Top 9 Cultural Differences Between Italy and Taiwan

By: Aris

It is always difficult to talk about cultural differences. Especially when one compares two countries like Italy and Taiwan, which not only are themselves very diverse and complex, but which have culturally and historically barely anything in common with each other. However, after living in Taiwan for more than a year and a half, I have discovered so many things that I had never seen or experienced in Italy or Europe, that I think this topic can be interesting to those who are planning to move here or who are simply curious about Taiwan. I am writing this post not because I want to give an objective or scientific account of the cultural differences between the two countries, but only in order to explain a few general impressions, which are entirely personal. Everyone can judge for himself if and how true my perception is. Just come to Taiwan and check it out!

1- Eating Habits

I will start with food, because this is one of the things that both the people in Italy and in Taiwan care most about. What surprised me here is the completely different way in which Taiwanese people seem to enjoy food when they eat with their family members. 
In my own family we usually eat different courses, served in the customary Western way: we have plates where everyone gets his portion, and we use fork and knife. While we eat we talk a lot (sometimes when there's an  interesting programme on TV I'd like to watch, I can't really follow it because everyone else is chatting). After the meal, we usually have a coffee and go on talking. Basically, it is a relaxed, jovial atmosphere. 

In Taiwan, of course, the food is served the Asian way: there are diverse pots or plates with food placed in the middle of the table, and everyone takes a bit from here and a bit from there and puts it in his own bowl. The most unusual thing, though, is that people seem to eat much faster than in Italy, often without talking that much. They eat their food quickly before scattering away when they're full. I have never seen families sitting at the table after a meal, drinking coffee or tea, and chatting leisurely. Eating seems to be a very practical matter, not a moment to relax and spend quality time with other family members. 

2 - Emotional vs Constrained

Many Italian people are emotional. Generally speaking, when we grow up we are encouraged to display our emotions and to live them to the full. Sometimes, this can lead to an overly impulsive or even melodramatic attitude. Showing to others what is inside you is not considered shameful or inappropriate, but natural.

Taiwanese people are much more constrained. They are brought up in a society where social roles and hierarchies, as defined by gender, age, status, blood relations etc., are of extreme importance. They are taught to fit into the social structure, to recognise their 'proper' role in society, and not to overexpose themselves. Therefore, they will tend to be more reserved and choose their attitude according to the situation. This phenomenon also exists in the West, but to a much lesser extent, mostly in a professional context such as work or study.

3-  Politeness vs Directness

Many Taiwanese value politeness, and they expect to be treated politely. When you come here you will see that people are almost too polite. However, politeness is not a reflection of a person's character. It is a measure of the distance between individuals. It is a way not to overexpose oneself and to protect oneself. Therefore, there is something 'cold' and formal about it. When you know people better, you will slowly discover their real character. Some people who appear polite and nice at the beginning may turn out to be quite different.
Italian people tend to be more direct and spontaneous. You can distinguish more easily who is friendly and who isn't because they'll just show their emotions in a relatively straightforward way.

4 – Friends and Strangers

One interesting thing I noticed comparing my social environment in Italy and Taiwan is that in Italy people tend to be nicer to friends than to strangers. In Taiwan, it's exactly the opposite. When you meet someone in Taiwan he or she will certainly be polite and nice; this is not necessarily the case in Italy. But when you make close friends, their behaviour may change over time. Whether this is a general phenomenon, I don't know, but this is what I've experienced. In Italy you may be involved in quarrels with rude strangers, but then you go to your friends and find comfort. In Taiwan, friends or family members tend to be less nice to each other than they are to strangers (I've also seen people who were really harsh to each other). Under the 'harmonious' surface, there can be tensions and conflicts. 

5 – Individualism vs Collectivism

A common myth has it that Westerners are individualistic while Asians are more collectivist. This may be true, however only if one avoids the mistake of assuming that individualism is synonymous with selfishness, and collectivism is synonymous with altruism, because that is not the case. 
In Taiwan as in the rest of East Asia, the individual is embedded in a network of relationships that are defined by hierarchies and social roles. This comes from the traditional family-centric Confucian culture of the Chinese-speaking world, in which every person's identity depended on his or her position within the family. As a result, every person had to fulfill his or her proper role as a husband, wife, son, daughter etc. The individual was less important than the social role he or she had to play. For example, children had to be filial, regardless of whether their parents were good or not. Parents didn't need to gain their children's respect, because their authority didn't derive from their personal merits, virtues and character, but alone from the fact they were parents. Until today, people still believe in the inequality of individuals according to gender, age, social status, etc. 
Wu Tingfang, an old Chinese revolutionary, once remarked that Chinese children obey their parents for the simple reason that parents tell them to do something; Western children, on the contrary, have to be persuaded by arguments and will only obey if they are convinced of the rationality of their parents' requests. This sentence sums up the difference between collectivism and individualism. In the West, you are mainly an individual who relates himself to others on a more or less equal footing. In Taiwan, collectively defined social roles (man, woman, old, young, husband, wife, father, mother etc.) matter on average more than in the West.

