Are Taiwanese Too Nice To Foreigners? – A Few Thoughts About Misunderstandings and Xenophobia in Asia and Europe (Part I)

Yesterday I had a conversation that prompted me to write this post. I had already been planning for quite some time to talk about this topic, but I never had the chance to do it before. 

I mentioned in the previous article that sometimes I heard Taiwanese and Chinese say that they are ‘too nice to foreigners’ (‘foreigners’ meaning in this context ‘Westerners’). I can feel a certain anger in such words, an anger which is neither too direct nor violent, but which nevertheless reveals frictions and misunderstandings. What is behind these tensions?

Nice Asians vs Rude Westerners? A Different Approach

When I was in Europe, some Taiwanese told me that they are nice, even too nice to foreigners who come to their country. Why do they have this perception? And do Westerners actually share this view?

The main reasons for dissatisfaction with Westerners that I have heard in Taiwan are: 1) Westerners are too arrogant; 2) they get higher salaries than local people; 3) they disregard local rules and have no interest in local culture; 4) they think Asian girls are easy; 5) Westerners are self-centred and pleasure-seeking.

Now, this harsh judgement on Westerners is by no means shared by the entire population. Cultures, countries and peoples are not homogeneous entities, but rather an amalgam of different tendencies, opinions and phenomena. So, it is not contradictory to say that Taiwanese both love, hate or are indifferent to Westerners, because these tendencies and attitudes can be found in different individuals, and sometimes even in the same individuals. In this post I am mainly referring to those people that  have a more or less strong feeling of resentment towards Westerners. I cannot quantify the number of these people, but I personally could observe this phenomenon.

First of all, I think that these stereotypes have some truth in them (I shall talk more extensively about that in the second part). I have myself met some foreigners who fit in this description. There is a group of Westerners who perhaps come to Taiwan because they want to make some money, enjoy girls and just have fun in an exotic place. However, I think this group is not representative of the entire expatriate community in Taiwan, let alone of Western culture and society as a whole. But I will come to this later.

A key point is, I believe, that Westerners and Taiwanese often have different standards by which they judge politeness and moral values in general. I shall argue that one of the major problems is a lack of mutual understanding regarding these principles and standards. For example, it is wrong to assume that when Westerners and Asians talk about ideas like love, politeness, honour, dignity, equality, respect etc, they necessarily mean the same thing. But because they don’t know by what standards the other judges words and actions, they end up misunderstanding each other.

Let us talk, for example, about politeness. I will write another post about this in the future, but now I just want to explain that in my personal experience different people mean different things when they use the word ‘politeness’. As a matter of fact, I do not believe that all Westerners think that Asian people are polite. But the opposite is also true – some Asians who go to the West get the impression that Westerners are not polite.

Polite Appearance, Polite Sincerity and Hypocrisy

The Chinese word for politeness is limao (trad.: 禮貌, simpl.: 礼貌, pinyin: lǐmào). It is a compound of the characters li (禮: ‘ceremony’, ‘rite’, ‘etiquette’) and mao (貌, appearance) (see Watts 2004, p. 16). This understanding of the word was already codified in the Book of Rites (trad.禮記, simpl. 礼记, pinyin: lǐjì). The Book of Rites is one of the classics of Confucianism, attributed to Dai Sheng (around 200-100 B.C). It mainly deals with the description of hierarchic relationships and duties in Chinese society, and with how they should be expressed and observed through ritualistic behaviour. Li was “equated with demonstration of self-denigration and respect to the other person, especially in vertical relationships” (see D’Hondt / Oestman / Verschueren 2009, pp. 157-158). 

The evaluations of the Book of Rites differ greatly. Some people interpret it as a text that empowers the elites and creates social oppression, others as a text that propagates egalitarian, harmonious virtues (see Nylan 2001, p. 186), and in between there are many more opinions. But since I am trying to explain why Westerners may not think that Taiwanese or Asians in general are polite, I will focus on the aspects of Asian politeness that are truly different from those in the West: hierarchy and ritualism. 

So what is Asian politeness? I shall argue that it is a set of rules of proper behaviour that reflect the social role and the hierarchical position of the individual. I have already explained that traditional Confucian societies were based on hierarchy and social roles. Of course, these characteristics also exist in the West, but the stress on ritualism and on family hierarchy seem to me to distinguish East and West quite clearly. Let me give you two examples to show this point.

