Thursday, April 7, 2011

Friendliness vs. Manners in Taiwan

Sometime last year, in the middle of that big yellow dust storm that blew in from China, I met a friendly acquaintance for coffee. He was handing over a short-term gig as he and his partner were soon leaving Taipei, bound for the hard glitter of Hong Kong.
“What caused you to choose to leave, if I may ask?” I said while trying to manage my grossly oversized latte.
“People here are just…rude” – the word hit the table with a clang. “They have no sense of manners.”
I thought about that for a minute.
“Well…from the perspective of American etiquette – yeah, you’re right. But…they’re friendly! You’ve gotta give ‘em that much! They may push on the bus, never RSVP and stop in the middle of the sidewalk to answer their cell phones, but nobody can say they’re not nice people, under all that.”
“Yeah, I guess so,” he remarked, unenthused and unconvinced.
I did mention, but didn’t linger on, the fact that Hong Kong people can be just as rude if not worse, and that where they have a stronger sense of Western-style etiquette, I don't find Hong Kong as friendly or kind as Taiwan. I figured, maybe Hong Kong will be more to his liking - and that’s great. Everyone deserves to like where they live. I also figured, if he prized good ‘manners’ over friendly openness, well, that’s fine too. Not my business. Diff’rent strokes and all that, to use an old cliché.
I’ve mulled the conversation over since then and come to this conclusion: Taiwan is a friendly place – Thailand may be famed for its smiling locals (many are genuinely nice, some are smiling because they’re thinking of ways to take your money) but, honestly, in all my travels in Asia I haven’t met a general population as welcoming as the Taiwanese (although I also found Bangladesh to be especially welcoming - perhaps because it doesn't have a tourist industry per se). A genuine sense of welcoming pervades Taiwan, not the kind where you have to watch your back for that kid who seems nice but really just wants you to buy something from his cousin’s carpet shop.
I have noticed that a lot of the foreigners who leave Taiwan feeling as though it’s a lonely, uncaring, monolithic and monolingual place – or worse yet, leave thinking that the Taiwanese are mannerless boors (which is only true insofar as you believe American etiquette to be the pinnacle of good taste), do so because they are wrapped up in specific ideas of how social etiquette works, and aren’t necessarily open to it working a different way. That’s not to say that the person I met for coffee was close-minded or unwilling to try – I didn’t know him well but he didn’t seem to be.
Just that there is a big difference between “being friendly” and “having good manners”. Friendliness is, to some extent, universal. Having good manners is not, or at least is not measured on a universal standard.
I have come across many foreigners who confuse the two and, as a result, dismiss the Taiwanese as “unfriendly” simply because they have a different approach to etiquette – not because they are actually unfriendly.
From my perspective, the Taiwanese are (generally) eager to welcome and befriend foreigners, and not in a “Speak, English Monkey, speak!” way, at least not nearly as often as you’d think (yes, it does happen, but it’s not as common as some expats allege it is). If you look remotely confused while outside, someone will drag out their best English, come up to you and ask if you need help. Forget your purse in a taxi (I’ve done it)? A staff member at Ikari Coffee, of all places, helped me call the police, who put out a taxi radio-wide notice and I got my purse back - with all the money in my wallet still there (frankly I was more concerned as my passport and all other ID cards were in that purse). Show that you speak Chinese and taxi drivers are the chattiest people you’ll meet – and if you don’t speak Chinese, they’re not silent because they want to be: they just may not speak English. While hiking in the Pingxi area, thirsty and a bit overheated, we walked down to what we thought was a café (old house with lots of chairs and tables around). It was a private home, but the owners – who were hosting friends and family – ushered us in and fed us and gave us water anyway, even as we protested. Everywhere I go people strike up conversations – even when I had first arrived and had few (or no) friends, I was never lonely. Someone would always talk to me, even if it was superficial chat between strangers.
Anyway. I have a million stories like this from my time in Taiwan. The flip-side stories about people being mean, distant, apathetic or cold are few and far between (I could tell you about this one horrid taxi driver who insulted me for making one mistake with a tone while giving him an address…but he’s in the minority.)
And yet…there’s a huge etiquette gap between the USA and Taiwan. Here, it’s fairly normal to leave cell phones on through class (I allow this only because the people I teach have demanding jobs and really do need to pick up if the boss is calling), temples and museums…and to answer them too. People will wander down the street looking at something on their smartphone or just chatting, not paying attention to any other pedestrians. Bike riders don’t pay attention to pedestrians and scooter drivers, while they are more attentive, hog sidewalk space that they really shouldn’t. Pedestrians stroll at impossibly slow speeds with their friends or on the phone, often blocking the entire thoroughfare in both directions…and pay little attention to anyone who wants to get past. Scooters park in the most irritating places. Yes, people push to get on buses and more than once I’ve had someone cut in line to board the MRT.
No, they don’t write thank you notes (or e-mails) and no, they often don’t RSVP on time if at all. Yes, they do cancel plans even after saying they’ll be there – if Grandma wants to go out to dinner or Auntie Chen stays in town a few extra days, long-held plans with friends are canceled, often with less than an hour to go.
All of these things are true – not true of everyone, and not true all the time, but true enough to be observed frequently and remarked upon.
None of them mean, however, that the Taiwanese are “unfriendly” or “rude”. I define “friendly” by how receptive people are to being friends – real friends, not “gossip behind your back” friends, not by cultural standards of when it’s OK to cancel your plans with someone, or realizing that you’re supposed to RSVP. I define “rude” by somewhat subjective cultural standards and while a lot of the above behavior can be irritating, it’s not a marker of friendliness or unfriendliness.
So while I wish all the best to that person in Hong Kong – he probably will like it more than Taipei given his preferences regarding social behavior, and I have no problem with that – I’ll take friendliness over etiquette any day. As such, I’ll take Taipei over Hong Kong any day.


