Saturday, August 10, 2013

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Politeness, manners, and etiquette in Taiwan

8/10/2013 Taiwan Explorer
One of the things that I always found highly interesting since I moved to Taiwan is the way Taiwanese interact with each other. Communication, politeness, manners, and etiquette are so vastly different from what is common in my country that it took me quite a while to adapt to these new concepts. It's always very challenging to learn all the nuances of a new and so inherently different culture as an adult, because you're already heavily shaped by your own native culture. So to what extent can you really integrate the new values and norms with your own? That really depends from person to person, but for me it wasn't easy, because so many of them are in perfect contradiction with my own. During my early days I made a lot of mistakes, but I learned from them, and gradually improved. I hope that with this post I can offer a useful resource to future foreigners who will come to Taiwan.

Introduction

In this article I want to share everything I know about politeness, manners, and etiquette in Taiwan. Some of the examples and explanations will base on my personal experiences as a European living in Taipei, and therefore be subjective and Taipei-centric, but generally I will try to be as objective as possible, and provide some solid real-life examples. To really understand how Taiwanese tick I believe we first have to take a deep look into the the language, so I decided to provide a lot of useful examples in Mandarin, the most commonly spoken language here. Most of them have either been provided by my wife, or double checked by her. The focus was on the contemporary spoken language with real world examples. Of course there are other languages widely spoken in Taiwan such as Taiwanese, Hakka, and to some extent languages of Austronesian origin. Unfortunately I'm not familiar with them as much as with Mandarin, so I can't really say much about how politeness is expressed in them. There are also many regional differences in Taiwan, but as I mentioned before, I live in Taipei and this is a Taipei-centric post, so some things might be a little different in other parts of Taiwan, but not so much to be completely useless.

Basic terminology

Before we go deeper into patterns of behavior, let's first have a look at the linguistic part, at the basic terminology in Mandarin related to politeness: If someone is polite, Taiwanese will say 有禮貌 (yǒu lǐ mào), which literally means "to have a polite/ceremonial appearance." Another word for politeness or courtesy is 客氣 (kè qi) and literally means "guest-like atmosphere." It's used in the standard reply you're welcome as 不客氣! (bù kè qi) after someone says thank you, or in situations where the host wants you to be less formal. They would say 不用客氣! (bù yòng kè qi), which means something like "don't behave as formally as a guest." My mother-in-law will say that to me when she cooked a lot of food hoping that I eat as much as possible, and not care about appearing impolite. An alternative way to say the same would be 不用多禮! (bù yòng duō lǐ), literally meaning "don't need to be so polite/ceremonial." When someone is rude or impolite people will say 沒有禮貌 (méi yǒu lǐ mào), literally "to not have a polite/ceremonial appearance." A more direct way to say the same would be 很粗魯 (hěn cūlǔ), literally "being very rude."

"謝" (xiè) "to wither" uses the same character as "謝" (xiè) "to thank". Coincidence?

Basic sayings

1. Being grateful: One of the most important phrases in Mandarin that you'll ever learn is the word for thank you 謝謝! (xiè xiè). This word is used in many situations, and very often (probably more often than thank you in English), because when Taiwanese really want to show great gratitude, they repeat 謝謝! several times, it's like an echo that slowly disappears. There are variations to this phrase, some more formal such as thankful 感謝! (gǎn xiè) or many thanks 多謝! (duō xiè), or informal thanks 謝啦! (xiè la). The standard formal response like you're welcome in English is the aforementioned 不客氣! (bù kè qi), or less often 不用客氣! (bù yòng kè qi), but in every day life Taiwanese would use the informal 不會! (bù huì), which literally means "will not" (similar to ¡De nada! in Spanish).

2. Being sorry: A very often used phrase that expresses being sorry is 不好意思 (bù hǎo yì si), literally meaning "not a good idea." It's a light sorry, usually connected with embarrassment or shyness. You will hear this phrase a lot in situations where someone could not fulfill your request, for example you're looking for an item to purchase, but it's sold out, so the clerk will probably say 不好意思. Another common usage for this phrase is to excuse oneself. For example you're riding the subway, bus, or train and people are passing through, you will hear them say 不好意思. Another word meaning excuse me, which is specifically used for passing through is 借過 (jiè guò), it literally means "borrowing to pass through." Some Taiwanese might jokingly ask when will you return it? 什麼時候還? (shénme shí hou huán?). The longer version of 不好意思 is sorry to bother/trouble you 不好意思麻煩你 (bù hǎo yì si máfan nǐ), literally meaning "it's not a good idea to trouble you." This is usually used in the beginning of a sentence when you're requesting something, or asking someone for a favor. While 不好意思 means sorry in certain situations, it's not as strong and as universal as the sorry 對不起! (duì bu qǐ), which is a short version of 我對你不起 (wǒ duì nǐ bu qǐ), meaning something like "I'm sorry for the bad things I've done to you." Another way to say sorry is 抱歉! (bào qiàn), which literally means "holding sorry".