The first one comes from the Book of Rites itself. Many passages of the book describe the ‘proper’ hierarchical order and structure of the Chinese family, in which the old were superior to the young, men were superior to women, husbands to wives etc. All members of the family were supposed to adhere to numerous social customs that reflected this order. Proper behaviour was based on the performance of rituals, the outer display of affection through formal gestures, and obedience:

16 內則:


Nei Ze:  

Sons and sons’ wives, who are filial and reverential, when they receive an order from their parents should not refuse, nor be dilatory, to execute it. When (their parents) give them anything to eat or drink, which they do not like, they will notwithstanding taste it and wait (for their further orders); when they give them clothes, which are not to their mind, they will put them on, and wait (in the same way). If (their parents) give them anything to do, and then employ another to take their place, although they do not like the arrangement, they will in the meantime give it into his hands and let him do it, doing it again, if it be not done well. [my emphasis] 

17 內則:  


Nei Ze: 

When the sons and their wives are engaged with laborious tasks, although (their parents) very much love them, yet they should let them go on with them for the time;–it is better that they take other occasions frequently to give them ease. When sons and their wives have not been filial and reverential, (the parents) should not be angry and resentful with them, but endeavour to instruct them. If they will not receive instruction, they should then be angry with them. If that anger do no good, they can then drive out the son, and send the wife away, yet not publicly showing why they have so treated them (source link; see also Nylan 2001, p. 186) .

The second example is taken from Travels in China by John Barrow. Barrow was an attache’ of the so-called Macartney Embassy, the first British diplomatic mission to the Chinese Empire that lasted from 1792 to 1794. That mission is remembered nowadays as perhaps one of the biggest and most catastrophic cases of cultural misunderstandings in history, with the issue of the kowtow as one of the major causes of frictions between the European delegation and the Chinese court. But there were many other occasions for cultural clashes between the two sides. John Barrow remarks:

Under the generous idea of being the Emperor’s guests, we were not allowed to purchase any thing. He alone was to supply our wants, but his officers took the liberty of judging what these wants should consist in (Barrow, chapter VII).

It is quite interesting to notice that more than two hundred years after Travels in China was written, Westerners and Asians still have the same misunderstanding. It might have happened to other Westerners to be given gifts one doesn’t want or need, or to be asked to do something one didn’t want to do, as gestures of politeness.

I myself had such problems several times. Once I went to a Mid-Autumn Festival party organized by a delegation of Communist cadres in Berlin. They were drinking 白酒 (báijiǔ, a spirit usually distilled from sorghum or maize), and they asked me to drink with them. Actually, I did not want to drink, but they insisted so much that in order to avoid offending them I gave in. They could clearly see that I was reluctant, but that didn’t seem to bother them. They even thought they were doing me a great honour. One of them said to me, smiling: “In China it’s young people who are expected to ask older people to join them drinking. We are older than you, but we ask you to drink, so you can’t refuse.”
A Chinese friend of mine said to me in a low voice that I should not reject, but if I didn’t want to drink much I could just sip slowly so that a glass would last the whole evening.

There are plenty of such examples. Once a Taiwanese middle-aged man who worked for an IT company told me with veiled resentment that when his Western business partners came to Taipei, his Taiwanese company would always pick them up at the airport and then organize a dinner. But he complained that the Western side would not do the same when the Taiwanese went on a business trip to the West. 

Here we see again the same issue: the Taiwanese did not ask the Westerners if they wanted to be picked up or if they wanted to go to dinner together. Maybe some of the Westerners wanted to sleep, or go to dinner alone, or go clubbing, or whatever. The Taiwanese thought they were being polite by deciding for their guests what they should do. I imagine that Westerners – especially in the past – were not accustomed to the Chinese habit of mixing private and professional life, so they didn’t see why they should organize activities for their Asian business partners. Both sides may think they are right, and in their own way indeed they are. However, they seem unable to bridge this cultural difference.

The real problem that Westerners may have with Chinese politeness is that it is not – or not necessarily – based on mutual understanding and sincere feelings. For example, I would first ask my guests what they want and need, and then try to do my best to satisfy their wish. But perhaps I would also be just neutral and not do much for them, depending on my inner feelings towards them. Chinese politeness is, in this respect, way more ritualised, and at the same time it might be viewed by some Westerners as too cold, or too intrusive.

