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Empty words, false contrition: Is Taiwan, the island of ‘buhaoyisi,’ the embodiment of Uriah Heep?
In literature's hall of shame, few characters have caused such revulsion as Uriah Heep, the antagonist of the Charles Dickens novel “David Copperfield.” The feigned humility and malevolent obsequiousness of David Copperfield's nemesis have made his name a byword for sycophancy.
In some ways, Heep's kowtowing makes him the perfect avatar for what has been dubbed buhaoyisi culture in Taiwan.
For all his loathsome qualities, Heep is a complicated character who can be seen as the product of a society premised on keeping people in its place. Heep himself casts his self-abnegation as a defense mechanism, telling the novel's eponymous hero: “When I was quite a young boy, I got to know what umbleness did, and I took to it. I ate umble pie with an appetite… ‘People like to be above you,’ says father, ‘keep yourself down.’ I am very umble to the present moment, Master Copperfield, but I’ve got a little power!”
Here Dickens makes it clear that pretending to be “ever so umble” has served Heep well. Through Heep, Dickens points to the hypocrisy of system that taught working class children “from nine to eleven o'clock that labour was a curse; and from eleven o’clock to one, that it was a blessing and a cheerfulness, and a dignity, and I don’t know what all, eh?”
While Dickens and Heep reflect a specific set of social values at a specific time and place – the Protestant work ethic and the prospect of social mobility in Victorian England – I couldn't help but be struck by the parallels upon reading this piece for the BBC by Leslie Nguyen-Okwu that caused a bit of a buzz late last week.
Under the headline “The island that never stops apologizing,” Nguyen-Okwu examines the Taiwanese habit of prefixing and suffixing statements and actions with the phrase buhaoyisi (不好意思). Literally translating as “bad feeling,” the phrase is equated in the article with the word “sorry” in English.
For some, the Taiwanese penchant for sprinkling any given social interaction with a generous topping of buhaoyisi undermines the phrase's value.
Yet as many commentators have pointed out, in most cases, the expression is closer to “excuse me” and usually used in lieu of the rather stronger duibuqi (對不起) or baoqian (抱歉). These latter two expressions of apologetic regret, it has been argued, convey a sense of responsibility for one's actions that buhaoyisi lacks. Others have countered this is little more than nitpicking.
Either way, divorced from context, this semantic quibbling is pointless. Language, to borrow from the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is about use, or in this case overuse.
As the BBC article indicates, for some, the Taiwanese penchant for sprinkling any given social interaction with a generous topping of buhaoyisi undermines the phrase's value: When it is used before asking a question, receiving a gift, or placing an order at a restaurant, it is hard to see it as sincere.
(Interestingly, in reference to Nguyen-Okwu's use of the latter example, I have often been struck by the weirdness of the reverse: waiters apologizing not only for the “inconvenience” of taking your order but also for having the temerity to put it on your table!)
This perceived superficiality of the term in many instances makes the claim that it demonstrates Taiwan's “unparalleled politeness” spurious, to say the least. As several commentators pointed out in social media discussions of the article, buhaoyisi often seems much more about form than content – a way of comforting the utterer of the apology as opposed to the recipient.
What's more, while buhaoyisi-ing is commonplace in formalized interactions between clearly defined participants (e.g. in the classroom, workplace and service situations), it is much less so in the fleeting encounters of strangers. For this reason, I find Nguyen-Okwu's contention that MRT riders will experience “a cacophonous chorus of buhaoyisi as passengers gingerly nudge past others in humble deference” baffling. In fact, it runs completely counter to my experience of behavior in public spaces in Taiwan where inadvertent physical contact is seldom acknowledged.
Few would dispute the statement that Taiwanese take a dim view of public confrontation. But the idea that matters are usually smoothed over with a passing buhaoyisi is, frankly, codswallop.
On the contrary, to make any reference to an accidental brush, nudge or even a full-on bump is to engage with an unknown Other, which, in turn, is to invite the possibility of confrontation. Instead, the preferred tactic is to scuttle off head down or, where this is not feasible, to avoid eye contact at all costs.
So contrived and prolonged are the neck-straining contortions that are sometimes required to maintain this facade of obliviousness that the maneuver itself is a dead giveaway. This is most obvious in the transgressions of traffic violators who get caught at a light before they can flee the scene. Knowing full well that you are right outside their window boring through their entire being with Superman laser eyes, they suddenly become completely preoccupied with something outside the passenger's side.
If the fear of an aggressive stand-off is behind the persistent refusal to own one's actions, no such excuse can be trotted out for the equally prevalent failure to acknowledge the courtesies that come one's way. Hold a door open for someone or make space to let them get through in the kind of tight squeeze that is a part of life in Taiwan and one is extremely unlikely to get even a nod of the head, let alone a “thank you.”