3. Asking politely: Questions often begin with 請問 (qǐng wèn), which means something like may I ask, and expresses politeness and formality. The longer version is 請問一下 (qǐng wèn yī xià), literally meaning "may I ask one time," and it's usually used when the question you're about to ask is of a more delicate nature, or you just want to be overly polite.

4. The polite "you": A very formal way of saying you is 您 (nín), as opposed to the informal 你 and 妳 (nǐ). When you meet Taiwanese in-laws for the first time, or go to a job interview for example, you should say hello! as 您好! (nín hǎo) instead of the casual 你好 (nǐ hǎo).

5. Inroduction: When you introduce yourself to someone formally you have to say I am 我是 (wǒ shì) and add your name. An informal way would be 我叫 (wǒ jiào), which literally means "I am called." If you're introducing yourself to a group of people, you can say hello everyone 各位好 (gèwèi hǎo) or 大家好 (dà jiā hǎo). If you want to say nice to meet you the proper way is 很高興見到您 (hěn gāoxìng jiàn dào nín), literally "very happy to see you" or 見到您是我的榮幸 (jiàndào nín shì wǒ de róngxìng), literally "seeing you is my honor." In written form the phrase 很高興認識你 (hěn gāoxìng rènshi nǐ) is usually used, it literally means "very happy meeting you." To ask what is your surname the polite way is 請問貴姓/請問尊姓? (qǐng wèn guìxìng/qǐng wèn zūnxìng), literally "may I ask your valuable/honorable surname?" If you want to know the full name, the proper way is 請問貴姓大名? (qǐngwèn guìxìng dàmíng).

6. Honorifics: Honorifics are very important part of the etiquette in Taiwan. They originated hundreds of years ago in imperial China, where the class and status defined the way people were supposed to communicate with each other. A few hundred honorifics existed in the pre-republican era (before 1912), but in the Taiwan of today only a small fraction of them is preserved, and actually in use. Here's a list of some of them:

GENERAL ONES

These are usually used instead of a person's name, because the person you're talking to might be a stranger, or generally less familiar to you.

miss 小姐 (xiǎojiě), literally "little big sister."
mister 先生 (xiānshēng), also used to refer to one's husband.
lady 女士 (nǚshì), usually used in written forms.
married woman 太太 (tàitai), only used when it's sure that she is married.
big brother 大哥 (dàgē), informal and polite way of calling a young man.
papa 爸爸 (bàba), usually used for young fathers.
mama 媽媽 (māma), usually used for young mothers.
senior 前輩 (qiánbèi).
junior 晚輩 (wǎnbèi), 後輩 (hòubèi).

HONORABLE PROFESSIONS

These are used together with the person's family name, placed right behind it, for example teacher Lin 林老師 (Lín lǎoshī) or captain Wu 吳船長 (Wú chuánzhǎng).

teacher 老師 (lǎoshī), can be applied to non-teachers, too.
doctor 醫生 (yīshēng), alternative word is 醫師 (yīshī).
captain (of a ship) 船長 (chuánzhǎng), alternative word is 隊長 (duìzhǎng).
pilot 機長 (jīzhǎng)
master 師父/師傅 (shīfu), used for people with skill, craftsmanship.
principal 校長 (xiàozhǎng)
professor 教授 (jiàoshòu)
priest 神父 (shénfu), alternative word is 牧師 (mùshī).

RANKS IN ORGANIZATIONS

This is a list of the most basic ones, there are more of them, and they're depending on the organization or company structure. For example marketing manager would be 行銷經理 (xíngxiāo jīnglǐ).

president of a country 總統 (zǒngtǒng)
vice president of a country 副總統 (fù zǒngtǒng)
minister 部長 (bùzhǎng)
general manager 總經理 (zǒng jīnglǐ)
manager 經理 (jīnglǐ)
chairman 主席 (zhǔxí)
boss 老闆 (lǎobǎn), street vendors are commonly called this way.
female boss 老闆娘 (lǎobǎn niáng), same as above.

As you can see, modesty 謙虛 (qiānxū) and respect for class 階級 (jiējí) are the most basic ideas behind these honorifics, and that extends to other forms of non-verbal politeness.