As we could see in the example from the Book of Rites, not being honest about one’s own feelings is part of the system of Asian politeness. When children  are warned not to refuse the food or clothes their parents offer them, even if they dislike them, it is assumed that not showing one’s true feelings is a filial duty. It is a filial duty to lie in order not to make one’s parents unhappy. At the same time, this system creates a tendency for not caring about true feelings, but about the form in which social relationships are expressed. In fact, parents may simply not wish to know what their children really want or need, but demand from them compliance, and compliance is what makes parents happy and satisfied with heir children. In the same way, the Emperor or the Taiwanese company do not bother to understand what their guests really want, so they offer them something the guests view as superfluous. At the same time, guests are not permitted to do what they really want and have no choice at all but to comply, because if they refused they would be considered rude. So, polite behaviour in these examples is a ritualised act, detached from true feelings (though not necessarily).  

Let me give you another example. Politeness can be used in order to advance one’s own interests. For instance, there is nothing easier in Taiwan than rejecting a person. You need to find an excuse, and as long as the way you do it is formally polite, the other person has to accept it. Once an older Taiwanese man asked me if I wanted to meet the daughter of one of his friends (this is the custom of match-making). I said that I preferred not to, because we might not get along and in this case it would be embarrassing. But he smiled and said: “Don’t think too much. If you don’t like her and she asks you to go out again, you can just say you’re busy.”

In fact, it is as simple as this. There are dozens of methods to have your own way within the system of politeness. Because in Asia, politeness often means emotional distance, it means that one abides by certain norms dictated by social roles, but one can find ways to bend these norms to one’s own advantage. While I, according to my character, would feel guilty to reject a person – most especially if it’s a friend of a friend – in such an open way, here it is customary and one needs not feel guilty about it as long as the formal rules of politeness are respected. If I had met that girl, her behaviour would have been polite, but not truthful. She would have known that she might not see me again, and she wouldn’t have said much about her true feelings or important things about her life. There would have been an enormous emotional distance between the two of us, wrapped in a veil of politeness. We might have found each other boring, disagreeable, annoying or whatever, but we would have endured the situation by being polite, and then we wouldn’t have met each other again. And if we had met again and got closer, only then would she have slowly shown her true self. This is often perceived by foreigners as a sort of deception, because you won’t get to know a person the first time / times you meet. Furthermore, the difference between true self and polite self can be huge, depending on the individual.

In view of the social and hierarchical nature of politeness, you will find that the same person might act in completely different ways when interacting with different people. I have myself witnessed a number of people who were extremely nice to me because we weren’t close, but they were mean or aggressive to other people. Once I met an old couple and their two daughters. The wife was very friendly to me. But as I got to know them better, I was shocked by the fact that she would tease her husband in front of others, and that she would complain openly that her elder daughter was still unmarried. This is because parents are hierarchically higher than children. Children are expected to accept parents’ criticism silently. It is assumed that children are parents’ ‘own thing’, and they can criticize freely because they are trying to ‘make their children better’ (i.e., transforming them according to their own wishes). 

For example, see how a girl from Shanghai describes parental pressure:

Parents want to get involved in your relationship as much as they can. When you date they want to know, where did you go and what did you do? They want details about how the relationship is going and they try to offer you advice. Girls especially value what their parents think of their boyfriends, and if they do not approve the girl may not be happy. I don’t have a boyfriend now and my parents are going crazy, so they’re telling me everyday, ‘You’re almost 24, you should be going out to find a boyfriend. Your career is secondary to your marriage.’ They think I should prioritize my goals in life and make finding a boyfriend my first priority. It’s annoying for me to hear them talk like that because I want to get a degree. Their intentions are good, but they’re based on their own judgement and experience and they are trying to force their ideas on me and prove my own ideas are wrong. I try not to discuss this issue with them. Still, it’s much different than in the countryside, where the marriage is usually arranged and the girl only meets the boy once or twice before they get married (Burger 2012, pp. 35-36).

