As a Canadian, I am accustomed to apologizing three or four times before breakfast. We say sorry the way New Yorkers say f*#k you—without much planning, sincerity, or even awareness—but an apology is always at the ready. The pre-emptive apology is a common Canadian verbal tick. Not that we’re necessarily all that apologetic in reality, but the words just flow readily from our tongues; it’s a little piece of what makes a Canadian. One of my earliest cross-cultural lessons in Taiwan was delivered by my then American roommate when he sold me his scooter, and threw in the free advice, “If you’re ever in an accident – never apologize! It just sets them [the Taiwanese] off.” Imagine my chagrin. I found it hard not to randomly apologize for no reason; how could I hold in an apology when I had actually done something wrong? The longer I’ve been in Taiwan, and the deeper my interactions with Taiwanese have become, the more I’ve had pause to consider that off-the-cuff warning.
It is true, when dealing with people of Chinese extraction, an upfront apology is rarely advised. The Chinese have a blame culture. If something goes wrong—whether at work, in the home, or on the street—following the incident there is a period of searching for someone to blame. This anecdote was related to me by one of my Taiwanese students, I think she might have been paraphrasing Bo Yang’s book The Ugly Chinaman (醜陋的中國人). She pointed out that when a Westerner is walking down the street and steps in dog shit, he gets a bit upset, wipes it off on the grass, and moves on. If a Chinese person steps in dog shit, he gets irrationally angry at the shit for being there, perhaps yells at it, he then starts angrily accosting passersby searching for the dog owner. Somebody must be blamed. An incident that for the Westerner might last seconds and be forgotten in minutes could consume the Chinese person’s whole morning and eat at his mind all day.
Ideally the search for someone to blame would find the actual guilty party, but that is certainly not necessary, as long as someone is held accountable and everyone acknowledges the “guilty” party. Concepts of face are at the root of the Chinese blame game. In a culture where face is paramount, it is necessary to fight anything that might diminish your face, thus people try to avoid being blamed. Sometimes people, who are clearly in the wrong, contort reality ridiculously to try to avoid blame and the commensurate loss of face.
Perhaps less clear is how the blame game also functions to enforce the social hierarchy. The most stunning examples of this phenomenon come from mainland China. Criminal trials in China are not so much about the rule of law as getting the accused to publically accept blame. News footage of these unfortunates reading clearly coerced confessions on Chinese TV are graphic illustrations of how the blame game works. For Westerners it is hard to see how this serves justice or the truth. It doesn’t. It is simply the blame game being played at the judicial level, and acted out on the national and sometimes international stage. The accused accepts blame and apologizes, while genuflecting toward the state’s power.
The social hierarchy is affirmed and maintained. In Taiwan, the judicial system left show trials behind with the end of martial law. However, there are still remnants of this in Taiwanese jurisprudence, and in the attitude of Taiwanese citizens, who want to see the accused formally accept blame. That is the blame game writ large, but it is played constantly in the day-to-day lives of Taiwanese, from their smallest familial interactions to workplace intrigues.
When something goes wrong at work, there is an immediate process of trying to fix blame, depending on the magnitude of the screw up, this can involve high-intrigue, infighting, backstabbing and immense political drama. When I first began working in Taiwan I got caught in the center of one of these whirlwinds. The details are unimportant, but someone made a mistake and it was causing big problems for the company. Looking back, I now realize that my Taiwanese coworkers were sharpening their long knives and getting ready for a bout of corporate intrigue, when I breezed in—stupid Canadian—assessed the situation and said something like, “Well, that’s a hell of a mess.” There was some general murmuring among my coworkers about who might be to blame. I cut that off immediately with, “Mistakes were made, if I was at fault, I’m sorry. Now, what should we do to fix the problem?” My colleagues were stunned. This is not the Taiwanese way—face must be preserved. The idea of apologizing for something that is not your fault is sacrilegious. Actually, apologizing for something you did is nearly as bad. I effectively short circuited the palace intrigue before it could get going. Truthfully, I was at most tangentially involved in the error. I was simply doing something that I had learned working in Canada. If the search for a fall guy is getting in the way of efficiently fixing the problem, then just step up, take the blame, and move on. I watched people who arrived from Canada after me do the same thing.