Behavioral patterns

Many people who come to Taiwan are under the impression that Taiwanese are very friendly and polite, and that is definitely true. But when you live here longer you realize that to a lot of them politeness is just an artificial layer that covers their actual character which might not be as pleasant as you might think in the first place. This is of course true for most cultures, Western included, but the way this is implemented in Taiwan has its own particularities that come with different implications. Based on my impression I would say that what is here considered normally polite would most likely be seen as extremely formal, or overly polite in Central Europe where I come from. There are certain characteristics in the way Taiwanese interact with each other that are highly uncommon in Europe, such as:

1. Smiling 微笑 (wéi xiào): When Taiwanese talk they smile a lot, it's a common mannerism. Smiling is also used in unpleasant situations such as embarrassments or open conflicts to ease the tension. Taiwanese are harmony seeking people, a soft and gentle tone accompanied with a smile is considered very polite, because it creates a pleasant atmosphere. This might look a little bit odd to Europeans, but if you take it as part of the etiquette you will realize that it fits in well with other things Taiwanese do. I once wrote that "if smiling was a sport, Taiwan would probably win the golden medal," and I still believe this is true. I've been once asked by a Taiwanese colleague why I generally don't smile a lot, and when I explained that this kind of social smiling is unusual in my country, she could not really understand what I meant. I now do socially smile among Taiwanese in order to blend in. Aside from the social smiling, there is also social laughing. It's often happened to me, that my Taiwanese colleagues were all laughing out loud, because the boss supposedly said something funny, but it really wasn't that funny. The behavior is called PMP or 拍馬屁 (pāi mǎ pì), literally "tapping a horse's butt." It means you laugh just to make the person feel good, but you don't find it funny. It's fake flattery, it could also be described with the phrase "to butter up to someone." A synonymous expression is hugging a thigh 抱大腿 (bào dàtuǐ).

2. Nodding 點頭 (diǎn tóu): Unlike in Japan, Taiwan's northern neighbor, Taiwanese usually don't bow 鞠躬 (jū gōng), instead they nod. Bowing is reserved for ceremonial occasions such as funerals, state dinners, in class for the teacher, and recently in shopping malls when they open, but it's not common in other every day situations. Nodding on the other hand is part of daily life, and used when talking to strangers, elders, officials, and people of higher class or seniority. It's usually accompanied with smiling, and a more formal language. It's uncommon among friends, coworkers of same level, and close relatives. There's another type of nodding, it's shorter and faster, you will see it during conversations, and it's usually accompanied with interjections ah 啊 (ā), mhm 嗯 (ēn), or oh 喔 (ō). It's a mannerism, that shows the addressee is interested in what you are talking about. What I find very amusing is when this is done during very boring or banal conversations.

3. Speaking indirectly 婉轉 (wǎn zhuǎn): Smiling and nodding, which can be combined into a phrase 點頭微笑 (diǎn tóu wéi xiào), is usually accompanied with indirect speech. 婉轉 (wǎnzhuǎn) literally means "tactful," and is very important in preserving the harmony in a conversation. While for most of us Europeans telling things as they are is nothing out of the ordinary, for some Taiwanese this can be highly problematic. First of all they usually care about their face 面子 (miànzi), which is here meant figuratively and equals to reputation, social status, or the image in the eyes of others. How you are seen by others is in a Confucian society much more important than in the West, and a proper etiquette is the foundation of every person's face. If someone speaks too directly Taiwanese might say can you please say it milder/softer 請婉轉的說 (qīng wǎnzhuǎn de shuō). You will never hear a sentence like this in my native language.

4. Guanxi 關係 (guānxi): The term which literally means relationship is much more than just that in Taiwanese culture. While in my country we divide people into groups like family/relatives, close friends, acquaintances, and connections, and apply a different etiquette and approach to each group, in Taiwan the lines are often blurry. Everyone outside the family is a potential connection, and that's one of the reasons why more effort is spent on maintaining good (albeit often shallow) relationships with people you don't know that well ("they might be useful to you one day" or "they could be harmful, so be careful about how you treat them"). I struggled with this concept for a while when I first came to Taiwan, because I don't like to maintain shallow relationships to increase the possibility of getting benefits or facing problems in the future. Taiwan changed me in this regard, because when everybody's doing it, and they know how it works, it's not hard to follow and do it, too.

