A recent BBC Travel article entitled “The Island That Never Stops Apologising” describes Taiwan as “a nation obsessed with saying sorry.” Some commentators have opined that the article is “commending” the courteousness of the Taiwanese people. But is it really? On reading the article, I happen to believe that that is not entirely true.
Taiwanese-style ModestyBy Future Generations/Readers’ Submissions
Is Humility in the Face of the Collective and Authority Important?
What the article states is certainly true: We Taiwanese use “habitual language” left over from the Japanese period. Every “polite, well-mannered” child knows to say to their grandma, grandpa, and family elders, “Excuse me, buhaoyisi, sorry.”
How important is this deferential attitude? Let’s pose a hypothetical situation: You accidentally bump against some rough-looking fellow’s shoulder at a night market with considerable force, and all you have to do is immediately say, “Sorry, sorry, my bad!” Do that, and even a gangster will probably just give you a wide-eyed once over and let you go.
However, if you fail to say anything and just carry on strutting down the street, you can imagine what might ensue - the moral of the story being that a well-timed “excuse me” can save your life, a well-known and acknowledged truth.
Still, the frequency with which Taiwanese say “sorry” or buhaoyisi, especially at school and in the workplace, is undoubtedly higher than in most Western countries.
Did you fail your exam, even after studying hard for it? Just bow your head low and tell your enraged teacher or parents, “sorry.” Are you still showing poor sales despite busting your rear end? Before your boss can mount his high horse and start lecturing you, quick! Hang your head, and say, “I’m so sorry.”
Did you get the best score in your class and your teacher singles you out to praise you before taking your other classmates to task, making you afraid you’ll get ostracized by your peers? Just remember to tell your classmates after class, buhaoyisi! Did you do so well at work that the big boss gave you a promotion and a raise? Unless you tell your colleagues and manager buhaoyisi, no doubt you’ll soon be evaluated as “poor at working with others” and “self-important.”
What “I’m sorry” and buhaoyisi represent is not necessarily the Taiwanese people’s “politeness”; sometimes it is actually a necessary means of survival in the face of social mores, or in dealing with relationships between superior or subordinate authorities: It represents your personal humility and individual deference - in the face of various authorities or collective authority, refusing to say “sorry” just gets you a ticket to hit the road; when you say “sorry,” it often opens a door for you.
Sometimes an “I’m sorry” or buhaoyisi - an act of seemingly meek contrition - does not necessarily carry such connotations; rather, it can be like a talisman meant to protect one from incurring criticism. At least in Taiwan, with them one instantly conveys notions of “I’m not worthy,” acting like a protective shield against criticism for being arrogant or putting oneself above others.
Of course, it must be added that when political figures, people in positions of authority, and in high positions in Taiwan make a mistake and something bad happens, they just as often refuse to admit their mistake, let alone step down to “take responsibility”. This is the kind of exception the BBC may have failed to note.
To sum it up, be it in Taiwan, Japan, or elsewhere in Asia, in the face of authority, one should always express contrition first.
But what about working and living in a Western country? Constantly apologizing and saying “I’m sorry” could likely backfire on you.
Switzerland and Holland: Where Seldom is Heard an Apologetic Word
This correspondent traveled from London to New York, Stockholm, and Amsterdam. In my experience, only in the United Kingdom, the BBC’s home base, does one hear a constant stream of “sorry” emanating from people’s mouths.
When pedestrians bump into each other, when two ladies out shopping reach for the same garment… “sorry” is commonly heard. The BBC, which carried the piece on Taiwanese people’s love of apologizing, even ran an article entitled “Why Do the British Say ‘Sorry’ So Much?”
However, as the article says, “Do as I say, not as I do.” There is a big difference between the tone of the British “sorry” compared to that of the Taiwanese. It is often said with head up and shoulders back, in a rather acerbic fashion, like “It is my view that…”, rather than meekly expressing, “in my humble opinion.”
As for the United States, Americans say “excuse me” in their daily lives, but it does not carry any sense of contrition. Rather, as I see it, “Excuse me” is often said in an upbeat, open way, with a well-balanced attitude.
Since I moved to Sweden, however, I’ve found that this politeness has disappeared from Europe, frequently taking me aback. For instance, while looking over earrings in front of a rack, a hand suddenly reached out and grabbed the earrings right in front of my face, bumping into me. Then the other party just quietly turned and walked away.
I felt like I was in Confessions of a Shopaholic, where the first to grab something wins. I complained under my breath, “I guess they’re really Vikings with banditry in their blood.” To my surprise, just as I was entering a supermarket afterwards, I slammed into an older women as we passed each other, and she showed no outward signs of anything. Even though I’m no night market gangster, it made me feel uncomfortable.
Before moving to Sweden, I had lived in New York and London. Plus, having grown up in Taiwan immersed in the culture of “sorry” and “excuse me”, losing the environment of buhaoyisi and “sorry”, I began to wonder to myself, could humility be wrong? If I am generally contrite, will I be taken advantage of? And I couldn’t help but think, maybe I’d been subjected to discrimination as an outsider.
