donderdag 10 januari 2013

Singaporeans do things differently: Emotions

It won't surprise anybody that in the Gallup pollsters' list of countries populated by the most emotional people, six Latin American countries made the top ten. The list was topped by the Philippines, and Bahrain, Oman and Canada rounded out the upper echelons. 

Singapore was at the very bottom of the list as the least emotional society in the world (however, in true Singaporean kiasu fashion, in these parts this was reported as being the number one emotionless country in the world - it's always better to top the list.) Later, it transpired that according to the Gallup poll Singapore also had the most unhappy population in the world. 

Interestingly enough, a decade or so ago I spend the better part of a year living in one of the countries in the top ten of most emotional societies: Bolivia. My Latin life was much more fully immersed in local culture than my current Singaporean life is, because I lived with a Bolivian family, snagged myself a Bolivian boyfriend and worked for a local NGO in a city that's not on any tourist radar except for the fact that it lies en route to one of the world's most gorgeous and least human-friendly places on earth.

And yes, the Bolivians are more emotional than the Singaporeans. Oh, how they are blown about by the tornadoes of their innermost feelings! Just last year I received an email from a Bolivian friend asking whether she (a successful lawyer who'd been running her own practice for the past decade, divorced with two lovely sons) should relocate across country to be with a jobless guy who's repeatedly cheated on her but whom she thinks might be her true love and doesn't love have the power to transform people, or to accept the offer for a date from a well-respected fellow lawyer in her current hometown who's a decade older than she is and who seems on all accounts to be a nice and stable guy but she isn't sure if she can grow to love him?

I said, give the stable guy a shot, it's the sensible thing to do for you and your family.

Guess where she's living now?

There is a reason why I never mastered the subjunctive tense in Spanish, the subtle conjugation that expresses doubt, wistfulness, melancholy, uncertainty, irony - it wasn't in big use in my Bolivian circles.

In contrast, Singlish, which is only spoken by the few million people packed together on this tiny island state uses vocabulary and grammar from at least five languages (English, Mandarin, Malay, Hokkien and Teochew) to make sure its speakers can acknowledge every subtle shift in meaning between one variety of a word and another.

I am a firm believer in linguistic relativity, which I understand to mean that each culture adepts its language to fit its culture and from which follows that to be fluent in a language you have to intuitively understand the culture behind it as well (which is why it took me months of living in Ireland to figure out that "I suppose so" in Irish English means "shut up" and not, as Dutchie me assumed, "what an interesting point of view").

The Gallup poll on emotions asked whether or not people experienced ten emotional states the day before. The pollsters asked the same questions in every country. So obviously, countries with a more expressive culture will score higher than those with a more introverted way of living. This could be argued to show how "emotional" a population is - or it could be argued to show how "emotionally expressive" a population is. Or even how "emotionally expressive a given part of the population is when asked intimate questions on their mental state by complete strangers".

So, to jump from "does not reveal all to random people" to "most emotionless society in the world" seems a tad far, if you ask me.

But what surprised me most is the universal acceptance of the idea that this emotional reticence is a bad thing. And the ease with which "emotional" and "happy" are interchanged in articles. The Gallup report extrapolates happiness from the incidence of happy emotions reported. But in two other, to my mind slightly more trustworthy publications on national happiness, Singapore scores much, much better than in the Gallup poll. The United Nations report on World Happiness has Singapore in the region of Germany, in the upper 30's of all countries in the world, whereas Rotterdam's Erasmus University's World Happiness Index puts a respectable 6.9 on Singapore's report card (or 60 out of a 100 if adjusted for inequality - number 1, Denmark, scores 73).

In fact, stable emotions, not being swept from one state to the next, but calmly proceeding in life on your own terms, is actually correlated to personal happiness. (And a successful working life - go Singapore Inc!) So basically, the Gallup poll's connection between being emotional and being happy is, well, wrong.

I remember the serene peace that descended upon me after returning from the exciting soap opera world of my Bolivian life to the benignly disinterested but loving bosom of my Dutch family.

Emotions don't have to be on display to exist. Life in Singapore is anything but staid and sterile.

The longer I live here, the more I feel the excitement bubbling underneath everyday life. It feels as if the country is on the cusp of change, of new possibilities and ideas both great and small. The old and established is very much honoured and respected, and it forms the foundation for Singapore's next incarnation - what that'll be, I don't know. That's what makes it exciting!

We've got front row seats to seeing this Asian butterfly transform into a whole new gorgeous creature.

Ps. Still pregnant - 40+1, not that I'm counting.

2 opmerkingen:

  1. So exciting that you'll be having your baby soon. And I really enjoyed this post. Gave me a different perspective on things. I think I tend to me more of the emotional sort though ;-) but not too carried away.

  2. Thank you! I did hope to bring a perspective that wasn't heard very loudly. I am definitely more expressive of my emotions (although never on a Bolivian scale!) than local people, and S. is forever trying to reign me in a little :) This is why we make a good team!