What might puzzle and distress Westerners is, I believe, the co-existence of rudeness and politeness in the same person. Because politeness depends on social role, politeness is not expected in every situation. For instance, Chinese/Taiwanese customers can be extremely demanding, or rude. Parents  may put pressure on their children, criticise them so fiercely that some Westerners couldn’t even imagine it. “You’re too ugly,” “You should find a boyfriend,” “You should study hard” etc. etc. Or try to tell your Chinese/Taiwanese boss you don’t want to work overtime and the law protects you – then you will see what happens with politeness!
I will explain in the second part of this post why these phenomena are aspects of a deep difference in traditional moral values between West and East, differences that at times cause numerous misunderstandings and grievances. 

Let us now talk briefly about the Western understanding of politeness.

The English word ‘polite’ is almost two thousand years younger than its Chinese counterpart. It appeared in the 15th century and described a person ‘of refined and courteous’ manners. Politeness was understood as the manners that existed in the upper classes (D’Hondt / Oestman / Verschueren 2009, p. 158). 

However, there is no clear definition of what politeness means in Western culture, most especially because politeness never had a unanimously accepted status or validity. One explanation of this is that Western societies were never based on the same kind of hierarchy and social roles as China, and East Asia in general. 

This doesn’t mean that there was no hierarchy or no collectivism in the West, on the contrary. Religions or political ideologies such as nationalism were per definition collectivist; European medieval societies were extremely hierarchical, perhaps even more than China ever was; political regimes like fascism or Communism, too, were hierarchical. The real difference is that the West never had a hierarchy and social roles based on clans and social ritualism. Western families were way more fluid than their Chinese counterparts, they changed rapidly through the centuries, and they never had such a strong codified submission of parents to children, filial duties or family rituals as was the case in the Confucian tradition. 

Therefore, in Western societies politeness and social rules usually did not go beyond the function of showing well-breeding and refinement. The purpose of politeness in the West was to distinguish individuals, to show their refinement, well-breeding and moral principles. Chinese politeness creates a code of behaviour that unifies society in the observance of rituals; Western politeness is a standard by which an individual can distinguish him- or herself from others by showing through manners the goodness of his or her character. However, politeness was never unanimously accepted exactly because of its vagueness. “How can one express his or her true self through a set of standardised rules?” – from a Western point of view, this has always been a major concern regarding politeness because such set of rules often risks to lead to insincerity.

In recent times the importance of politeness further diminished. I would argue that in contemporary Western societies, politeness is not considered a key value, mostly because it is associated with negative characteristics such as ‘hypocrisy’ or ‘fakeness’. Therefore, politeness does not enjoy a unanimously accepted status as a core social value:

Some people feel that polite behaviour is equivalent to socially ‘correct’ or appropriate behaviour; others consider it to be the hallmark of the cultivated man or woman. Some might characterise a polite person as always been considerate towards other people; others might suggest that a polite person is self-effacing. There are even people who classify polite behaviour negatively, characterising it with such terms as ‘standoffish’, ‘haughty’, ‘insincere’ etc. (see Watts 2003).

I shall argue that the main difference between Western and Asian politeness lies exactly in the concept of ‘sincerity’ and of ’empathy’. Asking someone to do something the other doesn’t want to do, and expecting compliance out of politeness is not seen as ‘polite’ in the West. A 19th century American manual of politeness and good manners may shed some light on this aspect:

Remember […] “once a gentleman always a gentleman,” and be sure that you can so carry out the rule, that in your most careless, joyous moments, when freest from the restraints of etiquette, you can still be recognizable as a gentleman by every act, word, or look. Avoid too great a restraint of manner. Stiffness is not politeness, and, while you observe every rule, you may appear to heed none. To make your politeness part of yourself, inseparable from every action, is the height of gentlemanly elegance and finish of manner (Cecil B. Hartley. The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness, Introduction). 

Real politeness is the outward expression of the most generous impulses of the heart. It enforces unselfishness, benevolence, kindness, and the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would others should do unto you.” Thus its first principle is love for the neighbor, loving him as yourself. When in society it would often be exceedingly difficult to decide how to treat those who are personally disagreeable to us, if it were not for the rules of politeness, and the little formalities and points of etiquette which these rules enforce. These evidences of polite breeding do not prove hypocrisy, as you may treat your most bitter enemy with perfect courtesy, and yet make no protestations of friendship. 

