To boldly state the obvious, rudeness is culturally defined. I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong side of the cultural norms/rudeness divide; frequently—totally unawares—insulting large groups and individuals alike. It’s a sword that cuts both ways, I have at times been insulted by Taiwanese, who were clearly unaware they’d done anything disparaging. Let’s take greetings and introductions as an example.
When I first came to Taiwan, over twenty years ago, upon being introduced to new Taiwanese people I always knew that three uncomfortable questions were coming. The conversations usually went something like this:
“Darren, I’d like you to meet Jim Lin. Jim, this is Darren, our new teacher.”
Of course, I’d politely say something like, “It’s nice to meet you, Jim.” While cringing on the inside, because I knew Jim would respond with something resembling…
“It’s nice to meet you, Darren. I see you’re fat. How fat are you exactly?” Undeterred by my sputtering, Jim, or the Taiwanese person du jour, could be counted on to blithely continue, “How old are you?” Twenty-nine. “Really!?! My God you look so old!” My spluttering would continue unabated. And Jim, failing to read the room, would persevere, “Well, how much money do you make?”
To which I’d normally make some vague answer, “Oh well, you know, I make enough to get by.”
I could expect the reply, “How much is that exactly?” And, normally there’d be some probing questions about my relationship status. “Are you married Darren?” Nope. “Do you have a Taiwanese girlfriend?” Not really your business, Jim.
This experience was remarkably consistent from person-to-person. I didn’t find it surprising because before coming to Taiwan I’d lived in Thailand. Thai has many more personal pronouns than English, which one you use is based on age, gender, social status, the speakers’ relationship, and the social context of their conversation. So, upon meeting a Thai person they often ask about your age, marital status, income, and if you have children. They’re trying to place you on the social hierarchy in relationship to themselves, so they know how to address you. This is not exactly true in Taiwan. It is, however, why I didn’t find Taiwanese behavior strange.
Taiwanese conversational norms, at that time, can be accounted for by Taiwan’s relatively more hierarchical society, the dissimilitude in privacy norms, and disparities in what was considered rude. Though not nearly as clearly stratified as Thai society, Taiwan, compared to North America was more hierarchical. Some of the questions I faced when meeting Taiwanese may partially be explained as a desire to achieve social clarity, but I doubt this was an important motivator. There was no overriding need to immediately place me within the social hierarchy. Also, in Confucian society my outsider status is my social position.
There are distinct differences in socially acceptable privacy levels between Taiwan and Canada. Taiwanese are much more invasive in their social interactions. In Canada, we’d say they have nose problems. Over the last couple decades, this has become less obvious in Taiwan’s large centers, but can still be experienced in smaller cities and towns.
The cause of these disagreeable greetings, however, was primarily differences in notions of ill-mannered. Traditionally, being a bit fat was not considered a bad thing in Taiwan. It showed that you had a bit of wealth. Older Taiwanese haven’t adapted to new trends, and don’t consider it inurbane to call you fat.
It isn’t just foreigners who find themselves occasionally called Tubby. I once watched an overweight Taiwanese teacher get introduced to an auditorium full of students as 胖胖的陳老師, approximately “our teacher, Fatso Chen.” The teacher clearly understood what was being said and the MC felt comfortable saying it anyway—even in such a formal setting. Fatso Chen, himself, didn’t have any particular negative reaction. He had extremely fine English, along with excellent comprehension of English culture, and when using English he showed feelings of being dispirited by those remarks. When speaking Chinese there wasn’t a hint that such expressions bothered him. If you’re fluent you think in the culture of the language you’re speaking.
Money is another area where Taiwanese and Westerners differ sharply in what is appropriate small talk. In Western Canada, anyway, it is really impolite to say anything at all about money. You’ll either appear nosey, braggadocios, or self-pitying. However, in Taiwan there doesn’t appear to be any prohibitions on talking about money. It is less common nowadays for someone to ask about my salary, but my purchases are fair game. I suppose it is partially because bartering is common, so everyone wants to know what you paid, to see if you got ripped-off. The answer to that question is always yes. That’s usually true, but even if I got the best deal in the world, I can count on my Taiwanese friends to cluck their tongues, shake their heads, and look at me with sad eyes. I don’t know why Taiwanese don’t find that malapropo. It is annoying as hell.
Things have changed over the last couple decades in Taipei. I’m no longer insulted every time I meet a new person. I assume that the spread of Western media, along with the cultural imperialism of fine English teachers, such as myself, has taught Taiwanese not to refer to new (Western) acquaintances as Tub-o-Lard. As for money, people almost never ask how much I earn, despite still asking what I paid for everything. Of course it is possible nothing has changed and I’m just meeting a different class of people.