Asshole Bosses In Taiwan

asshole boss

asshole bossSeems like this topic has been cropping up in various convos this week, so I want to get your input on it. I’ve heard different versions of basically the same story from numerous people (both Taiwanese and expats.) It goes like this…

A Taiwanese boss screws up or is somehow offended, maybe something minor, or something of consequence. Regardless, when the issue comes to light, the boss does one or more of the following.

  • Flies into a blind rage, finds a scapegoat to chew out, perhaps piles on a little public humiliation to boot. Maybe even fires someone.
  • Points the finger and plays the blame game. Passes the buck and pins the problem on someone. Heads will roll.
  • Denial, level OJ Simpson. Acts as if the problem doesn’t exist. Ignores the situation. Problem? What problem?

From what I have observed in Taiwan, saving face is of supreme importance, especially when there are well defined hierarchical levels at play. So a boss (or person in a superior position) who deflects responsibility for a mistake by throwing her employee under the bus believes to have saved face, but has she?

The larger truth is that those observing the situation see exactly what is going on. The boss is fronting. The mistake is glaring. But acknowledging the boss’ error would be far too shameful. It’s the perfect recipe for the classic elephant in the room. Despite all of this, the fall guy takes his blows and attempts to amend the situation. No one dares step out of line in the pecking order. In fact, everyone is expected to collude to maintain the unspoken pact.

This face saving circus can be extraordinarily trying for Americans who have Taiwanese managers or supervisors. I realize calling it a circus is disparaging, so let me clarify. There is nothing inherently wrong with the concept of saving face in Asian cultures, however, it becomes a circus in my book when truths are distorted and managers are absolved of responsibility or sound decision making. It’s a circus when reasonable solutions are discarded in favor of lunacy. When saving face results in workers being unjustly demoted, fired, or handed pay cuts and other punishments “to make an example of them” or “to show them who’s boss.”

Americans believe to err is human. We admire a person of any rank who admits to a mistake and accepts responsibility for it. We believe it is courageous to show our vulnerability and our faults, knowing we will be judged and criticized for them. While it takes fortitude to face the music, Americans view displaced anger, blame and denial as cowardly and childish. Certainly these would not be regarded as traits of a leader.

Because the saving face concept is not so entrenched in American culture, experiencing the wake of a Taiwanese boss’ temper tantrum, and worse, being expected to play along as a subordinate whipping boy to preserve the superior’s face, feels abhorrently unacceptable to most (possibly all?) Americans.

I say it can be trying for Americans, but it’s a rough ride for Taiwanese people too. My Taiwanese friends express outrage and indignation when their workplaces have been brutalized by face saving circus clowns. Even so, they fear the wrath of their supervisors and managers at work, and are more resigned to “the way it is.” They wisely realize they are very likely to encounter the same asshole boss at the next job and the next.

I personally feel, to use the sage words of legend Sweet Brown, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” I avoid asshole bosses by being happily self-employed. What do you do when the face-saving circus comes to town? How do you deal with asshole bosses? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories on this topic. I invite you to share in the comments.

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14 Comments

  1. So I’ve just stumbled onto this blog and I have to say your articles are completely stereotypical and misinformed. You as a fucking white woman need to work out in your Americancentric brain that you are in Taiwan. What we do that is different from that in the States is not bad, it’s just different. Why are you framing every difference as negative? Like why the actual fuck? If you don’t like it here leave. We are an island of 24 million people who get along just fine. We don’t need your American interpretations to explain things here. Go back to America.

    • Hi Lee Ming, thanks for taking the time to share your perspective here. I really appreciate your thoughts, however hostile they may seem to be on the surface. Sometimes it’s hard to see things from other points of view, so it’s great to be able to have a dialogue about Americancentricity.

      To answer you question about why I’m framing everything as negative… I am only sharing what many of my friends (foreigners and Taiwanese alike) have told me about their work situations. When they share these stories with me, their descriptions are unpleasant at best. I don’t know how I could frame an irate, irrational, punitive boss in a positive way. I am offering my ideas as to why this behavior is tolerated in Taiwan, based on my limited understanding of the culture. If you could give some examples of how this behavior is positive, or expand my understanding of the culture, that would be both informative and enlightening. I would love to learn more from you. 🙂

      • I’ve no idea what Lee Ming is on about . The labour laws in Taiwan are so awful they’re not even worth mentioning. No minimum stipulation on hours to be worked in a week, workplace face saving, fines for mistakes, wage docking, maintaining the status quo, fear of speaking out, poor salary that has hardly increased in over a decade, lack of holidays, terrible fluorescent lighting and tax avoiding dubious bosses with a blame shifting mentality. If you’re Taiwanese and work in Taiwan you’ve probably suffered most of this. Until the country work together and SPEAK UP they’ll continue to get abused. It’s their choice.

    • Lee Ming,
      The real benefit of this article is to the NEW people just coming to Taiwan (or similar cultures). This type of article points out a cultural difference. Many westerners are not aware of this phenomenon. Having read an article like this can better prepare someone for facing an awkward situation. Conflict resolution is easier and more efficient with forethought and preparation. Indeed, studying (comparison /contrast) a new culture can make one a better citizen in the new environment.