Catherine Shu said...

I can see how etiquette norms in Taiwan would cause a load of culture shock. For example, it's quite normal to burp -- loudly -- in public here. I can't tell you how many times I've been able to guess what some stranger ate because of their burping (shudder).

But, like you, I find living here to be a pleasant experience, in large part because of the general niceness. Hell, even the taxi drivers who went on and on and on about how I was an embarrassment to my people for speaking Mandarin with an accent followed up with encouragements like "but now that you're in Taiwan, your lousy Chinese will improve in no time, so don't worry! Jia you!"

Maybe my standards are just low because living in NYC got me used to crap like being sexually harassed on an almost daily basis, literally farted on (only once, but by someone who looked really happy to do it... I think he might have had some sort of farting on strangers fetish) and screamed at for no reason. I saw a man get kicked in the shins for offering an elderly lady his subway seat (I think she was pissed off he thought she was old).

Of course, I also encountered a lot of really kind people in NYC, too, but there have been times in Taipei when I was practically moved to tears by how willing a stranger was to help me. Ron and I had trouble finding a pharmacy in the East District once and asked a guy for directions. We managed to locate it several blocks away, but while we were in there filling my prescription, the guy walked by, peeped in and said "I just wanted to make sure you two didn't get lost."

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

I have to admit that I've totally taken the public burping to heart. I don't restrain my burps while drinking beer now (which causes issues with good manners back home). I've heard more farting in public too.

I lived in DC for a huge chunk of my 20s, and we didn't have the random screamers (well, we did, but they were genuinely disturbed and thanks to Reagan were let out of asylums years before, and had been living on the streets since), weird fart people or whatnot...but then go on Craigslist or another local board and I'd see posts ranting about giving seats to pregnant women on the Metro ("She chose to get pregnant, why should I give her my seat because of that choice?!") - which is just downright seriously offensive.

So in that way people do have better manners in Taiwan - few, if any, would disagree that a pregnant woman deserves a seat no matter how crowded the train.

I've had the friendly folks who, after giving directions, just take you there: in Taoyuan a woman got into our taxi to show the driver where to go and hopped out and planned to walk back (I think the driver told her to get back in and gave her a free ride back), That would NEVER happen in DC. Folks who are happy to exchange e-mail and Facebook and actually follow through, and don't judge you based on what bag you're carrying (which absolutely did happen in DC).

I should have mentioned - and probably will go back and edit it in - the personal questions and surprisingly direct criticisms (as in, you expect everyone to care about face and thus be super polite, and yet they'll point out your zits and call you fat to your face, and ask you why you don't have kids yet). Huge culture shock there, but while it may be an etiquette issue, it's not a friendliness issue.

Renee C. said...

Hi Jenna,this is my first time to read your blog and I found it very interesting, especially because you come from a different culture background but know how to see things from various angles. I am Taiwanese and recently returned from the States after finishing my master's degree in political science. I also would like to share some of my thoughts.

Speaking of liking a country or not, I think it depends on what a person really care about and whether or not he or she is willing to explore some advantages of a country.

