Making friends with Taiwanese people is very different from making friends in the U.S. where I grew up… and I still remember the first times I learned just how different it is.
What’s in a birthday party?
Fresh out of college as a young professional in Taipei, I’d made a few close Taiwanese friends at work. One year, on my birthday I wanted to invite different groups of friends to one big birthday dinner, and part of the fun would be that they could meet each other. But my Taiwanese friends implored me in private, “Do we have to go to this dinner?”
I was taken aback. No one in the U.S. would treat a friend’s birthday celebration as if it was a chore.
“What’s wrong with coming to this dinner?” I retorted, somewhat peeved.
“It’s awkward,” my friends replied. They were uncomfortable with having to mix with new people. “Wouldn’t it be nicer for you too,” they asked, “if you could celebrate your birthday multiple times with each group of friends?”
It simply hadn’t occurred to me to do so. In the U.S., it’s common practice to celebrate birthdays by inviting all your friends to one big party. In fact, socializing of any kind, be it a barbecue, happy hour, or holiday party, often involves gathering different assortments of people into one big event — the more the merrier! Meeting new people is a constant in American social life, and the ability to make connections amidst a sea of strangers is a necessary life skill in the U.S. Yet in Taiwan, as I later learned, meeting new people in large networking settings is quite uncommon — and uncomfortable.
Individual versus Group
Whereas Americans are trained since junior high school to be individuals with their own class schedules, their own group of lunchtime buddies whom they choose, and parties where they learn to mingle, Taiwanese students grow up with a much stronger sense of loyalty to the group — their families, their class, their clubs. In Taiwanese junior and senior high schools, it’s the teachers who rotate to different classrooms; the students stay in the same class with the same classmates all year, and hence they get to know their classmates day in and day out in an almost familial way, replete with inside jokes and camaraderie borne of familiarity. The Taiwanese emphasize this intimate dynamic in their friendships, and there is a strong difference between the friends they know well and strangers outside their close circles. Taiwanese people typically make new friends through club activities, introductions via friends, or, if a big group is gathering together, organized activities or outings.
There is no need for and no practice in making individual small-talk in order to make new connections.
How then can we meet New Taiwanese people?
Back as a graduate student in Boston, I learned firsthand how to mingle, the Taiwanese way. Every Chinese New Year, a very generous matron would treat all the Taiwanese students in Boston to a banquet at her home every year — and even gave each of us a red envelope with two dollars inside!
One year, I decided to attend on my own to make some new Taiwanese friends in Boston. When I arrived, though, I realized I didn’t know how to “meet” new Taiwanese people. Everyone sat in clumps of friends, eating, chatting. No one seemed keen to meet new people, but were there mainly to enjoy good food with friends.
I considered my usual approach in these situations — to make some eye contact, and at the appropriate segue, introduce myself with a friendly smile, “Hi, I’m Jane”, then ask each other what we’re doing in Boston, or at this party. Yet somehow, my usual ways felt awkward, abrupt, and intrusive in this setting.
So what did I do instead? That evening, I learned the contextual way of making a connection. Rather than interrogate people with direct questions about themselves, I made friends with the food tables instead (which I was quite happy to do). Then, while gathering food from different dishes onto my plate, I’d make comments or ask a question about the food to other folks who were gathering food next to me. Once the ice was broken, conversation flowed from there. And that is how I ended up having lovely conversations with some new Taiwanese friends that evening — by putting the focus on the shared context, not directly on the individuals.
Over the years, I’ve had Taiwanese friends confess to me that self-introductions, questions about what they do for fun, and even “how are you?” are difficult to answer. Indeed it’s important to note that for many Taiwanese, meeting random strangers without shared context and introducing oneself based on a few nuggets of information about interests is disconcerting. It would put many Taiwanese people more at ease if we began with comments about the shared context first. Making friends across cultures stretches us to become aware that our own well-intentioned gestures of friendship may be interpreted differently due to different notions of what makes a friend, what makes a person, and what makes a person comfortable in social settings.
Yet with more background knowledge and an attitude of curiosity to learn more, we can also gain immeasurably from our cross-cultural friendships — a better awareness of our own culturally colored notions, a better understanding of the culture we have moved to, and an experience of the rich array of flavors in which friendship and human connection can be expressed. Thankfully, my Taiwanese friends tolerated my missteps and we remain good friends years later. In fact, I think they found my reactions amusing, as I did theirs, and it helped us uncover more about our own cultural assumptions. Sense of humor is an essential spice when we experiment across cultures. Enjoy your cultural adventures in Taiwan!
Born in Taipei and raised bilingually in the United States, Jane W. Wang is a cross-cultural consultant at the Community Services Center and an instructor of Communication and Multiculturalism at Shih-Hsin University in Taipei. She works with expatriate leaders, teams, and families to deepen understanding of Taiwan’s culture for more effective interactions and a successful stay overseas. For more on the Center’s cross-cultural programs, please see: https://www.communitycenter.org.tw/cross-cultural/
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