I've noticed something recently, and I'm not quite sure I can pinpoint the reasons behind it - so I'm hoping for some enlightenment.
When teaching presentation and meetings skills, I often do a practice session on giving opinion - different ways to ask for and give opinions and their more subtle meanings and strengths - for example, "From my side" is a way to acknowledge that your view may not be true from another perspective, whereas "I'm inclined to think" intones less commitment to your opinion. "As far as I'm concerned" is a bit stronger, and "I've come to the conclusion that" implies that you've thought about the issue for awhile. Things like that.
Then we practice giving our opinions on various business- or industry-related topics - and some that are not so business-y, though I never get closer to politics than "What are your thoughts on the rise of China?". I throw a few fun ones in there ("What's your take on betel nut beauties?"), too.
Here are some betel nut beauties for you. Got your attention now? Good.
And here is a sampling of the most common type of reply I used to get, until I specified what I meant by "opinion":
"How do you feel about wage stagnation?"
"We have to accept it."
"What's your take on learning English?"
"I have to do it for my job."
"How do you feel about mandatory unpaid leave?"
"We have to deal with that in the global economic downturn."
"What are your feelings on your current career?"
"It's OK...I must do it."
"How do you feel about the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to China?"
"We need to accept it."
"What's your take on the Eurozone problems?"
"They have to fix that."
"How do you feel about your next product launch?"
"We need to work overtime to finish that."
"What are your reactions to current levels of R&D funding?"
"I must handle that."
And so on.
See what I'm getting at here? These aren't opinions. When I start to notice this in a class, stop the activity and point out that "I have to do it" isn't an opinion - I don't like it or it's a good idea or that would be profitable or the company should do that or this is/isn't satisfactory/interesting/important/vital - those are opinions.
Yes, I made sure that everyone understands each question and potential problem word before we begin.
The upside is that once I point out that "I have to do it" is not an opinion, they generally do get the point and start giving real thoughts, but it surprises (and, frankly, worries) me that I so often have to give that push. In a Western business or class setting, it wouldn't be necessary. Ask about teaching methods, wage stagnation, foreign language, infrastructure, China...you'll get all sorts of opinions and thoughts.
Another upside is that not every question gets this answer - ask about infrastructure, anything cultural (food, betel nut, convenience stores, Asian vs. American flight attendants, parenting) and you're more likely to get a real opinion.
So I've been wondering:
Is this a basic cultural difference?
Is it common in Taiwan, if you figure you can't change something, to accept it rather than give an opinion on it, or even cultivate an opinion on it?
Is it (heaven forfend) an idea that their opinion isn't important?
Is it because their opinion is negative and they don't want to sound, well, too negative?
Is it because they simply don't have an opinion, so rather than admit that, they'll seize on a fact?
Is it that they're shy for whatever reason to give opinions so freely (I don't think I inspire fear or shyness, but hey...)
Is this a Taipei or northern Taiwan thing? I have to point out that if one asks someone from southern Taiwan their opinion, they'll bloody well give it to you and give it to you good (if you ask a taxi driver (s)he may start flailing his arms and forget he's driving while racing down the road as he tells you exactly what (s)he thinks). I only really notice it in Taipei.
As the commenter below pointed out - is it that many Taiwanese people are "afraid" or "shy" when it comes to giving out their opinions to strangers or foreigners?
Food for thought anyway.
I have to go to bed now. ;)