Taiwanese People Are Superficial & Fake? A Western Perspective

politeOne thing many foreigners in Taiwan will notice, in addition to this, this, and this, is the extent to which politeness permeates Taiwanese culture and life in Taiwan.

Taiwanese people are generally exceptionally polite and courteous, especially to foreigners, and if asked for help or directions they will do their best to be of assistance. This is partly because Taiwanese people pride themselves on being 熱情 (warm hearted & hospitable) to foreigners.

There are obvious benefits to living in an ultra polite society. Taiwanese people politely line up, whether it’s to get on the MRT, buy food from a street vendor, or get on an escalator. Taiwanese people rarely cut in line (with the occasional exception of elderly women who are either oblivious or perhaps feel entitled to jump the queue.)

Whenever I have expressed frustration on the blog about Taiwanese people who insist on speaking English to me, the feedback is always that it is intended to be polite. “Polite” is what motivates and underscores most Taiwanese social interactions.

At first blush, Taiwan’s culture of politeness seems commendable, even if sometimes thwarting immersion language learning.

However, in my point of view, it feels like politeness trumps honesty in Taiwanese culture. And I find this to be rather unsettling. Let me pause here to say that I also value polite behavior and kindness, and I object to people who, under the guise of “being honest” feel they have permission to be cruel, insensitive, or unkind. I believe there is always a kind way to be honest.

But let’s get back to Taiwan, and my struggle to reconcile truth with politeness…

Taiwanese people will routinely act as if things are okay even if they are not, in order to be polite. In this same vein, Taiwanese people tend not to express their true emotions or opinions. If you ask a Taiwanese person how they are doing or how they like the food, they are likely to respond, 還不錯,還可以,or 還好 which roughly translates to a bland, “it’s okay, not bad, alright.” If you ask for their preference you will often get a neutral answer.

If you show up late in social situations your Taiwanese friends will say 沒關係 or 沒問題, “it’s no problem.” Very rarely, if ever, will someone call you out on your behavior or say they didn’t like what you said or did. When dealing with acquaintances, Taiwanese people will almost always avoid direct conflict and opt for a polite response instead.

As an American this can be confusing and maddening. Taiwanese people have fine tuned antennae and seem to “know” that the other person has been offended or really liked the noodles, even when they express neutrality. Despite the fact that I am quite adept at reading people, Taiwanese politeness can feel like truth twisting guessing games.

I am often left wondering what the person really thinks or feels, feeling awkward and unsure of where I truly stand with someone. And the most problematic part is, I feel like it’s hard to connect in an authentic and sincere way with people. How can I really get to know someone when everything is sugarcoated with polite and their real thoughts and feelings are off limits?

Some sources say that the emphasis on politeness stems from Confucian values, in which politeness and good manners are believed to maintain civility. Additionally, Japanese culture, which has its own brand of politeness, has exerted a strong influence on Taiwan as a result of Japan’s occupation during the first half of the 20th century.

I also suspect that a cultural policy of politeness is the byproduct of a collective culture whereby the harmony and cohesiveness of the group is valued over any one individual’s opinions or feelings. Therefore, remaining neutral and calling this neutrality “polite” is how Taiwanese keep from rocking the boat.

It has been my personal experience that some Taiwanese people (many who have lived abroad in western countries) are burning to express themselves in more individualist and authentic ways, and perhaps that is part of the reason they associate themselves with westerners like myself. But even these people tend to have the “polite habit” programmed into their communication responses and their thinking.

The concept of “face” is also folded into the psychology and need to be polite. Taiwanese friends may go out of their way to save each other and themselves from losing face. The topic of face and how one loses it is perhaps the subject of a future post. But it plays an important role in the way Taiwanese people think and express politeness.

Perhaps it is this culture of politeness that has so many westerners thinking Taiwan is such a wonderful country and so they stay for decades. In a place where you can do no wrong (as least no one will tell you so to your face) it’s a pretty comfortable and amenable life. As a westerner you don’t even have to learn Chinese because Taiwanese people will speak to you in English as a polite gesture. You won’t find many people openly disagreeing or challenging you, and people will smooth out the impolite or awkward social infractions you leave in your wake.

But frequently these same westerners lament that Taiwanese people are fake, superficial and empty. When I hear or read these criticisms they sound like a judgmental interpretation of the cultural phenomena of polite versus honesty and authenticity. I believe under the surface of “polite” Taiwanese people’s inner lives are just as rich, diverse and profound as any. But the cultural tendency toward politeness over honesty and keeping one’s emotions and opinions private and guarded may come across to effusive westerners as vacant and shallow.