4. Avoiding physical contact 避免肢體接觸 (bìmiǎn zhītǐ jiēchù): Unlike in many European countries, kisses on cheeks 親臉頰 (qīn liǎn jiá) and hugs 抱抱 (bào bào) are inappropriate as greetings in Taiwan, while handshakes 握手 (wò shǒu) are fairly uncommon, and only used in specific situations such as formal business meetings (and usually only between men). This was quite challenging for me in the beginning, because whenever in my country you meet someone new, or are introduced to someone via a common friend, we would firmly shake hands, look each other in the eyes, say our names, and sometimes add a "nice to meet you." In Taiwan on the other hand I've been introduced to people several times, and when I stretched out my hand for a handshake it became very awkward, especially with women (in my country we make no difference between sexes). My hand was either left untouched and I had to retract it, or I received a handshake that was so soft, it didn't feel like a handshake at all. This was a typical intercultural misunderstanding: Most Taiwanese don't shake hands in such situations, it makes them confused, and they don't know what they should do. A lot of times they also avoided eye contact 目光接觸 (mùguāng jiēchù) with me, probably because they were shy in front of a foreigner. By now I'm used to it, I seldom stretch out my hand, I usually just nod and smile, and softly say hello.

5. Different humor 不同幽默 (bùtóng yōumò): Humor, as we define it in the West, doesn't really play a very important role in Taiwan's daily life. You'll rarely hear a Taiwanese girl saying "I want a guy with a good sense of humor," because it's just not something they value the same way Western girls do. If you work in a Taiwanese company you'll often hear your Taiwanese colleagues giggling and laughing during lunch time, or after work. That's usually caused by some banter or chatter (Taiwanese are masters of small talk), but it's not really humor in the sense that I understand it. It's a different kind of humor perhaps, but I usually don't find it funny. I don't get it. Something I rarely see and hear in Taiwan is snark, irony, dry humor, and sarcasm with a little bit of cynicism, and underlying criticism. Irony and sarcasm do exist, but they are much more subtle, and applied with care, because they can be easily misunderstood, and could cause a conflict. Jokes are from my perspective generally very innocent, soft, and easy to understand (and not really my kind of jokes). And the one who tells them will usually smile, and make some gestures that will imply that it's supposed to be funny. Humor in the Western sense can be seen as a risk, because not everyone might get it. While for me this doesn't pose a big problem (I just move on if that happens), for Taiwanese it's a serious consideration. Back in my home country I was always someone who was popular in my circle of friends, because I had a very good sense of humor, sarcastic remarks were my specialty. During my first year in Taiwan I quickly realized that most of my jokes fall flat, people either don't get them, or they don't find them funny. Even my wife, who knows me well, is not always getting me or finding me funny. She will often say I told a cold joke 冷笑話 (lěng xiàohuà), or 你很冷 (nǐ hěn lěng), literally "you're so cold", meaning you're absurd and not funny. When I'm among foreign friends, the experience is completely different: Snark is an integral part of the group experience, jokes can be absurd, macabre, or silly, and people get them. Not being able to use my original sense of humor is one of the bitterest pills I had to swallow during my time in Taiwan.

Small talk

Taiwanese are masters of small talk 閒聊 (xiánliáo). I've rarely seen people having such long conversations about very banal things (well, except for the British). Because it's very important how you are seen in the eyes of others, it's therefore crucial to avoid bad encounters, even with people that are not that close to you. One of the standard small talk topics revolves around food.

If it's around lunch time, you might get to hear this kind of conversation:

A: Have you eaten? 你吃了嗎?(Nǐ chī le ma?) or 吃飯了嗎? (Chī fàn le ma?)
B: Not yet, I'm going to. 還沒, 我要去吃了. (Hái méi, wǒ yào qǜ chī le.) or
B: I'm full, thank you. 吃飽了, 謝謝. (Chī bǎo le, xiè xiè).

A standard dialog when accidentally meeting a friend or acquaintance would be:

A: How is it recently? 最近怎麼樣? (Zuìjìn zěnmeyàng?) or
A: Are you busy recently? 最近忙嗎? (Zuìjìn máng ma?)
B: Not bad, getting by. 還好, 還過得去. (Hái hǎo, hái guòde qǜ.)

Meeting someone on the street might yield this kind of standard exchange:

A: How come you are here? 你怎麼在這邊? (Nǐ zěnme zài zhèbiān?)
B: I'm living here! 我住在這裡! (Wǒ zhù zài zhèlǐ!)
A: Really? Me too. 真的哦? 我也是! (Zhēn de óh? Wǒ yě shì!)

There are countless versions of small talk depending on various factors, so I won't list more examples. My advise to foreigners would be: Never discuss local politics, or China-Taiwan relations with someone you don't know, because you can easily upset, or offend them. Politics are very divisive, and usually only discussed among close friends and family.

