Sunday, September 18, 2011

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Taiwan, the land of smiles

9/18/2011 Taiwan Explorer
If smiling was a sport, Taiwan would probably win the golden medal

Taiwan's commercials are full of happy-smiley people. (source)

People say Thailand is the land of smiles. But Thailand's little brother* Taiwan is in no way less "smiley". I don't know, if foreigners, who live here have noticed, but Taiwanese love to smile, but usually for very different reasons than for example your average Central European like me. According to my observations, Taiwanese oftentimes use the smile as a shield or as a cover in embarrassing situations. Of course, that might be true for many Europeans as well, but the interesting part is what Taiwanese perceive as embarrassing when dealing with each other. For me it's mostly things that I would not bother about. An important thing here is the concept of losing face or 丟臉 (diou lien), where small mishaps or pointed out mistakes can mean a disaster for an individual. This phenomenon is usually more predominant in the older generation. A smile accompanied with some generic excuses would temporarily preserve one's face and if it's a person of a certain rank, others need to play along and smile with him/her and try to redirect the situation into different waters. A simple example: If you see your father, your teacher or boss embarrassing themselves, just play along and pretend, that everything's fine. And smile of course! If he loses face, you might be laughing inside and enjoying your moment of schadenfreude, but on the outside you'll feel uneasy and worry about what kind of consequences this might mean for you in the near future, if he's publicly exposed. Usually nothing to look forward to.

Germans have come a long way smiling. But they still have a long way to go.

But even among the younger generation smiles are often used as a way to "break the ice" or "escape the embarrassment". If Taiwanese need something from someone, it will often start with a polite 不好意思 (bu hao yi si, lit. "not good idea", meaning "excuse me") or even politer 不好意思麻煩你 (bu hao yi si ma fan ni, lit. "not good idea bothering you", meaning "sorry for troubling you") and a smile will be added, cheeks might turn pink (no, wait, the latter is only seen in anime, but anyway...). Having Taiwanese colleagues for many months now, I've gotten used to this communication with constant smiles. And when a problem or an issue is discussed, everything but the core of the problem will be touched. Criticizing someone directly will be a very rare occasion, usually a way around that will be found and lot of smiles will be inserted. And from what I've seen, the conversation might quickly turn into some small talk (usually about lunch or dinner) - and it will be smiled and laughed a lot again. They will feel released, but the core of the problem will remain.

When you're in Taiwan, smile more! (source)

Basically, smiling is something that makes Taiwanese feel comfortable with each other and is part of their daily interaction. When we took the wedding photos, the photographer kept asking my wife why I didn't smile. But I did smile! Just less intensively and less frequently. I'm just not used to the constant wide smiling and nodding, which is a social norm at most Taiwanese gatherings, such as lunches, dinners, banquets, visits of friends and relatives and so on... However, I try to be polite and usually play along in such situations, but I feel like I am acting. I know that being polite generally means that you're not being yourself, that you're being extra careful and formal in the way you interact with others. By nature I am a polite person, but according to the norms I was taught in my country. Taiwan is for me still a very different culture and although I blend in as much as possible, there are limits to how far I can do that, because I don't want to lose myself completely. A while ago we had a company meeting where people from another department were present. Some time later, one of the new colleagues messaged me and told me (in a joking way), that I was too serious in the meeting and added that I didn't smile. I was surprised, that the latter was a topic of conversation here, but I guess it just proves how important smiling is for Taiwanese. It's hard for me to smile in situations, where I'm uncomfortable. But I guess in Taiwan, that's exactly what I should do: Smile and save my face. :-) <- I'm rockin' it already!