Although I appreciate the politeness on some level, I would much rather opt for honesty if given a choice. An open discussion concerning feelings and opinions enables deeper connection and sharing than just pretending everything is okay when it’s not. I would like to cultivate meaningful relationships with people here in Taiwan, and the only way I know how to do that is based on honesty and a willingness to be open and vulnerable. Which leaves me wondering how Taiwanese people connect in meaningful ways. Obviously I have a lot to learn and I’m still seeing things through the lens of my American perspective. 

And of course, I would prefer Taiwanese people speak Chinese to me, even if it is less “polite” to do so! After all, I moved here for the sole purpose of learning Chinese.

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31 Comments

  1. That’s a very accurate way to explain it, I enjoyed the reading and agree with you with most of the points.

    I’m a hispanic person, I’ve been living in Taiwan for about 1 year and I still find it hard to create meaningful friendships with most of people that I tried, but with the few ones that I’ve achieved a good friendship, I’ve found out that they are more sensitive and loyal than I expected. It just takes time.

    I truly have some big admiration for taiwanese culture and people 🙂

  2. Maybe I watch too much Taiwanese drama, but doesn’t it seem like Taiwanese family relationships (in private) are often tumultuous. Maybe that’s why they need their other interactions to be more civil and polite. Their friends are expected to be sheltering trees, their colleagues ply on the honorifics, and their manners with strangers impeccable.

    I have a question about Taiwanese old ladies who seem entitled and/or are oblivious about their behavior in public. There was one at my son’s recital and she actually started talking loudly during someone else’s performance…very strange. Not my first time observing that about old ladies….why is that? At what age do they decide that they can act like that?

  3. In our culture, we are educated to be polite. This is very obvious, everyone can see that. However, we are also educated don’t make too many opinions. If you ever go to some classes in Taiwan, you can see that students rarely make their own opinions or question teachers. Students rarely raise their hands to interrupt the class. In general if you have too many opinions against the teacher, classmates will not like you.
    This kind of environment makes Taiwanese hardly express themselves. Making our own opinions against people is like exposing ourselves in a dangerous situation.
    We don’t encourage individual. We encourage those who obey the system.
    We don’t encourage to take the risk. We encourage to be stable.
    That’s why our economy has gone down for a long time.
    Companies don’t take the risk to invest risked career.
    People are crazy to pass the civil service exam.
    You can observe it in many aspects.

    I don’t want to be biased. Taiwanese culture makes our place safety and warm. But it also has some drawback. Try to image where and how we grow up and you will know why we behave like this.
    By the way, you don’t have to be disappointed because there are more and more people willing to accept other cultures and perspectives.
    That’s why we like your blog, right? 🙂

    • Agree, I have seen that behaviour all the time in the classroom.
      It’s interesting to have an explanation of that from a taiwanese.
      But I think that education way is what makes Taiwan so safe, polite and awesome, not many countries in the world are like that.

  4. Since you find it appropriate to paint an entire country’s people with one brush, give me Taiwanese superficial politeness over loud American obnoxiousness anyday.

  5. It is a lot to do with the education systems, and the media, newspaper, like the title of this article, “Taiwanese People Are Superficial & Fake?” It’s easy for people to misunderstand that when people just look at the title and it’s unconscious to make assumptions for one side of the story (i.e. the sentence express in a way that it presumed the statement is true). Keep doing this over time and people will start to believe and think in a certain way or direction.
    To me, being polite is programmed into my mind, yes. When you used to the situation that constantly accepting things that is a bit displeased but it’s actually not a big deal, and you start to build your tolerance to accept a lot of things before it crossed your line. This made my tolerance range really wide, literally wider than most of people, and you can say I’m often seen as a nice guy, probably indecisive and not an opinionated person. It’s because now I truly think it doesn’t going to make me happy or unhappy just because I didn’t go to certain places I want to go or having my preferred food. I always feel the people (and/or their feeling) I’ve been hanging out with are more important than my preference, plus my super wide tolerance. So if you ask me about what do I feel? I will give those answers you mentioned in the article, but if you ask me what exactly make you feel happy? It is the fact that we hangout together and I am happy because I’m with you or bunch of friends, we spent time together, we share our life together.

