Having recently hosted a foreigner visiting Taiwan, I was reminded that the Westerners I have shown around Taiwan have had the same question while here, “Why are they [Taiwanese people] always so angry?” The first time a traveler asked me this I was taken aback, for I know the Taiwanese as warm, friendly, and outgoing. The particular person that asked me this was a veteran world traveler who had been living in Japan for over a decade. When I questioned him further, he explained that he was referring to the Taiwanese tendency to yell at each other—rather angrily—upon first meeting. This basic question has been echoed by virtually every Westerner of my acquaintance who has come to Taiwan.
It’s an interesting question that requires some cultural information, a bit of linguistics, and a smattering of the psychology of culture shock to answer. As I imparted to my companion, the first thing that needs to be thought of are cultural norms. In Taiwan there is a cultural concept referred to as renao (熱鬧). I don’t think English has an exact translation for this word. Basically renao refers in a positive way to active, boisterous, happy, good-times surrounded by lots of people. Think of how happy the Taiwanese seem to be in a night market with hawkers and touts yelling while the crowds jostle each other. Though it may make the average Westerner’s skin crawl, to the Taiwanese, these moments are almost the definition of happiness—this is renao.When two friends meet on the street, restaurant, or school hallway, they will tend to try to create this happy, warm feeling of renao. The foreign visitor to Taiwan experiences this as a cacophonous barrage of Chinese that seems to increase both in tempo and volume until the people are virtually yelling at each other. In most parts of the world this is what a fight looks like. For the Taiwanese, they are simply trying to create the amount of noise necessary to feel happy. In their mind’s eye they are recreating the night market, banquet hall, or whatever other noisy environment symbolizes good times for them. The yelling is not done in anger, it is joyous.
There is also a linguistic component to why the Taiwanese tend to sound angry. Chinese is a tonal language. There are four tones: the first tone is a high tone; the second tone is rising tone; the third tone is a swooping tone, where the voice starts high, falls only to rise again at the end of the syllable; and the fourth tone is a falling tone. It is the fourth tone that is of interest here. The fourth tone starts high and drops quickly into the pit of your stomach, it pretty closely approximates the anger tone in European languages. Imagine that you are having a really bad day and your children are dancing on your last nerve as you try to get them ready to leave the house. In frustration, you snap, and yell, “Come here!” You will have said both come and here using the Chinese fourth tone. It is that sharp falling tone that denotes anger.
In Chinese, it does not connotate anger at all. It is simply the tonally correct pronunciation of the word. 20% – 25% of Chinese characters use the fourth tone. Inevitably, Mandarin sounds angry to those used to the sounds of Romance and Indo-European languages. The tendency to speak loudly combined with a snappish sounding language explains why foreign travelers think the Taiwanese tend to be irritated.
The psychology of international travel also comes into play. One of culture shock’s “joys” is a tendency to regard all interactions in the vicinity, that you can’t understand, as being related to you. Under these circumstances, being surrounded by people speaking loudly, with a mad or at least anxious tone, while gesturing vigorously can cause a near panic-attack in travelers try to guess how they caused the kerfuffle. Partly this is the result of the natural tendency to see oneself as the nexus of all things. Also, as travelers find themselves immersed in a totally alien environment they come to realize they don’t understand what is happening around them. It is natural that this growing discomfort manifests itself as anxiety that they inadvertently did something wrong to cause the heated discussions.
No, the Taiwanese are not rage-prone. They are some of the warmest people in North-East Asia. Random smiles from passing strangers is one of Taiwan’s charms. Visitor can count on a helpful smile and assistance should they ask a stranger for help. The Taiwanese are not choleric—those “angry” noises on the street are sounds of joy.