  2. @Lee Ming – you write “What we do that is different from that in the States is not bad, it’s just different.” I think we all agree on that, the foreigners in your country are just trying to understand how and why. Could you help us understand the priorities of your culture? (btw, that line of “if you don’t like then go home ” is a very weak response by anyone of any culture. It’s not constructive)

  3. Lee Ming has been a great example of what happens when one of these kind of people lose face, or think they have lost face. No different than the jerk in 7-11 who cuts in front of everyone else to be first and then flies into a rage when someone dares to point this out.

    Thanks Lee Ming for showing the truth and giving us an example of exactly what the author was stating.

  4. http://www.businessnewsdaily.com/4364-warning-signs-boss-jerk.html

    So, it’s uniquely Taiwanese, you say?

    By the way, as a non-Taiwanese Asian person, I’m quite certain we as in Asians also see “misplaced anger, blame and denial as cowardly and childish”; in fact, pretty much any sane person regardless of their cultural or ethnical background would do the same, not just Caucasian, Judeo-Christian, Western-educated, or whatsoever Americans.

    To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t such assholes here or it’s some cultural stuff that we all gotta put up with. It’s wrong and pathetic, dead simple. But pushing the idea that they’re (uniquely) Taiwanese phenomenons or insinuating something along that line isn’t much different, either. People, wherever they reside or come from, hate to be embarrassed and for that reason they do all kinds of stupid things, and they damn well include every single one of examples you’ve given us above.

    The point is? It’s not just Taiwanese bosses. They’re everywhere.

    • Never said it was uniquely Taiwanese, thanks for the opportunity to clarify. Just sharing my conversations, observations and thoughts about where I happen to be living. I welcome your discussion. Unfortunately asshole bosses are everywhere! You are right about that. And like I said in response to your other comment, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Taiwanese people (or any people) would think childish behaviors such as blame and misplaced anger are respectable. It just seems like people are more willing to put up with those behaviors here, and are more afraid to speak out against an abusive boss. But I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time! Haha!

  5. Hello,
    Please don’t use the term Superior ” (or person in a superior position)”. The corresponding word is Inferior and no one is inferior. Some of these words from the pre-colonial period (1350-1400; Middle English) just keep sticking around.
    I replace the term with the word Senior as someone in “a senior position”.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. While I agree wholeheartedly with you that no person is “inferior,” I believe that the words “superior” and “inferior” serve to describe situations and people who embody that attitude. Because a word is old and / or ugly does not mean it shouldn’t be used to communicate an idea or concept. It seems absurd to suggest removing words only because they have negative connotations. I don’t personally subscribe to the idea of some people as “inferior,” in the same way I don’t believe “slavery” is moral or “misogyny” is good, however, those words are important if we are to discuss these very real issues. So when talking about asshole bosses in Taiwan, I believe my word choice adequately describes the attitude espoused by the majority in this culture. Hierarchies have played a central role in both China and Taiwan’s long and deep history, and hierarchies inherently have a superior / inferior dynamic. To say “a person in a superior position” is playing with semantics, and does not negate the fact that in a hierarchy, people are not assigned equal worth and value. So please feel free to continue using the words you feel more comfortable with, and I will continue using the words I feel accurately describe my observations and what I want to express. 🙂

  6. As a non-Taiwanese Asian person, I’m quite certain we as in Asians also see “misplaced anger, blame and denial as cowardly and childish”; in fact, pretty much any sane person regardless of their cultural or ethnical background would do the same, not just Caucasian, Judeo-Christian, Western-educated, or whatsoever Americans.

    To be clear, I’m not saying there aren’t such assholes here or it’s some cultural stuff that we all gotta put up with. It’s wrong and pathetic, dead simple. But pushing the idea that they’re (uniquely) Taiwanese phenomenons or insinuating something along that line isn’t much different, either. People, wherever they reside or come from, hate to be embarrassed and for that reason they do all kinds of stupid things, and they damn well include every single one of examples you’ve given us above.

    The point is? It’s not just Taiwanese bosses. They’re everywhere.

    • I definitely agree, and certainly never said or meant to imply that Taiwanese people (or any people!) respect misplaced anger or blame. In fact, I describe those behaviors as an awkward elephant in the room, everyone knows it’s crazy-making but no one dares speak out. You’re right, asshole bosses are everywhere. They just seem to get away with more here than in the US. Perhaps owing in part to the culture, or lack of labor laws and legal protection, I honestly don’t know. But I appreciate the opportunity to clarify and discuss it further. Thank you for your insights. 🙂

  7. Saving face or not, there is nothing justifiable about “asshole” boss behavior–in any workplace or in any culture. Even worse is that today’s “asshole bosses” are enforcing a twisted norm that will perpetuate a vicious cycle of future “asshole bosses”. Those who do not censure hostile behavior from managers and supervisors are only enabling them to continue making everyone else suffer.

    Saving face, while deeply-rooted in many Asian cultures, is still no excuse for self-centered megalomania in the office. It’s no wonder that many embittered local employees who have had the last straw with a culture that condones toxic workplace practices look overseas for better employment prospects.

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