What’s Personal?

Cultural differences permeate our day-to-day interactions — and often we don’t even realize it.

Say you are trying to get to know a new Taiwanese person.  You might ask “What do you like to do for fun?”   Seems like a good first step to making a connection.

Yet in Taiwan, you might get a somewhat mundane response in reply.  “I like to sleep, eat, and watch movies”.  I remember when I first received replies like this, I thought to myself, “Yes… but doesn’t everyone?”  I would leave feeling unenthused to get to know this person, because there didn’t seem to be anything interesting about them.

In the U.S., where I grew up, such lackluster responses would be considered not “having a life”, or perhaps a very corny joke.  Americans take such opportunities to share their one-of-a-kind hobbies: yoga, cycling, surfing are common but socially well accepted; elephant training, archaeological digs in Israel, Okinawan pottery — well, even better!  The more interesting you are, the more you stand out, the stronger first impression and better connection you make.

That’s because Americans define themselves primarily as individual units — kind of like cars — and what this car does with its gas and time and where it chooses to go in the world is an important part of getting to know this car vs. that car.  Each individual has personal responsibility to know what they want and keep themselves happy.

In Taiwan, on the other hand, people are primarily part of groups — family, school, company, department, community, friends, hobby groups, this dinner party or meeting with these people I’m a part of right now — and what matters is which groups you are in, the responsibility to that group and keeping the group happy, because the happiness of that group is a big part of what makes you happy too.

And so, a Taiwanese person might hold back on expressing their individuality in a group — not because they don’t have plenty of interesting things about them or ideas to share — but they might not feel comfortable sharing them until they know you or the group better to know what would or would not disrupt a group and their place in it.  And oftentimes, that’s the real reason they say “sleep, eat, watch movies” — to emphasize what they have in common with others rather than what stands out.

(Or, that could be what they do for fun, but there’s no shame admitting it, whereas an American might mostly sleep, eat, and watch movies too, but might highlight the interesting things — even if those are hobbies they do only occasionally).

Conversely, to get to know you, a Taiwanese person may want to know more about the groups you’re a part of – and to them the most primary one is the family.  That’s why they might ask where your parents live, how many siblings you have, whether you’re dating or married, any children you have.  As an individual, you may find these group-oriented questions uncomfortably personal, but consider it as sincere a way of getting to know you as your questions aimed at their individualism.

Because what’s considered personal, how we make a connection — even how we define what’s important about a person — is different across cultures.  Taiwan and the U.S. are only examples along the spectrum of collectivistic vs. individualistic cultures that come from completely different starting points for how we define a person — and hence, shape people from different cultures to think and behave so differently.

So if something strikes you as odd or even offensive, trust that there’s usually a whole different and equally valid mindset out there, awaiting your discovery.

What are common questions in your culture to get to know a new person?  What other cultural differences have you found that baffle you?  Please share below!

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.  For more on the Center’s cross-cultural programs, please see: https://www.communitycenter.org.tw/cross-cultural/.

4 Comments

  1. Usually in Australia the most common question when you meet new people is ‘what do you do?’ I feel like this enables people to judge what social class you belong to and adjust or relate accordingly. It is funny about the family thing, we would never ask about such personal questions, as family is often the last thing people want to talk about 😉 Something that baffles me is friendships, how do Taiwanese make new friends? I have found so far it is very difficult for people to open up – even when language is not a barrier. What do you think?

  2. Fascinating article. I think maybe the “eat, sleep, movies” might be an honest response as people here work such long hours they have neither the time (nor the money) for exotic hobbies.

  3. Allison, Ron, thanks, really interesting points. Allison, that’s a great question which I can expand on in future blog posts, but in a nutshell it’s more about many hours spent hanging out together within the same group, be it the same class at school, the same club, the same department at the office, the same groups of friends; usually it’s less typical to be meeting a whole range of new people constantly. There are always exceptionally international and extraverted people of course! Ron, that’s very perceptive, yes, an undecorated, honest response, I’d agree.

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