm and Dr. LePera notes that “We can internalize the belief that we aren’t worthy of love, that people shut down when we do “wrong,” and that love is conditional (based on approval).”

Dr. Nicole LePera, creator of The Holistic Psychologist

This can cause a lot of wounding especially if we experience this in childhood when we have to make sense of how someone that lives with us (who our survival depends on) would pretend we are no longer there when we do something to upset them.

— Dr. Nicole LePera, creator of The Holistic Psychologist

Those who are on the receiving end of the silent treatment experience a threat to their needs of “belonging, self-esteem, control, and meaningful existence.” Eastern culture has six dimensions that are prioritized—collectivism, conformity to norms, emotional self-control, family recognition through achievement, filial piety, and humility. With the familial structure so valued, the effects of a parent using the silent treatment on a child can be even more harmful and potentially long-lasting. 

“Few events in life are more painful than feeling that others, especially those whom we admire and care about, want nothing to do with us. There may be no better way to communicate this impression than for others to treat you as though you are invisible—like you didn't exist," Williams writes.

Love as a Constant Family Value

There are many ways Asian values and communication styles differ from family to family, but at the heart of it, Asian families work to ensure harmony, love, overall well-being, and support in the family. 

Dr. Wang notes that it’s important to recognize that, “We never want to view our culture from a deficit model, as in we’re lesser than or we’re not as good but it’s more of a question on how can we add nuance? How can we add flexibility to our culture since many of us, as second or third-gen are living in bicultural lives? We’re American and we’re Asian and we can pull from both cultures in order to do that.”

Some tips she has for approaching arguments or conflicts more effectively are: 

  • Creating a set of ground rules. 
  • “When you feel attacked or when you feel vulnerable, could we figure out a way you would communicate to me that you need a break? Or that you need space?”
  • Discussing ways to align as problem-solvers together instead of thinking of each other as the problem
  • “Because when we’re in conflict, we often point our finger at the other person and say this is your fault, this is why this is going on. Instead, try to remind ourselves in the moment of conflict and say, “Hey, I'm actually not the enemy, I'm trying to be your teammate here. How can I align with you to solve the problem at hand?”

As second, third, or fourth-generation children grow up, their bicultural identity tends to move them towards better skill development, allowing them to become better at negotiating, communicating, and understanding mental health. This allows them to show up better in our relationships with our parents, but many may feel pressured to concede or be the one to start these conversations.

But Dr. Wang says that “I wouldn't say that the onus should always fall on the child but sometimes due to generational or cultural gaps, sometimes the child has more of that vernacular and language to broach those subjects with their parents.” 

The idea of talking through things in direct ways is a very Western idea and immigrant parents may not understand or value those notions. Dr. Wang says it’s important to question how you feel about your relationship with your parent when you’re with them and ask, “Are we attuned, or are we in constant tension and conflict? How do we disarm that tension and conflict so that we can dig deeper and can talk more intimately about these difficult things?”

The myriad of ways silence shows up in Asian American families is symbolic of the high context communication patterns that are common within Asian culture, which can be both beneficial and detrimental in their use. Communication within Asian families continues to grow and develop as traditional Asian culture begins to blend values from both their heritage culture and the mainstream American culture in a newfound bicultural identity. But no matter how things change, the overarching goal of establishing love and care in the family will always remain the same.  

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Stephanie Cher
Stephanie is a freelance journalist focused on culture, wellness, science, AAPI experiences, and environmental studies.