It has always fascinated me that a culture so aware of public perception can also be so completely self-absorbed. In Taiwan, there is a great emphasis on “saving face,” and yet, it only applies to certain facets of life. I have yet to fully grasp the concept, but I have made some observations.
Generally-speaking, Taiwanese people prefer to “err on the side of caution.” They are rarely comfortable making decisions without consulting a superior, but once given an order, they protect that superior’s position to the best of their ability. It is rare to hear Taiwanese employees gripe about their boss – it is not rare to hear of “random” misfortune befalling those in positions of some authority, presumably caused by their dissatisfied underlings.
This is to say that while Taiwanese people are quite fantastic at the face they present, there are few ways to know the faces they show when no one is looking. There are exhibitions of this type of behavior. While Taiwanese will talk about “driving safely,” their traffic etiquette is terrible. People blow through intersections without slowing down or looking, seemingly disregarding any responsibility they might have regarding traffic safety. The law of Taiwan is equally arbitrary, in that traffic law dictates that the larger vehicle has a greater responsibility to watch out for the smaller vehicle – I often call this the “Big Brother, Little Brother” concept, which is deeply-rooted in Chinese culture. While the older brother often receives more privilege and benefit, the blame and shame also falls greater upon him than his younger siblings.
Anonymity is pivotal to their desire (or lack thereof) to “save face.” Safely anonymous in their cars or on their scooters, Taiwanese rarely use turn signals, frequently enter traffic without looking, or refuse to allow traffic to merge. When accidents occur – which, as you can imagine, happens a lot – reactions vary a great deal. Some Taiwanese will obliterate the usual idea of “saving face” and sometimes go completely berserk, as if they are letting loose the myriad emotions that have been bottled-up by spending far too much time “saving face.” Others will be extraordinarily compassionate, despite only moments prior acting completely self-absorbed and “in their own world.”
It’s not just traffic. The way people approach counters to place orders is not dissimilar – it is all rooted in this same mentality where, outside of moments when one’s actions are observable by those they hold in some sort of regard, one’s behavior is completely self-involved. Going to the grocery store is a consistent challenge, as people stop suddenly and leave their shopping carts in the middle of aisles. Of course, when asked to move aside, they appear embarrassed and apologize for inconveniencing anyone – but for some reason that mentality does not cross their minds until the moment where they are “caught misbehaving.”
As I said, it’s extremely complicated, and something I continue to attempt to understand. My American culture is certainly no more/less self-absorbed or aware of our perceptions by others. But the methods by which we behave are vastly different, in terms of how we are and how we appear. While American culture encourages people to “be themselves,” but later admonishing them for any behavior that is socially unacceptable…Taiwanese culture encourages people to “tow the line,” but later overlooks behavior that is socially unacceptable, lest any admonishment serve to “lose the face” of either party involved.
I will continue to observe and report. If anyone has anything to add to my assessment, I would be thrilled to gain a greater understanding of what I see as a true cultural phenomenon.
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