  6. I guess it takes time to know if we’re sugarcoating it or not. it’s like when you break up with someone and you say “it’s not you, it’s just me”,which means it’s always you, lol.
    Joking aside, we’re taught not just to be polite but also to tolerate some slight misconduct and suppress our feelings, especially to strangers or acquaintances, not just to foreigners.

    It just occurs to me that the old generation always preach at their children with a funny Taiwanese proverb if kids are too chatty or sometimes feisty. It goes like ” Kids have ears but no mouths, and butts but don’t you ever fart! ” if you can speak Taiwanese it’s really catchy and funny. So we’ve already imbibed the concept of being passive as always when we’re just kids.

    So how do we know others’ genuine feelings ? We read it from other’s facial expression or tones, sometimes I couldn’t get it myself though.If so, I’d act more appropriately next time.( Somehow it’s kind of excruciating, it’s like playing charades with no one ever saying yes). anyway, in time, you’ll know how to crack some encrypted codes.

    However,we’re so not polite to our close friends or family, when we build up the rapport with our dear friends, we tend to be as harsh as possible to our real friends, a way to show how close we are.

    is it superficial or fake? I’d rather think it’s some kind of social conventions or social norms, which has already existed in our culture for a long time. there’s no right or wrong about one’s culture. And personally ,I reckon the pros of politeness(or fake if you must) outweigh the cons.

  7. I would say because they are not really “good friend”.
    we don’t need to fake or too “polite” in front of our “good friend”.they did that to you just because you are not really “acceptable”.

  8. Get out of Taipei, head down to the lawless south. You will have no more crazy ideas that Taiwanese are so polite. Come live in small cities for a while and you will soon understand that Taipei doesn’t represent all of Taiwan.

  9. dont forget that they love talking behind your back with other people. They act as if there’s no wrong in front of you, but in the inside they’re hating on you. i believe this also relates to their confidence level, and their status level. Taiwanese people dont treat each other as equals, there are status levels to be met.
    Taipei is a stiff city and quite grey.
    If you go down to other parts of taiwan, you’ll see that people are more free with their choices of words and actions and treat you like shit sometimes just because your’e a foreigner.
    i too have never really had a close relationship wit ha taiwanese person because it feels impossible, that all there is inside is just an empty piece of paper, and i do believe so too. its the education system that lets them not be very imaginative and independent on their thoughts. I’m pretty sure you know what i mean.

    • “dont forget that they love talking behind your back with other people.”

      I think this just has to do with who you surround yourself with. It doesn’t matter which country you live in, if people are petty and not confident in themselves they are going to talk about anybody behind their back. It’s a way to make themselves feel better.

      “i too have never really had a close relationship with a Taiwanese person because it feels impossible”

      Unfortunately I can say the same thing. I’ve lived here for a couple years and I can’t say I have any close Taiwanese friends. If it has to do with their confidence level or status level that would be unfortunate because I’m a really humble person. I don’t think I’m above anybody else. The idea that Taiwanese can’t be true friends with foreigners really upsets me because it’s such a foreign concept to me. In the West we can accept anyone into our circle of friends as long as they are cool and mesh well with the group. In Taiwan I have rarely (almost never) been integrated with a local Taiwanese persons’ group of friends. I’ve meet some sure, and I’ve tried to become friends with them, but it seems they aren’t interested. It’s almost cliquish in a way, like if you didn’t go to school, uni, or work with them in some capacity then it’s really hard to integrate into the group. For example one night I had a video game night with some friends I had met, some foreigner some Taiwanese. Nobody really knew each other except for me cuz they were all people I had met. The result was a bit awkward. While everyone seemed to have an ok time, it was apparent that most of the Taiwanese were uncomfortable being around strangers. I tried my best to introduce everyone and get everyone talking with each other while playing some video games but it was a challenge. I didn’t really have any video game nights after that lol.

  10. Make “friends” with the Taiwanese, then you will know what it’s really like in Taiwan – rude and impolite.

  11. There’s nothing with politeness in conversing with you in English. Think about it, if you learned Chinese in the states, how much opportunity do you have to actually use it in real life?
    I think most Taiwanese have been conditioned to avoid exposing themselves to problems (麻煩) as one poster said and it does take experience to read into what their really thinking. The problem is rather than applying it to specific situations, they apply it to daily life.
    I’m not here to diss my own people but they do seem to hold the biggest of grudge even for the smallest of things. And like Jennifer said, they will not express this feeling and hold a secret bitterness/hate against you.
    I personally prefer the South, at least they are openly expressive.