First encounters with foreigners

What I always found interesting is the fact that a lot of Taiwanese are much more direct when they have small talk with us foreigners (and I mean here Westerners) than they are with their fellow countrymen. The reasons for that are very complex, but the bottom line is that when they speak with us they feel liberated from their native communication codes and behavioral norms. In addition, some falsely believe that all Westerners are much more open and direct, but the truth is, we're a very diverse bunch with very different backgrounds. If you're a Western guy, and about to come to Taiwan, be prepared for these kinds of questions:

1. Where are you from? 你在哪裡來的? (Nǐ zài nǎlǐ lái de?)
2. How many years are you in Taiwan? 你來台灣多久了? (Nǐ lái Táiwān duō jioǔ le?)
3. Are you married? 你結婚了嗎? (Nǐ jiéhūn le ma?)
4. Is your wife Taiwanese? 你老婆是台灣人嗎? (Nǐ lǎopuó shì Táiwānrén ma?)
5. Why did you come to Taiwan? Your country is better.
B: 你為什麼來台灣? 你的國家比較好。(Nǐ wèishéme lái Táiwān? Nǐ de guójiā bǐjiào hǎo.)
6. What's your salary? 你一個月 賺多少錢? (Nǐ yī gè yüè zhuàn duōshǎo qián?)

Aside from the last question, I have been asked all of them, but I know people who have also been asked about how much they earned (a taboo question among Taiwanese outside the family circle). Tip: If you find that to be too intrusive (I do), ask them the same question back like this: 那你一個月又賺多少錢? (Nà nǐ yī gè yüè yòu zhuàn duōshǎo qián?).

The Taiwanese concept of friends

What I noticed in Taiwan is that the term friend 朋友 (péngyǒu) is used much more loosely than in my country. When I'm asked how many friends I have I would usually name only few people. If I ask my wife the same question she would name over 100. The difference is that I give this title only to those I consider good and close friends, people I trust and accept in my inner circle, while for my wife (and from what I've seen for many other young Taiwanese), the requirements for being someone's friend are much broader. That has its pros and cons. As I mentioned before, a lot of Taiwanese believe that having a wide network of people is very important (see guanxi), so this phenomenon is not very surprising. Many teenagers and twenty-somethings are heavily engaged in social media platforms like Facebook and Plurk, making a lot of contacts is therefore much easier than ever before. The Chinese term for netizen or online-friend is 網友 (wǎng yǒu).

Proper etiquette with friends

Younger Taiwanese have generally very little free time compared to their European peers, that's especially true for the greater Taipei area, and other bigger cities. Teenagers have to study a lot, people in late twenties and early thirties usually work long working hours. Of course there are exceptions, nevertheless when Taiwanese say they were busy, they usually don't lie, and literally have no time. Maintaining a relationship with friends is often happening online, either on social media, or via smartphone applications for chatting like WhatsApp, Line, Facebook chat, and alike. A lot of non-Taipeiers work in Taipei, and have to establish new friendships here, and also maintain old ones back home, so these modern devices prove to be quite handy. There are occasions where busy Taiwanese do meet friends in person. In my generation (30+) this would usually occur during weekends, and the occasion would most likely be one of these: Brunch, afternoon tea, wedding, reunion, or seeing someone's baby. While the last three events are of ceremonial nature, and happen just a few times per year, brunch 早午餐 (zǎo wǔ cān) and afternoon tea 下午茶 (xià wǔ chá) are the best way to meet a friend more regularly. Usually a nice restaurant would be chosen or booked, for brunch between 10.30-11.30, for afternoon tea between 14.30-15.30, because for a lot of restaurants these two time slots are specifically reserved for that (special meal combos might be available only during that time). Meeting at someone's home is usually avoided for several reasons, some of them might be: The apartment is small or messy (or both), and the person is embarrassed, or they live with parents and don't want them to hear what they are talking with their friends. Another reason is the going-out culture. Urban Taiwanese love to eat out, food is usually affordable, transportation convenient, and you spare yourself the hassle of cooking and washing the dishes.

Etiquette in the family

Family is very important in Taiwan. Traditionally Taiwanese parents are heavily involved in their children's lives even when those are all grown up. It's not uncommon that unmarried daughters and sons in their 30s are still living at home (sometimes to save money), and obey their parents. The Confucian concept of filial piety 孝 (xiào) is very important (read an excellent article by David K. Jordan on the topic). A phrase like you're very obedient/filial 妳很孝順 (nǐ hěn xiào shùn) is often taken as a compliment by adult Taiwanese. Parents have to be treated with respect 尊敬 (zǖnjìng), which means open arguments and conflicts should be avoided at all cost, talking back 頂嘴 (dǐng zuǐ) is considered rude. That doesn't mean young Taiwanese always agree and follow what their parents want, to the contrary. Often it's a case of "in one ear, and out the other" 當耳邊風 (dāng ěr biān fēng), but you have to play along in order to be polite. For those who have already moved out their parents' home, regular visits are the norm. Married daughters should visit their husband's parents, while married sons are supposed to visit their own parents. Traditional celebrations and festivals such as Lunar new year 春節 (chūn jié), Tomb sweeping festival 清明節 (qīng míng jié), Dragon boat festival 端午節 (duān wǔ jié), and Mid-autum festival 中秋節 (zhōng qiū jié) are very important family centric holidays, celebrating with the parents is obligatory. In recent years Mother's day 母親節 (Mǔqīn jié) and Father's day 父親節/爸爸節 (Fùqīn jié/Bàba jié) have become equally important - children are expected to invite their parents to a nice restaurant to celebrate.