The same principles can be seen at play in all Taiwanese social interactions, from an altercation on the street to dating and marriage. In my interactions with Taiwanese girlfriends, and now my wife, I have been annoyed by an inability to discuss things that I am unhappy about. When I express dissatisfaction with anything, whether it is her fault or not, sometimes there’s no way it could be her fault, she is likely to react with anger and accuse me of blaming her—a high sin in Taiwan’s blame culture. It makes it difficult to have any type of meaningful conversation when your partner automatically feels that they’re being blamed. Understand here, that as a Westerner you might not enjoy being blamed, but it probably doesn’t cause you to have paroxysmal spasms of existential self-doubt. It does for the Taiwanese. Indeed every relationship I’ve had with a woman of Chinese cultural extraction, from Hong Kong to Beijing, has had this issue.
It is very difficult for a Taiwanese person to say, “I’m sorry.” Apologizing is admitting culpability and accepting blame, with all the loss of face this involves. I have been married for nine years. I don’t remember my wife ever apologizing first. The same thing is true for past girlfriends. If they did something wrong, there will be no apology. You [as the wronged party] need to figure out a way to apologize to them for whatever they did wrong. It can be pretty damn challenging. They will pout, get angry, and behave miserably until you apologize. Once you have apologized, then they will feel free to apologize for whatever they did wrong. I have discussed this with many foreign married men, and others in long term relationships, and this seems to be pretty universal. It doesn’t make Taiwanese women bad people. It just means that apologizing has a different cultural meaning and gravitas.
One social phenomenon I noted when I first arrived in Taiwan is that old married couples here seem to grow apart, rather than together. In Canada, if a couple dodges divorce for a few decades, then they seem to demonstrate a mature intimacy and closeness. In Taiwan, old married couples often seem to be married in name only, with little genuine affection remaining. I recognize that the causes of this are multivariate, but I wonder if at the core isn’t the inability of both parties to apologize. Over time, the ability to discuss things grounds
to a halt on the shoals of past perceptions of blame and recrimination, until eventually it is easier to avoid discussions that risk dredging up unresolved issues. It is hard for past issues to heal without the catharsis offered by apology. Indeed, avoiding topics that might cause debate, with its looming threat of acrimony and blame, is a common conversational strategy in Asia. It is good for maintaining a veneer of civility in the wider society, but when this is extended into intimate relationships I think it discourages true intimacy.
I have lived in Taiwan for around twenty years. I don’t have real issues with losing face or taking blame, but I have become much more strategic in how and when I apologize. Before, I used to toss out apologies like Johnny Appleseed tossing seeds. Now, I think about what results an apology will achieve, if it is beneficial or not. I don’t really calculate based on face, as a Taiwanese person would, but rather on whether it will produce the social result I desire. With my wife I always apologize first, occasionally I wait a little while—to enjoy the silent treatment—but I always apologize fairly quickly. If you don’t find a way to apologize reasonably quickly minor arguments can quickly spiral out of control. It is just not worthwhile to do anything else. In other contexts I have become more calculating and slower to apologize.
As for receiving apologies, I recently was surprised to find out how Taiwanese I’ve become. My social attitudes can best be described as a messy goulash of Canadian and Taiwanese mores, where even I don’t know if my reaction will be Western or Asian. Last year my oldest Canadian friend came to visit me in Taiwan. We spent a few days bicycling along Taiwan’s coast, from Taipei to Hualien. On the second morning, we awoke at dawn to find he’d lost the key to his bike lock, with the bike locked to a pole in the middle of nowhere. The entire journey was in peril, so my friend did the Canadian thing, he turned to me and gave me a very heartfelt apology, dripping with sincerity. My reaction stunned me; I hated it. I wasn’t really mad at him. Shit happens. The Canadian in me understood what he was doing; the Taiwanese in me had no use for his apology and didn’t want to hear it—perhaps the most singularly unCanadian moment of my life. For the first time I began to understand how an apology might set a Taiwanese person off. My instincts are still basically Canadian, I always want to apologize, but I have to think about whether it will come around to bite me. As a practical matter, I seldom apologize in Taiwan. And, when I have a traffic accident, I never apologize.