6 - Dating and Marriage

I would say that for many Italian people romantic relationships are mostly a sort of intimate friendship. You meet someone, you like this person, try to get close and eventually start a relationship. I'd say that 'love', be it short- or long-lived, is the reason why most people choose a partner. Only a minority think of marriage as a duty, or as the only natural purpose of dating. This means that people value love and romance. However, marriage and relationships can be very unstable, because love comes and goes. 

In traditional Chinese/Taiwanese culture, marriage was a filial duty towards one's parents, and it were mostly the parents who chose, or at least influenced the choice of, the children's spouse. Society now has changed, but the old system has not entirely disappeared; it has rather evolved. Young people can now choose their mate and many don't even get married at all. But, generally speaking, the leverage of parents is still very strong, and many children seek their parents' approval before getting married. Moreover, marriage is often not based on love, something that derives from the traditional view of marriage as a family business rather than a personal matter between two individuals. Many parents still tell their children that love is not important in marriage. Social criteria such as financial and social status, 'proper' behaviour, etc. play an important role in people's mate-selection.

7 – Fast-paced vs Slow-paced Life

Italy is known for its 'dolce vita', or 'sweet way of life'. After living in other countries for a while, I indeed think that many Italians like to enjoy the simple pleasures of life – a joke, food, their time with friends, etc. Life rhythm is slow, people don't hurry, they want to relax and relish the moment. Many people will say this is the reason why the Italian economy is crappy, but I guess this is a topic for another post.

Taiwan is almost the opposite. The pace of life here is fast, people are constantly busy, and they want to keep themselves busy. This is not just related to their work, it is a whole way of life. It begins when children go to school; most of them attend cram schools after their regular classes, and go back home late in the evening. After graduating from university they will start to work, and this is where the real trouble begins. Taiwan is one of the toughest places to work in. Taiwanese people's working hours are on average 20% longer than their American or Japanese counterparts', and 35% longer than Germans'. The widespread culture of unpaid overtime exacerbates this problem. 

The fact that people are so busy also has other causes. Because of hierarchies, social roles and various constraints, it is not easy for people to enjoy something that Westerners take for granted: independence. Taiwanese people are embedded in a network of social relations. For example, relationships between parents and children, boss and employees and even husband and wife tend to be more hierarchical than in the West, and such relations are linked with duties that the individual cannot easily escape. Many of these duties have to do with money. For example, in order to take care of one's parents, children etc., one needs money, and to earn money one needs a good job. Therefore, work is part of the family-centric ethical system. Friendships can also to a certain extent be influenced by various social constraints. This makes the whole society somewhat stiffer and more formal. 

8 – Youth Culture

In Italy, if you want to be cool you are supposed to go to parties and clubs, drink, do something crazy etc. Youth culture can be really extreme sometimes. Of course, not everyone is the same. But I remember that when I was a teenager and later a student, having fun always had to do with going out at night and drinking, or with wild house parties.
Taiwanese youths seem way quieter. House parties are rare, getting drunk or going to discos and nightclubs are not a must. Having a hotpot with friends, going to dinner or something like this is not considered too boring or uncool. 

9 – Cute Girls vs Independent Girls

Taiwanese girls are on average very cute and sweet. The way they dress and talk is very feminine and charming. However, here applies the same condition I mentioned when talking about politeness. Such behaviour is not necessarily the reflection of a person's true self. Because social roles in Taiwan define sweetness and cuteness as feminine characteristics, women will adapt themselves to these standards. Again, that's because in this understanding of unequal social roles gender differences remain important, and women are seen as recipients of male support. For many women, the ideal is not independence, but finding the right partner who is an appropriate provider for themselves and the family. 
Italian girls tend to appear less cute and sweet (that doesn't mean they really are). Perhaps, this is a result of the general tendency towards gender equality.

About the author

Expat Blog ListingAris is an Italian expat living in Taiwan. Blog description: From Taipei I explore the history, culture, and life of Taiwan and the Chinese-speaking world as a whole. My aim is to offer insightful, well-researched articles and help others understand this fascinating region.
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Contest Comments » There is 1 comment

Lol wrote 10 years ago:

You are right...I'm so tired of being cute and sweet. Damn.

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