Thursday, October 1, 2009

Taiwan Culture Shock: Are they lying or too polite?

The age old debate about whether the Taiwanese are lying or too polite is always an interesting one. Usually people will quote the experience of the expat businessman who, every time he asks his staff if they can finish on time reply, ‘of course’ and don’t do so. He thinks they are full of shit, but the truth is they were just being Taiwanese: in Taiwan the boss rewards you for trying to get it done, not for being realistic about whether you could get it done. This is a simplistic generalization as in many instances the Taiwanese are capable of being direct; however, you have to gauge the circumstances – were they talking to you as a peer or underlying? In general, when the pressure hits and you are talking to them as their boss, they will revert to Taiwan style: say yes to everything you ask, sit in the office until six in the morning, but not get it done.
But this is not the most interesting aspect of the polite versus lying debate. A few months ago I heard one from a friend that was a really good example:
Chris (friend), “Hey, man. I will never get these Taiwanese. This guy says he will get me a work visa through his company and it never happens. I have lived here so many years….It is a dishonesty. They think it ok to lie.”
Me: “So, were you paying this guy? Why was he doing this for you?”
Chris: “You know I am working with Michael…He is Michael’s friend. Supposed to do it as a favor.”
Me: “Ok, so he obviously isn’t that close a friend to Michael. You are not offering him anything.”
Chris: “So why didn’t he just tell me direct? He is a coward.”
Me: “No. He is Taiwanese. It is up to you to use your commonsense.”
Chris: “It wouldn’t happen like this back home.”
Me: “No, it wouldn’t. Because you wouldn’t bother to ask complete strangers to do you a favor.”
And this I venture in my humble opinion spells out the crucial, fundamental cultural difference: The Taiwanese will always say yes and you have to work out if what you have asked them is actually realistic.
It can be broken down further:
a) When the Taiwanese agree to do something it doesn’t mean any obligation on their part to tell you if what they promised is realistic. Through painful experience I have a million examples. It is the way they view doing a favor. For example, you ask someone if they can help you change some money at the bank because you can’t speak good Chinese. They agree and you tell them the appointment is at 2pm. They arrive at 3pm and you go on a rant about waiting for an hour, and why didn’t they call and if you couldn’t make it just say. They get really offended because they agree to do you a favor and in their opinion did their best to do it for you; to them, you asked them to help, you were originally at zero. The fact that they turned up at all means you should be grateful. It happened a few weeks ago when we were going to a bar. A girl we met outside said she was a member and she could get us in for cheaper, wait here and she would be back with her friends. We asked her if she would be back soon because it was only saving us 100NT and we would rather pay. ‘Of course,’ she said. She came back about half an hour later just as we were about to give up and go in. And, again, of course, she had no concept of the fact that we would have rather paid than wait. She had offered to do us a favor.
b) The Taiwanese actually do it to each other in exactly the same way. Countless times the wife at work might mention her birthday in passing and it will develop like this. Colleagues have to show excitement and push her to do a party, because they have to show their passion. She is not particularly interested, but has to show her passion back as they push harder. A party is arranged and we sit in KTV at 9.30 on her birthday and none of them turn up or even phone to make an excuse. If you asked them why not, they would simply reply, “You mentioned your party so it was the right thing to make you feel good about it. Get you excited…” This actually leads nicely into the next point, because the only people who turn up at the KTV are the real friends. Again, please don’t guess I am suggesting there is deliberate nastiness going on here, most of the time there isn’t. It is just the unfortunate results of herd mentality and a culture that emphasizes being polite.
c) Please use your commonsense. I once invited a Canadian guy to my wedding party who was more a friend of a friend; I knew him but didn’t really make the effort to call that often. He replied: “Thanks, man. I don’t know what I am up to on Sunday. If I can get up I might swing by.” At the time I was shocked by his directness, but after a while I kind of realized it was appropriate. I was simply trying to invite him to make up the numbers and we weren’t close. He was just reflecting that in his answer. Being English I wouldn’t have been able to be that direct, I would have had to try to think of an excuse, while secretly thinking ‘why the fuck is this guy inviting me to his wedding?’ Now a Taiwanese would have stood there for twenty minutes telling you how much he appreciated the invitation, and where was it, and how excited he was, but then just not bothered to turn up. In the end, the result is the same: nobody goes to the wedding because it wasn’t appropriate to invite them in the first place. What is my point? When some Taiwanese offers to do something for you, or you ask them to help you get you a visa when you are offering nothing in return, think about why the hell they should do this for you.
d) And it is not easy to do the above because the Taiwanese are actually really generous and friendly. When you arrive in the first few months you are overwhelmed by the offers of help and free gifts and lunches. Taiwanese invite to their house for dinner, they almost always pick up the check when you go for dinner for the first time, they drive you around, and they give bottles of whiskey that are hanging about in their house. Don’t get cynical they do these things because they like to be kind to guests and especially to foreigners. They are social people and are therefore also having a great time. There is no ulterior motive. So from this it is very easy to let your commonsense go out the window and start asking for things that are really beyond the pale. You wouldn’t ask someone you hardly knew in your own country: I have overstayed my visa could you go to the police station with me and act as my guarantor? I am looking to get out of teaching could you ask around in your company and try and get me a job? You wouldn’t ask these questions because you would be rightly told to fuck off. In Taiwan you wouldn’t be told to fuck off, they would be polite, but then just not do it.
What is the moral of the story? Think about the situation not the words you just heard.


Anonymous said...

the same thing happened to me. A girl getting us a discount to get into the bar. Had to wait for a long time, my i.d. disappeared for an hour as she was responsible for showing it to whoever was supposed to let us in, and worst of all we had to wait for her to get us our first drink as it was all you can drink and your drink came with your ticket. Not really worth the 100Nt we saved. Although the night turned out to be a lot of fun, as usual.

lissa said...

But I wonder: if you are offered a favor, are you supposed to take it? In the case of the girl member of a bar, how offensive would it be to say, "Thank you so much for the kind offer! However, I must be very quick and get inside. Maybe next time?" I am trying to say this in a more obsequious way than I would normally, but the above phrase seems more Taiwan-polite than a simple "no thank you."

Natalie said...

so true...

Anonymous said...

Too many excuses for taiwanese. They get all the breaks thanks to multiculturalism who would never dream of criticizing any culture except the Christian west.