What seems to be the greatest difficulty in living abroad? Language, Culture, Food ???
I would argue it is the culture. Just as many people around the world study the English language, but that doesn’t translate into an understanding of Western cultures, or a particular culture that speaks English. For Example, a Taiwanese young person may speak English very well, but upon their first trip to the United States, they will discover that the culture differences are quite large and just knowing the language does not give you access to that knowledge.
So why do Western cultures have so much trouble here? The answer is more complicated than this, but a simple explanation can help start you on the path toward a smoother future here in Taiwan/Asia.
To put it simply, Chinese is a high context language – this means that a lot of unspoken information is implicitly transferred during communication. People who live in a high context culture like Taiwan tend to place greater value on long-term relationships and loyalty and have fewer rules and structure.
English is a low context language – this simply means that a majority of the information is explicit in the message itself and seldom is anything implicit or hidden. People from low context cultures such as the USA or the UK tend to be more comfortable with short-term relationships, follow rules and standards closely and are generally more task-oriented.
After having lived here for three years and studying Mandarin for almost all of that time both formally and informally with professional teachers, I would say that I’m just now coming to understand how this works in daily life. I would not say I know how to navigate it in every situation, but it does affect most every interaction in this culture.
So, what can you do? Whether you speak Chinese or not, here are three simple suggestions that I would offer:
- Observe, Observe, Observe!!! Be slow to speak and quick to watch. Notice how people interact with each other. Who is paying attention to whom, especially in business or formal relationships. Learn how to interact in both informal and formal situations. I’m not suggesting that you try to become Taiwanese and give up your home culture, I am suggesting that some adaptation to the norms here give you greater acceptance and trust.
- Realize that in most situations such as meetings or offices, there are many things and pieces of information that are assumed, but may not be shared with you. In almost all cases, this information is not being withheld on purpose, but rather because it is understood by everyone – except you. You will need to develop some good friends and some good language skills to begin to work your way into these cultural hallways.
- Focus on building relationships for long term success. Have tea, go to Karaoke, exchange meals, participate in group activities even when you don’t understand most of what is going on. The longer the amount of time you spend with people, they will have a chance to observe you and then trust will be extended which will result in being invited deeper inside the cultural labyrinth.