Always give red envelopes with two hands.

Giving gifts

Giving gifts and presents 送禮 (sòng lǐ) are important in Taiwanese culture. If you want to make a good first impression to the parents of your Taiwanese partner for example, give them a present when you first visit them as a token of appreciation. When you hand them over, always do so with both hands and a slight bow or a nod, it's considered polite. Presents will usually not be opened in front of you (unlike in my country), so don't be offended, it's part of the proper etiquette. One interesting thing about Taiwanese is the culture of not wanting to owe anything. It's most likely that when you give a gift Taiwanese will try hard to give you something back. Because Taiwanese strive for harmony and balance in relationship with others, there shall be no debts of any kind, they can damage the relationships. In practice this means if you receive gifts, or kind treatment, it's expected for you to return it. If you're just a traveler, it will more likely be a sign of hospitality 好客 (hàokè), so a return is not expected, but if you're living here and know that you will meet that person again, I would suggest you to show appreciation and give a gift in return. Many Taiwanese gift giving traditions are centuries old, and very standardized. For example during Lunar New Year you are supposed to give red envelopes with money called 紅包 (hóng bāo) to the parents (avoid giving odd numbers, or numbers with the digit 4, it means bad luck). Red envelopes are also given when you visit someone's newborn baby for the first time, and you will get a cake or sesame oil chicken in return. When you attend someone's wedding, red envelopes are given for the couple's good luck, but in return they shall give you a box of cookies. If you're visiting a friend or relative, gifts like cakes, or wine are appreciated, and the host will usually share them with you. As a foreigner you can bring something unique from your native country, it can be food, a souvenir, or something practical, and it will most likely be received with appreciation. There are gifts you should avoid in order to not offend the receiving person, because they might be associated with bad fortune. Here some better known examples:

1. Clock: The word for clock 鐘 (zhōng) is pronounced same as heaven 終 (zhōng), so giving a clock 送鐘 (sòng zhōng) to someone sounds same as sending them to heaven 送終 (sòng zhōng).

2. Umbrella: The word for umbrella 傘 (sǎn) is pronounced same as split up 散 (sǎn), so giving umbrella 送傘 (sòng sǎn) to someone sounds same as splitting up with them 送散 (sòng sǎn).

3. Shoes: Shoes symbolize walking away, so in order to avoid this bad luck, you have to give the person 1 dollar together with the shoes, which will deceive the evil spirits, because they will think he bought them.

4. Don't buy cheap things: Don't buy things from the convenience store, give gifts of higher quality, perhaps something branded to show that you value and respect the person.

The social aspect of eating

I've been quite around in this part of the world, but I have seldom seen people that would be so food-centric like Taiwanese. Food brings Taiwanese together during casual meetings or traditional celebrations. Food also bears a lot of symbolism from ancient times (for example eating certain fish brings good luck etc.). Food is also used as a topic for light conversations or small talk (usually to avoid personal questions, or divisive topics like politics). While in my country food is just food, you eat it and that's it, in Taiwan food can be discussed and thoroughly analyzed. Food shops, night markets, upscale restaurants can be a great topic for conversation. It's also common that young people take photos of their food in restaurants (even with big DSLR cameras), and post reviews on their blogs and social media. Eating lunch together is in some companies almost an obligation, especially for newcomers, because of the social aspect of the gathering. Unlike Europeans who meet for a cup of coffee, or a beer in summer, it's almost impossible for Taiwanese to meet just for a drink. They will at least have a cake. But usually it's a full meal (keep this in mind, if you're aspiring to date a Taiwanese).

