Setting Things Aside When LINE Won’t Let You

If someone’s really Taiwanese, they probably have a LINE account. LINE in Taiwan (95.7%) is actually more popular than WeChat (80%) in China, notes separate Statista studies. Using LINE was a big adjustment for me because it’s not just a messaging app, it’s part of the culture. It’s the phone, SMS, Dropbox, Google Photos, Slack, and Paypal. “Everything apps” have a buffet of services that encourage us to sign up and live inside them. But in LINE’s basic form, it’s a messaging app for everyone. Friends, family, colleagues, bosses – at all hours. All hours. 🙃🙃.

Penetration of social media networks in Taiwan, 3rd quarter 2021 (Statista)

It’s difficult to ignore messages, yet easy to lose track if you’re receiving many at once. Some won’t show up on your phone’s home screen. A few hundred messages might appear in large group chats every few hours.

To make matters more challenging, Taiwanese often expect a response right away.

I didn’t think I had ADHD, but Taiwan’s culture of addiction to LINE – which seems more walkie-talkie than app – made me consider the possibility.

I often find myself sifting through messages of grave importance, misinformation, scams and spam. At 10 p.m.:

  • Friends could be reaching out about meeting up
  • I could be asked to come into the office (on Christmas)
  • Some nonsense I should forget right away
How elders get medical advice (Subtle Asian Traits)

Statistically speaking, LINE is my #1 productivity killer. As someone who tries to manage their schedule and productivity, it’s difficult to stay ahead of LINE. It seems I’m not alone — this Taiwanese woman even divorced her husband over ignoring messages. But we have to learn to live with things we can’t change so they don’t drag us down.

Why not just mute the app?

Every offline interaction has a counterpart on LINE. As I edged towards being more bi-cultural, I realized the way society uses technology reflects culture.

Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” I’d rename the four ghosts Change, Growth, Execution, Innovation (Impact.Wales)

Western Flexibility

Culture is a larger term of the equation for where boundaries are drawn. Volkswagen shuts off e-mail for some union employees after hours. Daimler workers can auto-delete incoming messages during vacation. France goes further with laws guaranteeing a ‘right-to-disconnect.’

There is far more work-related stress today than there used to be, and (the) stress is constant. Employees physically leave the office, but they do not leave their work. They remain attached by a kind of electronic leash — like a dog.

The texts, the messages, the emails — they colonize the life of the individual to the point where he or she eventually breaks down.

Benoit Hamon, French National Assembly

Managing availability is quite different in Taiwan. Why are we expecting people to work at 10 p.m.? Loyalty to the hierarchy matters, and technology is an extension of that.

Taiwanese Hierarchy

Loyalty is everywhere in Taiwan. Loyalty is humane, but it can be inconvenient, and occasionally — unreasonable.

  • In Taiwanese society, we’re not truly adults until marriage, and our elders still rank higher, so, be quick about replying.
  • Rank is above all else (except nap time) in many socially conservative institutions, including schools and churches. Those with higher status might expect full attention at a moment’s notice. 

Taiwanese are also known for how we react when we don’t get respect we feel entitled to. It’s rare, but when it happens, it’s memorable. In my opinion, this is influenced by military service. All Taiwanese men must do it. Taiwan is still living with and through patriarchy, and sometimes these rough edges show.

I did my level best to avoid standoffs with hierarchy. In Chinese societies, students have very low social status. As a graduate student, It didn’t matter who I was or what I did in America. Inside conservative institutions in conservative societies, pushing back or not responding quickly enough sometimes carries the consequences of breaking rank. A double helping of academic and Chinese culture.

How to Manage Your Availability in Taiwan

Instead of judging other cultures with our standards, we ought to learn how things that seem strange make sense in other contexts. This is cultural relativism, and it’s best we acknowledge that societies have their own habits, and learn to be flexible. We can’t really expect to change a culture, but we can manage how we engage with it.

I came up with some principles to live with the chaos of smartphone life. To account for LINE culture, a few more were needed.

Accept that LINE has imperfect privacy and contact management tools. Sometimes the app glitches, like group chats that un-mute themselves. This also includes being searchable and blocking. I incorporated these strategies after my contacts and group memberships disappeared, and I had to open a new account.

Since launching in 2011, LINE has been redesigned once, in 2020

Only add people I can reason with. I started adding people who always need to reach me, then those I have rational conversations with. Empathy works differently in Taiwan. Appealing to that is less effective wherever well-defined hierarchies are in play. Shutting off the phone at night or when I’m overseas didn’t always work for this reason. Some people want what they want and aren’t interested in any excuses.

This privacy setting is kind of useful. However, users who find you in a group chat and send a message, won’t know you never received it.

Consider how you want to manage your relationships. Taiwanese often provide their LINE and business cards as a courtesy, with no particular intention. This leads to spam and odd group chats.

On the right, for a 7% commission (seems standard), this fellow provides stock tips. 🙄🙄.

We can always re-direct people to other social networks.

Avoid being at the bottom. Get into tolerable hierarchies, because it affects how we communicate. East or West, when top-down is done right, we know what to expect. At its worst, it’s slavery with extra steps.

Inside conservative institutions in conservative societies, pushing back or not responding quickly enough sometimes carries the consequences of breaking rank.

A second phone / LINE account. This makes it clear we aren’t always available. You might already have a work phone.

Perhaps being available is the nature of your work. Those in government, media, finance, law are often on-call. This is even more true for professionals who manage their own time, like freelancers, consultants, entrepreneurs. Many Taiwanese who never shut off may be a business owner or worker for a small-to-medium size family business.