On the friendliness vs. manners, I will be the type of person who choose latter if both can't coexist. It mainly comes from my personality,preferring to be alone, not social with all kinds of people, live in my own world with a limited amount of friends. Therefore, sometimes too much friendliness is a burden if it doesn't come from a friend but a stranger. Maybe that aquaintance of yours has similar personality. The Taiwanses, although being friendly, do need to improve their manners in public(sign...)

I was not very used to,sometimes disliked, the States in the begining, things like carpet in the house, the feeling of being abandoned due to territorial vastness,the products and inconvenience (imagine how Taiwanese can easily get food around the corner of their houses with no need of driving even when they don't live in the cities). But all that turned out to be trivia of less importance because I tried to find the meanings of those I didn't like and tried to understand American life. At the end, I like it. :)

John Roe said...

What about this? Any thoughts?

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

He(?)'s got the right to his opinion and his experiences which formed it, but honestly, I just don't agree because that hasn't been my experience. He takes as a given that Taiwanese are expected to be repressed, shy etc. when I think that sort of begs the question. I doubt many locals would agree, and I certainly don't. I know plenty who are passionate, openminded, thoughtful and outgoing and they aren't penalized by society for that any more than they would be in the West. At least they would likely say so. I find there to be a lot of positive energy in Taipei - exchanges with neighbors, vibrant street life, the ability to make friends who consider you a 'friend', not 'a foreign friend' (as a class somehow different from regular friends). I'm thinking he's got his own issues wrapped up in questions of identity and belonging that - while it's natural to have them - he has left unexamined. I do not find it difficult to live in Taiwan as the person I am (outgoing, direct, a bit loud, cynical, opinionated, a touch foul-mouthed). Perhaps I get leeway because I look, and therefore "am", different, but I know locals who are this way as well who also manage to live fruitful lives. I respect his experiences but they do not reflect mine at all.

Don Juan Corzo said...

I just read a survey is absolutely wrong by labeling Taiwan the friendliest nation.
There's a major misconception here.
Yes, they are very nice if you need help, but most are closed in terms making friends and openness.
If you're a tourist you'll get the false impression of them being friendly, but if you live and work here you'll realize how shy / rude many can be, especially generation X'ers and Millennials.
I've had strangers give me a ride on their scooters when I was lost or give me an umbrella when it was suddenly raining, but the kindness stops there. Most taiwanese coworkers can be closed and make you feel like an outcast, speaking Chinese to each other and ignoring you, even when they are able to speak English,. No interest in making social conversation about your family, hobbies, experiences, etc. This seems to MO especially with women.
At first, I thought I did something wrong culturally to make the people I met so distant, but I found my story repeated and heard from many other expats. You can see this more evidently when riding the train. No one speaks to each other casually; they're just on their mobiles or pretending to be asleep.
This antisocial behavior that's been developing the past 10 to 15 years, according to expats who've lived here that long. Other expats don't see this or don't agree because they've been influenced culturally and become "taiwanized."
Some say it's because Taiwan has become more developed and it follows the social detachment pattern of other developed nations. But that's not entirely the case for Hong Kong and Singapore have friendlier populations, where even flirting and romancing is far more acceptable publicly. Taiwan unfriendly vibe mimics developed Japan's similar apathetic society. 50 years of hard Japanese influence, like it is also in (North ? and) South Korea.
I found many to be even vindictive if you make them lose face with criticism or complaints.
China, where I lived two years before coming here and which ranks badly in the survey, has far friendlier and open people, including women.
I met women easily I'm still friends with today in Guangzhou, Chengdu, Hangzhou, Zhengzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, etc. And I'm talking most are just genuine friendships, platonic relationships.
Chinese start conversations in trains or subways and offer you a snack to share, even a beer sometimes.
Losing face in China doesn't mean a precursor to a vendetta, but a chance to mend and improve on the mistake or the trespass.
Even dealing with journalists, I found them more approachable in China. Reporters there were more eager to exchange ideas and experiences with foreign colleagues despite censorship. Here the few I met act like they're not interested in knowing what you have to say, unless, of course, you represent a major news outlet like BBC or New York Times.
A university professor in Taipei told me that holier-than-thou attitude is one of the reasons the country is in decline after its 101 boom.
Sorry for the rant, but I'm sort of tired of hearing or reading that Taiwan is such a friendly place. The heart of Asia, Ha!

Jenna Lynn Cody said...

You are, of course, entitled to your opinions and experiences in China vs. Taiwan, "Gen X and Millenials" vs. - who exactly? and more.

But, I have to say, I disagree. People do talk to me, people do get to know me, people do become genuine friends with me in Taiwan. They I don't know why it is apparently easier for some here than others, but I have a few theories.