Still, observing a Swedish friend’s interaction with his family, his conversations with friends, and the way they conducted themselves in public, the words “I’m sorry” rarely escaped their lips. Another Swedish friend’s mother, a top executive around 60, treated family members with the same attitude: If you wanted her to engage in mutual apologies, with each side compromising a little, her first reaction would inevitably be to think ‘what do you want from me?’ ‘You’re the one who’s not cooperating. Why should I apologize?’
I was completely surprised. And given the experiences I’ve heard from European friends from other countries, Europeans seem to take this kind of direct attitude toward family and others. No matter what happens, there is no “sorry” in their lexicon.
First Rule of Survival in the European Workplace: Quit Saying ‘I’m Sorry’
After I moved to Holland and began working there, I discovered that Europeans would rather die than say they’re sorry. Even more exasperating is that there is no sorry, but that everyone seems to be carrying a chip on their shoulders, as if they’re always saying: “So I didn’t do the greatest job. Why apologize?”
If the spat continues, the other party will say something like, “You must have misunderstood me/You didn’t teach me right/We have a miscommunication, and I’m afraid it’s your problem.”
The first time I ran into such a situation, I was so livid that I got a headache within seconds. But after a few times, I began to feel that it was a cultural thing, a sort of customary behavior. If one side was in the wrong but didn’t admit it, they would talk louder than the other person, and hold their head higher. Imagine how intense the people of that culture are.
To Asians, for whom “humility and knowing one’s place” are virtues in traditional agricultural society, these hot-headed, loud Europeans really seem like natural-born plunderers.
If the other guy won’t listen to reason, it’s simple: Just do as the Romans do, and adopt a European attitude while in Europe. In the workplace, it’s best not to readily admit guilt, say you’re sorry, or allow yourself to feel buhaoyisi.
In European companies, when someone makes a mistake or “doesn’t do a good enough job,” around 30 percent of the time people will say, “I’ll be more careful next time”; meanwhile, the other 70 percent will say something like, “Don’t you know you weren’t clear enough?” And the lone colleague who goes against the grain and apologizes is undoubtedly Asian.
I asked some close European friends why they “refuse to apologize,” and they said they’d never thought about it. After explaining in detail the culture in the Taiwanese workplace and continuing to pursue the same line of questioning, they said:
“But if you apologize when it’s not (entirely) your fault, the next time won’t the other party keep pressing you and keep digging up past scores?” No company can tolerate too many mistakes, and justification for not apologizing can probably be interpreted as “unwillingness to take responsibility for their own mistakes.”
In other words, in such a cultural context, if one must “be polite”, “understand humility” and apologize at the drop of a hat for no particular reason, then you are bearing the cross for other people and are beyond redemption.
Proud, Independent, Work for Yourself
If you ask me which European country I like the best, I would have to say England, the country that says “sorry” so much. For me, politeness makes getting along with and communicating with others a lot more pleasant.
Of course, while working in Europe you can continue to be a polite gentleman or lady, and keep saying buhaoyisi. However, if you’re going to be a good lady or gentleman, you must know where to draw the line. When you say “sorry,” your tone of voice and attitude must not be meek and deferential, but rather, “It is my view that...” Because you owe nothing to anyone, and you are no meeker than anyone else.
One even more crucial significance behind quitting the habit of saying “sorry” is this: Like all of your European colleagues, you’re proud, independent, and you work for yourself.
“Did I really do something wrong?” No, you might not have made a mistake at all, because it was your supervisor or co-worker who neglected to brief you clearly. “I’m new here. Won’t I get the cold shoulder from more senior employees if I’m not a little humble?”
The answer is no, as the sympathy gained from placing oneself below others is neither real, nor can it last. And if you make frequent mistakes or are inefficient at work, you don’t need to apologize, because maybe it’s just not the right job for you. And even if you are “wrong” or make a mistake, it is the personnel department and supervisor who failed to take the full picture into account and hired the wrong person.
Demanding that one do better and be accountable are good things. However, in the workplace, there is no need to feel sorry and lower yourself in front of others. No matter how empty your brain, how many mistakes you’ve made, or how unpleasant your personality, none of it is your fault! (Read: These are the Top Risks for Doing Business around the World)
European bosses are difficult, and so are European subordinates. Those of us living abroad should quit saying “I’m sorry” in a deferential tone and manner, and quit being self-deprecating. When you’re excessively humble, you end up inadvertently being misunderstood.
If nobody ever makes mistakes, there should be a ban on saying “sorry.”
So raise your head high, and summon up your confidence. When your supervisor goes crazy and accuses you of wrongdoing, he’s the one who doesn’t know the score. So ask him to sit down with you over a cup of coffee and have a meaningful discussion. And “sorry” is never an option.
Translated by David Toman
Edited by Tomas Lin
Crossing features more than 200 (still increasing) Taiwanese new generation from over 110 cities around the globe. They have no fancy rhetoric and sophisticated knowledge, just genuine views and sincere narratives. They are simply our friends who happen to stay abroad, generously and naturally sharing their stories, experience and perspectives. See also CrossingNYC.