If politeness is but a mask, as many philosophers tell us, it is a mask which will win love and admiration, and is better worn than cast aside. If you wear it with the sincere desire to give pleasure to others, and make all the little meetings of life pass off smoothly and agreeably, it will soon cease to be a mask, but you will find that the manner which you at first put on to give pleasure, has become natural to you, and wherever you have assumed a virtue to please others, you will find the virtue becoming habitual and finally natural, and part of yourself. Do not look upon the rules of etiquette as deceptions. They are just as often vehicles for the expression of sincere feeling, as they are the mask to conceal a want of it […]. 

While a favor may be doubled in value, by a frankly courteous manner of granting it, a refusal will lose half its bitterness if your manner shows polite regret at your inability to oblige him who asks the favor at your hand. Politeness may be extended to the lowest and meanest, and you will never by thus extending it detract from your own dignity. A gentleman may and will treat his washerwoman with respect and courtesy, and his boot-black with pleasant affability, yet preserve perfectly his own position. To really merit the name of a polite, finished gentleman, you must be polite at all times and under all circumstances (ibid. Chapter II; my emphasis).

These aspects of politeness explained by the author are, as I have already mentioned, not universally accepted by Westerners. However, I believe that they are at least unconsciously understood, and that a person behaving according to these rules would at least be respected in the West. 

We can see that the purpose of politeness was not to be fake, or to comply with social roles, but to show one’s true heart through a refined and courteous attitude that would inspire respect. One can even show to an enemy one’s dislike and be polite at the same time. Accordingly, the author stresses the need that politeness should become an integral part of an individual, and not just a formal act. Furthermore, the author makes clear that a polite person must always be polite, and that a polite person should not act impolitely even with people hierarchically inferior. The lack of a hierarchical understanding of politeness and the emphasis on a connection between true feelings and polite manners seem to me to be a major difference between Western and Eastern thought. 

As a consequence, it is true that Asian people may be polite in certain situations. It is also true that one can hardly find anyone in Asia who will be rude to strangers. On the other hand, politeness in Asia can hardly be seen as  a reflection of a person’s inner feelings, of a person’s true heart. On the contrary, there might be, on average, more impolite people in the West. However, in the West politeness or impoliteness are a result of a person’s character. Consequently, a polite Westerner will probably tend to be like that in all situations of life. As far as I am concerned, when I was in Europe it was easier for me to distinguish the people who I thought I could truly get along with or not, because their behaviour at least hinted at who they really were.
In Asia many if not all people are polite in certain situations, above all when they are not close to someone, but politeness does not necessarily show their true self. This makes it hard to see through them and understand what character they really have.

Certainly, Chinese politeness also aims at sincerity, but in my view, to a far lesser extent. Chinese politeness seems to me rather role-specific. A customer can be extremely coarse to a shop assistant, yet be very polite to a stranger; a mother can be rude and aggressive to her children, but submissive with her parents-in-law; a girl may be sweet and friendly with her employer, but mean to her boyfriend etc. I’m not saying that everybody is like this. What I am saying is that Western politeness is supposed to reveal the true heart of a person; Asian politeness is not supposed to reveal true feelings, but the wisdom of someone who understands social roles properly and acts according to them.

Because of this difference, the sensibilities of Westerners and Asians differ, as well, and they might involuntarily hurt each other because they do not deeply understand each other’s standards and values.

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4 replies »

  1. Nicely written. You have a very detailed analysis there about “politeness” between the westerners and the chinese/taiwanese. I myself as a Malaysian Chinese finds that what you have written about “politeness” is being practiced in my own family too.


  2. Thanks for your interesting comment. I think that indeed this kind of politeness is practiced in many Chinese families, though certainly not in all of them. Greetings from Taipei: )


  3. I so appreciate your intricate analysis that is able to reach deep into the social science of two very different cultural realms. I wonder whether I could raise curiosity of a potential more general perspective of this topic that touches along the lines of social ethics – appropriate or accepted behaviour in different situations – as it's not always about politeness if you know what I mean. As a vague example, being rude in a socially normal way can be more understood hence dealt with than say a foreigner bringing his socially normal way of being polite into a different culture.
    Hope this gives you constructive thought. And yeah, I would love to see an article on it.


  4. Thank you very much! You raise a very interesting point. I will have to think about that, and if I come up with some good ideas I'll definitely try to write a piece on the topic : )


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