The eating etiquette in Taiwan

In Taiwan there are a lot of types of restaurants (read my post that lists them all). Every type has its own proper etiquette that often correlates to the price of the food, and the ambiance of the restaurant. Of course the proper way of eating is totally different in a small noodle shop 麵店 (miàn diàn) at the corner from dining in an upscale round table restaurant 合菜圓桌 (hécài yüán zhuō). In night and day markets street food is eaten with hands, and many people eat and walk at the same time. Small shops scattered all over residential areas, where commoners usually eat, don't demand a very strict eating etiquette. Smacking or making noise while eating 吃飯發出稀哩呼嚕聲 (chīfàn fāchū xīlī hūlū shēng), or talking while having one's mouth full is not considered rude in such environment. A lot of people will also eat with open mouths 吃飯不合上嘴巴吃 (chīfàn bù hé shàng zuǐba chī), something which is a big no go in my country, but ok in Taiwan in a casual environment. Same goes for a belch 打嗝 (dǎgé) after the meal, it will not be considered rude. This aspect of the eating culture was a little bit hard to get used to at first, but now I don't mind it anymore. If you go to an upscale restaurant on special occasions (such as this one), the etiquette is much more formal: Making noise while eating is not proper, and using your own chopsticks to scoop the shared dishes is also avoided. In most restaurants you have the so called serving chopsticks 公筷 (gōng kuài), which are only used for that purpose. Food is passed around the table from person to person, and when you take some keep in mind that you leave something for others at the table. Fish is often served in such restaurants, and since there are a lot of bones, Taiwanese usually spit them out on a tissue, it's considered proper etiquette. If you want to be extra polite, wait for the oldest person at the table to begin eating, it's a sign of respect. An interesting thing is also how the menu sheet 菜單 (càidān) with the receipt is usually placed on the table, but turned upside down, so that the customers don't see the price they have to pay (it might spoil their appetite). Another typical thing for Taiwanese is that they don't like to waste food. A plate is expected to be cleaned, every rice grain is supposed to be eaten to show respect for the food. And holding one's bowl close to the mouth, and using chopsticks to deliver the food inside is also very common and acceptable. One thing I noticed is how eagerly Taiwanese share food. When my wife came to Europe and we went out to eat with my family, she was offering my sisters parts of her dish to try, because they were discussing whether it tasted well. She took it as an implication of wanting to try (Taiwanese often subtly hint when they communicate), but that was not really the case, they were just talking without expecting to get food offered. I explained to them that in Taiwan this is very normal, food is shared among people even when each person gets their own dish on their plate (which is typical where I come from). Therefore it may well happen that very hospitable hosts (such as your partner's parents, relatives, or friends) will put food on your plate, or pour soup and tea for you - it's considered polite. If you refuse to eat an offered dish it might be considered rude. I advise you to at least try a bit, and if you don't like it, say that you prefer other dishes (save the person's face, especially if they are the one that cooked the dish for you). Tea is commonly offered along with meals, it's usually put in a big jar on the side of the table. If you're eating with more people, and you're planning to refill your own cup, offer a refill to others as well, it's considered a bit rude otherwise.

For Taiwanese eating out is more than just eating.

Personally I think the eating etiquette is much stricter in Europe than in Taiwan. Smacking, slurping, talking while chewing, spitting, and belching are all taboo in my country. But there are a few things at the table that Taiwanese deem offensive, and most of them are related to the use of chopsticks. The rudest thing you could do is stick them into a bowl of rice upside down. That resembles the joss sticks at funerals, some people might think you wish them death. A less severe offense would be playing with your chopsticks, using them like a skewer, or pointing with them at others at the table. Sticky food like some dishes with glutinous rice such as the popular desert muachi 麻糬 (máshǔ) can be cut with two chopsticks the same way as it would be cut with a fork and knife (one chopstick holds them, the other one cuts through). Another exception are steam buns called xiaolongbao 小籠包 (xiǎolóng bāo), which can be poked by a chopstick to extract the hot soup (read my post about the proper etiquette of eating xiaolongbao).

Business cards

Business cards 名片 (míng piàn), literally "name cards," are very important for Taiwanese, someone once told me that a business card is like a person's face. Therefore there's a fairly strict etiquette as to how to deal with them, especially in the business world. When you exchange business card with a Taiwanese businessman with whom you aim to cooperate, be sure to take his card first with both hands, and then pass yours to him with both hands, too. Just like giving gifts with both hands, this is considered polite. After you receive it, look at it, and study it. If you're both standing, keep the card in your hands (never just put it in the pocket), and look at it while the person is him- or herself to you. You can also ask things like: "I see you are the regional manager of APAC. Are you based in Taiwan or in another country?" This will show that you take interest in their rank and responsibilities, and that you are a serious potential business partner (something Taiwanese business people greatly appreciate). If you happen to be in a meeting room, put all the received business cards in front you on the table during the whole meeting. That's also a sign of respect. If you're not a business person, you will see business cards in shops and restaurants, they are usually placed at the counter, and they are meant for customers to take them. In such environment there is no strict etiquette, because you are the customer, so you don't need to formally study it, and if you put it straight in the pocket, that's fine, too.

