Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Difference Between Conservatism and Formality

It’s been said by many a newly arrived foreigner in Taiwan that this culture is conservative. Some will continue to see Taiwan in this way for the duration of their stay, but those who stay longer and explore enough quickly learn that “conservative” is not the right word. This I learned sometime ago, but what I struggled with until recently was what was the right word to describe sociality here. I think I have found it: formality.

Thanks to Matt for sparking the formality idea Smile

It is easy to understand why so many would see the Taiwanese as conservative in the beginning.  The general vibe here is friendly, helpful, and polite. The subways and buses are treated almost like libraries. Many people, regardless of age, will bow to the will of their parents. And to the Western eye, the sheer number of hours spent at work or school can easily leave one believing there is no time for anything else.  On the surface, this place does look conservative.  

Look past the surface mannerisms and public, day time, reserve and Taipei will show you a difference face. I’ll start simple, I doubt skirts and shorts here could possibly get any shorter than they already are. Second, as quiet as public transportation may be, a gathering at someone’s house or one of the many night clubs in Taipei can be as loud as any house party I ever went to during my time at Madison (known to be a party school). There are love motels (rented by the hour) everywhere. For those who can’t afford a room, or who are just too young to, there are parks and alleys. Yes, I have seen this with my own eyes on many occasions. There is a park outside of my house that I can see from my balcony, and I’ve walked down an alley or two in some of the bar areas.

Then there are the whispers I hear, on the Internet or behind closed doors.  The rumors that no one will directly talk about, but everyone will smile at when asked: 小三, a rising divorce rate, and a sinking birth rate in a culture that claims family as most important. That these will be whispered in the dark or acknowledged with a smile is telling.  It reminds me of something I was taught as a small child, “What happens within these four walls stays within these four walls.” The private behavior of people (even when done in public) is far from what I would call conservative.

Of course what constitutes “conservative” behavior is a matter of perspective, but even still, it would seem to me that “formality” is a better word. The show of public behavior is so formalized here that is truly at a professional level. Even locals are sometimes fooled by this show. I have, a couple of times now, introduced a local friend to a gay bar, arcade, or night club – much to their surprise that such existed in Taiwan.

I do not mean to suggest that this performance of putting on a public face is unique to Taiwan. People do this everywhere I have been – and I imagine everywhere I haven’t been as well. I have simply never seen anyone do it as well as they do it here.


  1. A valid sub-category of "formality" might be "contextualization". Could it be possible that future anthropologists will describe the Taiwanese culture as a very contextualized one?

  2. This is very possible, however, there is something important to note. Future anthropologists won't be seeing the same Taiwan that I am. Culture is a living thing and so ever evolving. Already I can see in Taipei at least that this is a society undergoing major changes. Yes, some still cling to older traditions, but I see just as many who don't. Whether some of changes prove to be good or not is, of course, an entire new question that I won't comment on here (that would constitute a long blog post unto itself) but it is changing nonetheless.