Our own kind of kindness

July 15, 2014

I may have to be cruel to be kind.

I have a curious defence for some Singaporeans who are bashed for being impolite.

To put it cruelly, instead of saying we are a rude country, perhaps what we possess is a crude kind of courtesy.

To put it kindly, perhaps what we possess is our own subtle kind of kindness.

Last year, the Graciousness Index slumped to a five-year low of 53, although the latest study by the Singapore Kindness Movement, in a report released last Wednesday, said the country has improved slightly in being gracious. The index went up to a score of 55. The higher number was mainly driven by better ratings in the “experience” category, which is about people doing, receiving and witnessing gracious acts.

I like that the survey measures simple, beautiful acts like saying “thank you”. I do wonder if we sometimes don’t know we have been treated with kindness because the sort we have here is even more subtle? Maybe we are looking out in vain for the dramatic type of courtesy with unicorns, rainbows and banjo music.

I revisited the United States recently and I had close encounters of the, well, kindly kind. And the acts of graciousness were of the unicorns and rainbows standard to me – and I say this without a scrap of sarcasm.

In Indiana, cars coming from three directions stopped at a junction without traffic lights to let me walk across the road – any road. When I stood there like a deer in the headlights, there was no honking or flashing to hurry me.

Imagine, if you will, time freezing at that moment as I sobbed inwardly in gratitude and pondered how differently it sometimes turns out in Singapore. I occasionally sense an evil acceleration in vehicles as I approach a crossing. It is a zero sum game. Cross the road and you cross the drivers. When there are traffic lights, the amber glow is more like a red flag to a bull for drivers, an invitation to charge through.

Another unicorns and rainbows US moment was when someone stopped – unasked – to help direct my sister and me to where we wanted to go in New York. Never mind about the box of pizza going cold in his hands. While huddled over a map, a second New Yorker stopped – again unasked – to see if we three needed help.

If we stood there any longer, a scrum of helpful locals might have formed.

Everyday encounters in Chicago and New York started with a customary, “Hi, how are you today?” followed by chatting and smiles the size of Texas. Being of the somewhat quiet sort, I had to fairly burst a blood vessel to try to match the voluble and cheery standards of politeness in America.

Even my short transit time at Asian airports had their unicorn moments: A jolly cleaner who greeted everyone who walked into the Hong Kong restroom she was cleaning. “Welcome to my toilet!” she chirped in Cantonese. It made me linger in the loo, chatting with the world’s happiest worker. In Tokyo’s Narita airport, courtly courtesy is par for the course and their pleasure in serving you is proclaimed tirelessly over and over again.

Moist-eyed in this sparkly haze of anecdotal graciousness, it would have been easy for me to slide to the familiar conclusion that Singaporeans are not particularly polite, etc.

But far away from home, just when you might have expected me to wallow in the national pastime of complaining, I started to see that there could be a subtler sort of graciousness at work in Singapore.

The quieter smile of a Singapore supermarket cashier auntie when you decline a plastic bag and whip out your own reusable one; the soft bubble of joy when strangers gather around a neighbourhood stray cat to pet it; putting something which belongs to someone else back into place when it rolls off the table. Very ordinary seconds in ordinary lives but these are still moments of grace and light.

Unicorns and rainbows appear when these things happen – they are smaller, but just as sparkly.

Do we overlook these in search of big, sweeping gestures that are “worthy” of being posted on social media? We most certainly have those here, of course – people helping accident victims, generous donations, the list goes on – and we should be proud of them.

But kindness is not necessarily about hitting KPIs (key performance indicators). Sometimes, being gracious is about giving people space. I learnt that lesson when I got to this new place, ran into the same people regularly and tried to smile Hi. The people reacted like I threw a hyena at them. Maybe they think I am a hyena. Maybe they are not the chatty sort. I am not chatty. I am, in fact, fairly grouchy.

So it is more polite, in these instances, to leave them and myself in peace. Or use a smile-at-the-floor technique that someone once described as being rude. (The person didn’t like that a colleague directed her friendliness at the carpet when he aimed a friendly grin at her.)

I modified the technique by smiling at a paper towel dispenser near the people who think I am a hyena and it sort of worked. An undirected smiley atmosphere. I did want to burst out laughing like a hyena and that could have ended weirdly.

I think Singaporeans mostly mean well and want to help one another out. Some of us hold back because we are not sure if we are “disturbing” other people. We don’t want to attract public attention unnecessarily.

This can be taken to the extreme because I feel that the bifurcation of family and non-family groups is relatively strong here. Some of us politely give family units or cliques such a wide berth that it can feel like nobody cares about you outside of your primary social group.

Compare this to a city full of single-person households where the metropolis becomes the family and residents look out for one another. In Singapore, sometimes, when you need help, you have to practically beam the Batman signal before other people feel they have the permission to lend a hand.

Going back to Gotham city, that guy with the pizza turned out to be a Singaporean who has lived in New York for more than a decade (and who could not stop raving about bak chor mee, a noodle dish in Singapore). I am sure he was as kind a person in the Little Red Dot as he is now in The Big Apple.

I saw a rainbow connection in his kindly act; I saw the concept of kindness arching as a connecting continuum – one end planted in Singapore where acts of graciousness are probably quieter and harder to spot, the other end planted in a louder, more expressive city. Some day, we’ll find it…

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First published in The Straits Times – July 13, 2014

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