Thursday, June 7, 2012

When in Rome … or 入境隨俗

Recently I have had encounters with 2 Taiwanese who have spent several years in the States each. Interestingly, in both encounters there was considerable miscommunication, both verbally and in regards of body language.

I admit that after spending about 2 years here I probably should be more fluent in Taiwanese communication, but what about them? Both have spent more time in the States than I have in Taiwan. People say the only way to truly learn a language is to immerse oneself in the culture, but what about body language and cultural mores?

I had a rocky start with both relationships for a couple of reasons.  First, I will admit, as a shy person every relationship feels awkward to me in the beginning, but this went a bit beyond. Second, in the one incident, I simply didn’t know how to respond to the person and in the other I got creeped out. That may not sound particularly scientific, but in this case I think it is. Let me explain:

As an anthropologist my most important tool is myself. I watch, listen, and talk to people. I live in Taipei. I smell the air, taste the food, and hear the urban symphony. I experience the city and it's people and analyze it.

So, when I feel creeped out, I need to know why and figure out what the differences in cultural norms for interpersonal interaction are… ie, what was it about this situation that creeped me out? I do not have any real reason to think the person was dangerous after all.

The issue here is actually quite easy to explain, if not so easy to solve. The problem was personal space. These 2 incidents were both with men who at various points touched, rubbed, or grabbed my arm. Such a thing with someone I know would never bother me, but in both of these cases the physical contact was made before we had even spent a full hour together. I didn't say anything to either man, however because, well..."When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Or as one might say here, 入境隨俗.

Here's what gets me, both of these guys spent several years in the US and yet both of them were so Taiwanese. The first man was a bit more perceptive than the second one at least, and I think we are fast becoming friends (er slow I should say...interpersonal relationships seem to progress much slower here than back home). But the second man was oblivious to the fact that I tensed and pulled away from him.

Part of me thinks, OK, I am in Taiwan so I should do as the Taiwanese do, but part of me also wonders why someone with experience with my culture might choose not to be conscious of that while interacting with me. In the US the pc movement was already strong by the time I was leaving elementary school and so cultural sensitivity was taught. Body language wasn’t the only problem I encountered either, there were multiple points of miscommunication during the course of each of these first meetings. I'm not saying that either guy did anything wrong here, just curious as to how we managed to have any miscommunication at all when I feel like all parties involved should've known a little better (myself included).


  1. It may be that once back "home" they slipped back into the behaviors they were raised among. I find myself, when in different cultural context having to forcibly remind myself of the proper way to act, even though I am familiar with the expectations from living here all my life. It's very easy, when not actively paying attention, to slip back into what behaviors one spent the majority of their life using.

  2. Yes, of course, I can see your point. I guess part of me just thought that the amount xp on both parts would lead to easier communication. I have been here over 2 years already, and while I am able to communicate - when I try - I am still not comfortable doing so. I thought I would be more relaxed in Chinese by this point, but I am not.