  12. Superficial and fake? I felt the same way when I resided in a small town in a southern state of US. And, all residents are westerners. To be specific, all born and raised Americans.

    The reason I felt superficial and fake was because we could only talk about very limited subjects like religion and the weather. Weather is harmless but you can only go that far. As for religion, I didn’t want to talk about it if people were already close minded and just wanted to preach.There was no meaningful chat, thus, no meaningful relationship.

    This is what you face. You are an English teacher in Taiwan. People who come in contact with you are your students, not friends. Teachers and students are established in a different platform. They admire you and follow your lead (this is a Taiwanese/Asian thing). They seldom challenge you nor question you which makes up an unequal relationship. Even after the teacher/student term is over, people seldom cross over that line and become an equal weighted friend. This type of relationship is like a singer and fans, rarely produces meaningful results.

    Plus, if most of your Taiwanese friends are young (meaning under 28), it’s highly likely they haven’t developed any interesting thoughts yet. I am not saying this to be mean. The fact is most of Taiwanese youth are shielded by their parents and the education system. They seldom experience how to make life decisions, confronting real struggles, thus are less mature than western youth at the same age (not counting the youth from the top 5% in western countries since the family make decisions for them, too ).

    Language skill is also a major issue in your situation. To have a meaningful relationship you have to be able to communicate in a none superficial level. Taiwanese who speak English to you most likely communicate with a limited palate. To strike a meaningful conversation, either you have to be good enough in Chinese or he/she has to be good enough in English.

    I personally know a lot of intelligent Taiwanese who are cool also funny. Although they are still polite, they never shy away from expressing their thoughts.

    As a person from Taiwan, I appreciate your observation and frankness. I wish you the best and maybe have some meaningful friendships in the near future.

    • Excellent comment. I often wonder myself how old is old enough to have your opinions and be able to express your own thoughts here. Maybe they just need a certain amount of years out of the education system? I always try so hard with the young kids to help them develop skills to express themselves, but it’s a pretty strong current we’re up against ><

  13. I absolutely agree in your post!, i lived in taipei for almost 4 years and whenever I made taiwanese friends, I always found myself feeling good about I could do no wrong, but when there were missunderstandings with my taiwanese friend, they could never be honest with me, they just rather avoid me and made like nothing happen and just keep being polite, while I would have liked an open discussion. so I rather opted to make friends with abc or only foreigners for this reason.
    Great post!

  14. Interesting.. I’ve never been to Taiwan so can’t really comment, but here in the UK many people seem to feel a similar way about American hospitality!

    For some, all the ‘have a great days’ that you encounter in shops and restaurants are nice, and a sign of how much more open and friendly Americans are compared to British people.

    But then for others, it’s all very superficial and fake. People are probably quite rarely wishing that you have a good day, and the excessive friendliness by waiters, for example, is not genuine goodwill but just something you’re paying for. And you often will see that goodwill melt away if you get the tip/gratuity wrong!

    I like it for the most part, but sometimes appreciate a surly person who at least isn’t putting on any pretences!

  15. 嗨,作者你好:)

    在半夜讀你的文章,越讀越覺得有趣。你對台灣人的觀察非常入微,很多是多數台灣人自己沒有感覺的地方,而你都注意到了,而且客觀公允,是我最欣賞的一點。願你保持好奇心,在這塊土地上找到許多樂趣!:)

    如有任何需要,也歡迎和我交流唷~

  16. 我想這存在很深的誤會!!可能你已經在馬來西亞,不會再看到這個回復了,但我還是想告訴你,我所認識的台灣。從約12世紀(大約是中國宋朝時)開始有漢人到澎湖活動的紀錄,17世紀西班牙人及荷蘭人占領台灣(北部及南部)作為與中國貿易的據點,1642年荷蘭驅逐西班牙,1662鄭成功驅逐荷蘭,1683清朝施琅攻取台灣,但在1684到1875這段時間,由於渡台禁令的關係,要來台灣並不容易,1875以後清朝開始建設台灣,1895割讓給日本,1945日本實施徵兵制,同年,無條件投降,台灣成為軍事占領地,1949國民黨敗逃,將台灣訂為中華民國根據地。這是簡要的台灣歷史,我想表達的是台灣人之所以會如此的虛偽,做作,表裡不一,理由只有一個,這樣才能活下去,長年的戰亂外加各種不同文化的淬鍊,最後在一半血統的流亡政府統治下求安定,在這樣的時空背景之下,台灣人還能信任誰?誰才是真正的朋友?我想連台灣人也感到疑惑!!你想知道how Taiwanese people connect in meaningful ways,這我也很想知道。或許有,或許沒有。或許在所謂的”meaningful ways”跟”更親密的關係”(你的中文老師說的)上,我們有很大的認知落差。台灣人就像一隻被傷透心的小貓,他不對你解開心防的原因,不會是高傲,絕大多數是來自上一個時代的恐懼。