Convenience stores

Convenience stores 便利商店 (biànlì shāngdiàn) and minimarts are extremely common and popular in Taiwan. Most people visit them several times per week to buy food, drinks, tobacco, or enjoy some other services that they're offer like paying bills, printing, or withdrawing money. The convenience store culture swapped over from Japan in the 1980s, 7 Eleven and Family Mart are still the most popular ones in Taiwan until today. Every time you'll enter a Taiwanese convenience store, you will be welcomed by the clerk with 歡迎光臨 (huānyíng guānglín), which literally means something like "your presence is welcome." When they ask you to wait a little, they will say 稍等一下 (shāo děng yīxià), literally "a little wait a little." The addition of 稍 (shāo) is formal, informally people say 等一下 (děng yīxià). When leaving the store, the clerks will usually say thank you for coming 謝光臨 (xiè guānglín), literally "thank you for your presence," or 謝光臨請慢走 (xiè guānglín qǐng màn zǒu), literally meaning "thank you for your presence, please walk slowly." This is implying, that as a welcome guest you don't need to rush out ("we're not chasing you out"). Unfortunately all of these lovely phrases too often sound very robotic and impersonal.

Behavior in public

One thing that impresses a lot of foreigners who come to Taipei and other bigger cities is how Taiwanese nicely line up 排隊 (pái duì) when they are waiting for the subway train or public buses. The same goes for escalators, elevators, and popular food stalls. This doesn't root in ancient Chinese culture, it's an advancement of the civil society of the past three decades, probably influenced by the neighbor Japan. It's considered rude to cut the line, and push your way ahead of others, but that doesn't stop individuals to do so. Usually Taiwanese don't start to argue with these rude people, but sometimes conflicts are inevitable. Another thing that's become very mainstream since the SARS outbreak in the early 2000s are protective paper masks 口罩 (kǒu zhào) that people wear, if they catch a cold or get a flu. If you're visibly sick in public, Taiwanese will feel very uncomfortable around you. Not wearing a mask and coughing is considered inconsiderate.

Taida university campus is like an oasis amid Taipei's crazy traffic: Bikes rule here.

What is interesting to observe is that the same people, who so patiently stand in line when waiting for buses and trains become so different when they are in scooters or cars. Road rage is in bigger cities too common, taxi drivers are especially fierce, so take extra care around them. Cars usually don't stop for pedestrians to cross the road unless they have a red light, but even that is not always 100% the case. When you're in the middle of a crosswalk, they won't stop, they expect you to run faster to the other side. If for some reason you can't make it, they will hit the brakes in the last possible moment, it's really annoying and you better don't rely on it. Scooters tend to just swirl around pedestrians as they please, but they will usually drive slowly to find the best way to pass through. They also tend to drive on sidewalks, and are usually the cause for many traffic accidents. More people on a scooter, even with babies or small kids without helmets is sadly very common, too (mostly in suburbs). It's against the law, but the law is here seldom enforced, so many people are doing it. It's still a big mystery to me why most Taiwanese are so polite in person, but when they are on two or four wheels, some of them completely change to the opposite.

How to dress?

Taiwan is a subtropical island, it's warm throughout the year, so naturally people wear summer clothes. Usually for work long trousers and a shirt is the norm for men, while women usually wear blouses and skirts, but they're sometimes so short it would be considered indecent in my country. When it comes to casual wear, women tend to overdress, while men tend to underdress. Girls showing off legs is is acceptable, but showing off one's cleavage 乳溝 (rǔgōu) is a bit of a taboo, it's considered too sexual (although it's gotten more common in Taipei recently). The complete opposite is true for women in my country: While a little cleavage is acceptable, showing off too much legs might be considered too sexual and inappropriate in certain situations.

Don't get involved

One of the bigger mistakes foreigners make in Taiwan is when they get involved in the affairs of locals. Such stories can end in a very bad way. A foreigner once scolded a local guy about not putting helmets on their children's heads while being on the scooter, and he angered that man so bad, he got hit by a brick in the head. There is in old Chinese saying sweep the snow in front of your door by yourself 自掃門前雪 (zì sǎo mén qián xuě), which figuratively means "mind your own business." A more modern variant used in conversations would be don't meddle in other people's affairs 不要多管閒事 (bù yào duō guǎn xiánshì), literally "don't manage too much matters of others." Taiwanese do take this very seriously, which has the consequence that being a good samaritan is often avoided as well, because it may well happen, that you get blamed and subsequently sued, even if you just wanted to help, and had nothing to do with it.

Read more

I have written about specific aspects of Taiwanese culture and etiquette in the past, that's why I haven't covered everything here. I recommend you to check this page and learn more about Taiwan:

Taiwanese particularities

This post might get updated in the future, if I feel there's something interesting that I forgot to mention. If you think so, please drop a comment below and let me know.