A frequent explanation for this is that people are too shy or embarrassed to engage with foreigners for fear of not being able to communicate. Although I think there might be an element of truth in this, as someone who plays very close attention to these kinds of social interactions, I rarely observe such civilities among Taiwanese.
This is most obvious in the transgressions of traffic violators who get caught at a light before they can flee the scene. Knowing full well that you are right outside their window boring through their entire being with Superman laser eyes, they suddenly become completely preoccupied with something outside the passenger's side.
All of this leads to the more fundamental problem with Nguyen-Okwu's piece: the conflation of the Chinese/East Asian “good of the group” with the “good of society” as a whole, an irksome muddying of the waters which is all too common. Having been a member of a Taiwanese family for almost 15 years and having worked in several offices among almost exclusively Taiwanese colleagues, I think I can confidently attest to value that is placed on the group ahead of the individual.
However, Nguyen-Okwu's claim that, as an extension of the immediate social circle, society represents the “larger clan” and is thus paramount, is way off the mark.
In fact – and many Taiwanese I have discussed this with concur – the notion of group responsibility rarely extends further than relatives, friends and, in a professional setting, colleagues – that is, people you know and, feel an obligation to, and/or cannot conceivably avoid. Examples might include not openly disagreeing with colleagues and, in particular, superiors at work, or suppressing ones true feelings with family and friends. Taiwanese rarely want to rock the boat and, as such, are frequently willing to participate in events or activities they might secretly detest from a sense of duty or camaraderie.
A friend with whom I jokingly joust over who is better acclimated to Taiwanese culture made such a point in reference to the nuances of the Chinese verb “to accompany (pei 陪).” Deliberately asking me in Mandarin whether I wanted to come with him to an event that he knew I wasn't into, he shook his head in mock disgust when I refused. “Everybody knows that 'do you want to come with me?' actually just means 'come with me',” he snorted.
Some of the traits that operate in personal relationships – the aversion to letting people down, for instance – do come into play in interactions with strangers but only after some kind of contact has been established. The unquantifiable entities who whiz by on your daily commute, to whom you neither owe any duty to nor can expect any benefit from, can frankly go do one.
Ever so politely and humbly, of course.
I will say here that there are certain obvious characteristics of Taiwanese society and East Asian nations in general that might appear to contradict my argument here. One example is the respect for public property that most people have. Vandalism – at least in the sense of smashing stuff up – is pretty much unheard of. In the UK, it's a national pastime, a fact that's not lost on Taiwanese and Japanese friends who have visited the country and asked me why the glass in phone boxes and bus shelters is so often shattered.
Yet I would argue that, rather than demonstrating a one-for-all attitude, this is a concomitant of an education system that includes compulsory classes in public morals and has children sweeping the street in front of school on autumn mornings. This is more about inculcating respect for authority and curtailing individuality than imbuing youngsters with an understanding of the finer points of interaction with their fellow citizens.
At most, respect for public property reinforces the view that, generally, the respectful treatment of strangers is based on considerations of personal benefit (i.e. I wouldn't damage a park bench because it's useful to me.)
Finally, a word in anticipation of another common conflation: politeness with friendliness. Taiwanese are among the friendliest and most helpful people I have encountered across nearly 50 countries on five continents. Rarely does a week go by when I am not the beneficiary of some completely unsolicited kindness or other; and – yes – these acts are often performed by strangers.
Some of the – in some cases quite astounding – kindnesses I have experienced are simply unimaginable in London, the city in which I was born and raised and which deserves its reputation for frosty reticence. Yet, by the same token, in that same city, failing to acknowledge physical contact, or another person's effort to respect your personal space., is likely to cause just the kind of scene that your average Taiwanese hopes to avoid.
The notion of group responsibility rarely extends further than relatives, friends and, in a professional setting, colleagues – that is, people you know and, feel an obligation to, and/or cannot conceivably avoid.
What rankles most about the character of Uriah Heep is that, unlike some of Dickens' more murderous rogues, the 'umble legal clerk embodies vices and flaws that are a bit too close to home. We're all guilty of a little dissemblance and disingenuity now and then. Who hasn't done a bit of humblebragging, apologized for expedience sake rather than genuine regret (after all – is it always possible to separate the two?), or bigged up a friend's achievements while secretly envying them?
Yet when such behavior takes the form of social mores that place greater worth on preprogrammed responses, designed to give or save face, rather than genuine expressions of contrition, we are in danger of forgetting what politeness really means. Treating one’s friends, relatives and loved ones well should go without saying (though many of us are guilty of moral failings here, too).
A much more valuable gauge of a civilized society is how its citizens treat each other in the public spaces in which they are compelled to interact.
To be clear, shoddy treatment of fellow citizens is hardly limited to Taiwan and similar group-centric and face-driven cultures. However – much like the pedestrian who has been forced off the crosswalk – it is an issue that some would like to pretend doesn't exist.
Read Next: Pedestrian Nightmare: No 'Refuge' on Taiwan's Dreadful Crosswalks
Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)
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