  17. Generally I do not see this politeness one speaks of. Quite the opposite. After living in Thailand and some other asian countries I have found the majority of taiwanese to be bland, unfriendly, don’t speak any english, actively dislike trying to communicate with a foriegner…others have had an infantile predispose to conflict. I’ve been around a bit and this stands out as being the country with the least accessible people I’ve visited.

  18. I came across your post after just read a survey that 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!

    • As a Taiwanese I do think Taiwanese as a whole are very friendly. They are friendly not just to foreigners but also to each other. However, friendliness does not mean openness; and friendliness certainly does not mean courteousness.

      Having lived in Taiwan for a while, you surely know how crowded it is. That translates to no personal space, thus no political correctness, thus no boundary awareness. Rudeness sometimes comes from that, and sometimes some people are simply jerks. It happens to the best of us.

      As for the conversations at work place…. Can you speak a little bit of Mandarin? If not, you have to help yourself out. People most likely will help you if they see you trying. If you do speak a little bit of Mandarin, did you ever try to have conversations in Mandarin with several native English speakers just to make one Taiwanese more comfortable? If you did that, I applauded you for the efforts. And if you did, you know how frustrating that is to make that conversation work. Conversations like that involve translating, understanding, analyzing, summarizing and maybe adding humor bits then quickly shoot back in accurate/correct words. They are fast paced and frankly not easy when using an unfamiliar language. Normal Taiwanese (who learned English at school or have 2/3 year grad school experience overseas) can not negotiate a social conversation well despite if you think they can speak English. I know that because my English was considered very good before I left Taiwan for school in U.S. It still took me nearly one year to be capable expressing myself at 70% proficiency in a 24/7 full English environment and I worked really hard to achieve that comparing to other foreign students.

      There is a strong desire for people in China to be understood by outside world especially among the highly educated. That’s not the case in Taiwan. You can argue the reasons or the pros and cons. It is just the way is. Therefore people in Taiwan won’t make efforts just to be heard or understood by foreigners. Also you said that yourself, Taiwanese are very concerned about losing face. For some unknown reasons Taiwanese (I also noticed that among Japanese and Koreans) have this hyper shameful feeling about not being able to speak English which further cripples them from mastering a language. Social situations aside, most of Taiwanese professionals do have concern that they might lose face by carrying out a potential awkward conversation at the work place. Is that a good excuse not to help someone out in a difficult situation? No! Should your co-workers make efforts to include you in conversations? Absolutely! Should you try different things to get a different outcome? Yes!

      My husband was in Taiwan one month ago. He went mountain biking with a group of Taiwanese that he never met before. He was seated in a front seat in a mini van. It was dead quiet in the van for the first 5-10 minutes of the ride. Normally my husband is a slightly introverted person. However, he really didn’t want the whole trip to be that dead, he introduced himself to the other mountain bikers and asked their names in English and with very limited Mandarin. For the remainder of the 4 hour trip they conversed using Mandarin and English. It turned out to be a great trip conversation wise.

      In my experience speaking English is one thing, communicating in English is another. Speaking is to get tasks done or share data; communicating is to express and receive ideas/emotions which requires very different types of vocabulary and understanding. As a whole, Taiwanese are never encouraged to express themselves, therefore communication is not our strong suit nevertheless in another language. That’s part of the reasons the friendliness you receive just stop there because a lot of people don’t know how to continue besides “doing things”.

      I believe in any culture there are people quick to open their arms and people who are reserved. In my experience people in NY are more open but not too friendly as first; people in southern US are more reserved but seems friendly at first glance. As a whole (forgive me for generalizing things in this reply. I am only using it for statistic aspect ), western culture seems to be less reserved than eastern culture so I understand your frustration. With time and luck you might find a brave soul who is more open and don’t care too much about the awkwardness in the beginning of a friendship, and hopefully that leads to many opportunities. Most of Taiwanese are friendly and willing. They just don’t know how to be social in a casual none introduced setting and a lot of them indeed are very shy towards foreigners. It can still work If you know how to create a channel for them that fits your own style.

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