Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Happy faces & the appearance of (im)maturity

Smile or laugh too much, and immediately people in Singapore will assume that you are not very mature. After all, this country is famous for having a tough work culture, along with a stressful, uptight, and hyper-competitive climate. Life in Singapore is meant to be harrowing.

So how can one still have the inclination to smile?

Since young, I've been the recipient of countless sarcastic remarks and questions about why I always look so happy. In my army days, I was scolded and sometimes punished for always looking happy. My officers and sergeants believed that I was out to be cheeky - in their view, since training is so tough, I cannot possibly be enjoying it, and no one in his right mind should be smiling.

Now, more generally, even when I go downstairs to buy take-aways, the stallkeeper will ask in the most puzzled and somewhat frustrated manner, 'Why are you always so happy huh?'

But I have never consciously tried to appear happy. In fact, if people had not pointed it out to me, I wouldn't have noticed. I guess it is a default expression for me. I mean, if there isn't any serious disaster to upset me, why show a black face to people? Usually, I try to be friendly to my familiar neighbours. However, this gesture is sometimes met with either a 'what's your problem' gaze, or a blank, lifeless stare.....The expression on the faces of people whom I know for sure lives in my block says, 'Do I know you?? Have I even met you before?' But I'm pretty sure that whenever I see these familiar faces, I am not in dreaming mode....The lack of life in the eyes of many people is not a good sign of the times. What has sucked the life force out of them?

So it seems that Singapore's culture does not appreciate or even tolerate friendliness and/or happiness as expressed on the human face. 'Thou shalt not smile' - this is the order of the day. In fact, I have noticed that people far younger than me may well look a lot more serious, and therefore older, than I do. This is fine, but when carried to the extreme, the 'black face syndrome' results and it can sometimes have a contagious effect in terms of spoiling my day as well. Some people have told me that in order to be regarded highly in society, you have to pull a long face - the longer the better, the blacker the better. I believe the underlying presumption is that a long/black face signifies seriousness, while a smiley/cheerful face signifies frivolity. A happy person has to be a joker, who is not serious about his work, definitely not very capable, and certainly not very smart to begin with.

In any case, I have come to realize that to be happy requires wisdom. If I'm happy but I care about the negative responses of people who hate happy-looking people, then I will become upset again easily. One should be wise enough to ignore these black-faced people, for despite their look of maturity, they have failed to realize that exuberance and happy interactions make this a better world. At the very least, it is courteous to reciprocate when people greet you, press the 'door-open' button for you in the lift, or say 'hi' to you. The price they pay for succeeding in their careers is a long, stiff face incapable of courteous responsiveness and rich expressions of emotions. So in conclusion, happiness is the outward expression of a certain kind of wisdom, and wisdom is the internal resource granting stability to a happy character.


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