Recently I read an interesting blog post entitled “3 reasons why Taiwanese and German people think differently” (the original post is in German). The author is Klaus Bardenhagen, a German journalist who has been living in and reporting from Taiwan for a few years. His blog and Facebook page have become major sources of information about Taiwan for German people as well as cultural bridges between Taiwan and Germany.
In his post Klaus Bardenhagen argues that Germany is a country of perfectionists in which everything has to be done according to a well-thought plan, with accuracy and exactness. On the contrary, he argues, Taiwanese seem to overlook even some of the most evident flaws and blunders. He demonstrates this point with the help of three pictures: the first picture shows a bus stop built right in the middle of a bicycle path; the second, too, shows a U-bike station that was built on a bicycle path; the third shows the shabby façade of a building.
After reading that post I began to think about the topic, so I decided to write down my own point of view about the differences between Germans’ and Taiwanese’ way of thinking. I lived both in Germany and in Taiwan as a ‘foreigner’, therefore I have an ‘external’ perspective on both societies.
First of all, I’d like to say that I will have to make some generalisations. As I explained in an old post about ‘culture shock,’ when you talk about a different culture a certain amount of generalisation is necessary. If you don’t generalise, you can’t talk about a society. I am simply going to write down my own observations based on my personal experiences or things I read. Everyone can judge by themselves if what I say is consistent with their own experiences and opinions.
Second, I have to point out that I mostly lived in Berlin and Taipei. Some people will say that ‘Berlin isn’t Germany’ and ‘Taipei isn’t Taiwan’. Well, no place is Germany or Taiwan. All cities and regions are different. Munich is different from Frankfurt; Stuttgart is different from Dresden; Cologne is different from Leipzig. No city or town can ‘represent’ an entire nation. Unless one has lived in every single city and every single village for a long time, one can never have a comprehensive understanding of a country. One can only make observations concerning specific places.
German perfectionists vs Taiwanese bunglers?
Germans enjoy the reputation of being perfectionists; precise, reliable, accurate, obsessed with details. Many German products, especially their machines and automobiles, are world-renowned for their quality.
When I lived in Germany I soon realised how obsessed many Germans are with details. Generally speaking, most Germans I met were really serious about what they did. They love to set rules, organise every aspect of their life, have everything under control. The unexpected seems to be one of the things Germans fear most. They sense disaster and decay whenever something is not properly regulated, organised and mastered.
For example, one day I realised my mail box was a little damaged. Two of my neighbours talked with me repeatedly about this, saying that we lived ‘ in a decent house’, implying that a broken mail box would convey the opposite impression to passers-by. They insisted that I had the mail box repaired as soon as possible. I must point out that the mail box was just slightly damaged and worked perfectly fine.
Our building had a lot of rules. Each tenant had to take care of the garden; if someone lost the keys, he or she had to notify all other tenants, had to get the main lock changed and give new keys to everyone; we couldn’t make noise after 10 pm (or 11 pm, I can’t remember), so I couldn’t use my washing machine or use my stepper (which was noisy) late in the evening; I heard my neighbours quarrel about the position of plants in the common garden; if I or my flatmates had guests, my neighbours would ask who they were, on account of the ‘safety’ of the other tenants; etc. etc. My neighbours often told me how we should clean our flats, how we should recycle, and even how we should cross the street properly. The concept of ‘minding their own business’ didn’t seem to exist in their world. Everyone had to follow the rules, and that was a collective concern. What we foreigners did interested them, because if we did something ‘wrong’ we would compromise the functioning of their well-oiled machine.
I am not suggesting that all Germans are like that. But a certain tendency to rely on collective rules and reinforcing them through mutual pressure does exist. People will push you to conform to collective standards of behaviour. When I say ‘collective standards’ I don’t mean ‘national’, German-wide standards. Specific rules may exist in a small community, or in a subgroup. But that’s not the main topic of this post.
I think that this mutual interference in other people’s lives, this willingness to criticise strangers and rectify other people’s mistakes is the reason why Germans are perfectionists. They are forced to perform well and to be accurate in many situations, because if they won’t they will be severely bashed by others.
But does that mean Germans are really perfectionists?
After living in Germany for some time I began to realise that this is not always the case. I will give a few examples:
1) My internet connection didn’t work. I called a technician. The company was extremely slow. It took them days before they could repair it. Every time I called they’d say the technician had something else to do. It was a lousy service.
2) Deutsche Telekom sent us a new contract without our agreement. They threatened to sue us if we didn’t pay. It took us many days and many arguments to finally have our contract rescinded.
3) University offices: some of them are slow and are open only a few hours each day, 3 or 4 days a week.
4) My university professor took half a year to read my thesis and give me my note. He was so late that even his secretary was embarrassed. She told me the university was ready to send him a notification if he didn’t do it quickly;
5) On Sundays most shops close, and it’s hard to find shops that are open 24 hours a day.
6) Deutsche Bahn (the German railways) often has delays. In cities like Berlin the underground has many delays and annoying construction works that block entire lines.
7) My fellow students refused to go to class before 10 am because they thought it was ‘too early’. If a professor had to start lessons before 10 am he or she would usually apologise to the students.
8) On weekends, many young people are loud, pee in the street, and do all sorts of weird stuff.
9) Bureaucracy does work, but it tends to be unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming.
Well, you can see that Germans are not always as clean, accurate, and perfectionist as one might think.
What about the Taiwanese?
When compared with German people, Taiwanese oftentimes seem not to care much about cleanliness, order and rules. The facades of many buildings look shabby and neglected, and there are many illegal buildings (famously the illegal rooftop extensions). People drive as if they were playing Grand Theft Auto (cyclists are not any better). Some Taiwanese products lack good quality (I have negative experiences with some computers and with clothes).
On the other hand, Taiwan also excels in some areas when compared with Germany.
The MRT is extremely clean and efficient, the stations always look brand new, and trains have virtually no delays. There is a smoking ban in the areas surrounding schools and universities (in Germany, on the contrary, I saw students throwing cigarette butts in front of our university buildings). There are many clinics and they have long and convenient opening hours. Shops and supermarkets are open 7 days a week and many of them (especially convenience stores) are open 24 hours a day. The bureaucracy and tax systems (as far as I know) are simple and quick.
In the next post, I will discuss why in my opinion the way of thinking of Germans and Taiwanese is different.