Nature abhors a vacuum – social rules of engagement

Lavender Fields in Furano

Lavender Fields in Furano

Display at the 2014 Singapore Gardens Festival

Display at the 2014 Singapore Gardens Festival

In my earlier blogpost, I reflected on the importance of silence.

Words are often necessary as a language of trust.

Recently, a friend introduced me to a book “Five Love Languages” and shared that her love language was “Quality Time”. Sundays are reserved as special time for her husband as both spent the rest of the week on the road. His love language was “Words of Affirmation”.  Every day, he messages her that he loves her, lamenting that she does not do the same. Reminds me of the story of a man when asked by his wife why he longer tells her “I love you” remarked, “I’ve told you on our wedding day, if anything has changed, I’ll let you know.”

Some of us need constant reminders.

At last week’s Prime Minister’s National Day rally, he recounted the story of a very observant resident who noticed that a fish-ball stick thrown on the ground was not swept after two days. Obviously the cleaner was not doing his work. The resident helpfully reported this to his MP who investigated and discovered that it was because the stick fell on “no man’s land”. She gamely intervened and got the various agencies to work together.

When I heard the story, I wondered why the man in question did not pick up the fish-ball stick in the first place.

Foreigners used to joke that Singapore was a “fine” city. If you were caught littering, you pay a fine of $500. Today, we are a “cleaned” city. Not clean, but cleaned, with an army of cleaners.  Its our right to throw fish-ball sticks around, and its the cleaners’ fault for not cleaning after us. We wonder why its becoming so expensive to live in Singapore. [Now the joke is on us.]

Norms have changed. We worry more about what the western media projects of Singapore. The slogans have gone because it sounds too communist. We are a modern global city.

When we visited the flower fields of Furano in Hokkaido, I was amazed that no one picked the lavender flowers, leaving it for everyone to enjoy. Only in Japan. The Tourism Board in Singapore tried to display orchids along our tourist shopping belt one year, and by Day 2, the displays were bare from people helping themselves. Tragedy of the Commons where everyone acts in their own self interest. So no chance of the beautiful displays at the Singapore Gardens Festival finding their way for permanent display at Orchard Road.

What is so different about the Japanese spirit of discipline? Education and constant reminders. In my recent visit to Japan, I was surprised to find that in public trains are clear signs in multiple languages (Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean), not to use handphones. Japan is a society where clear rules and etiquette are communicated. Before you become too enamoured with the Japanese lifestyle, I’ve seen young moms carrying babies plying the crowded sub-way trains and no one would give up their seats. [The young moms were probably walking to the “charity” seats reserved for pregnant, old people.] No illusions of a polite society.

I first visited China in the 1980s. In 1999 I was back in Shanghai for a company retreat. My colleague lost his wallet. In most countries, you can forget about seeing your wallet again. He informed the hotel receptionist, suspecting it was dropped in the taxi we boarded from the hotel. We didn’t recall which taxi but gave a rough estimation of the time we left hotel. Wallet returned the same afternoon with everything intact.

A different China from the one reported by the media these days with stories of melamine in milk powder and meat scandal.  []

I’m not asking for a return of communist China. But as society “evolves”, the unspoken norms or rules that have guided civic or ethic behaviour needs to be articulated differently. Dr Newberg and Dr Waldman in their book “Words can change your brain” wrote that inner values used to be a popular topic in the1950s and 1960s when books by Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning appeared. During the past 20 years, values based research mostly disappeared..

Dr Newberg and Dr Waldman in their book “Words can change your brain” recalls having a church auditorium filled with religious believers and disbelievers and people of various political, economic beliefs. They guided the participants through a inner values exercise and asked them to share their values aloud, everyone ended up feeling a deep sense of mutual respect for each other. The authors cited Havard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter who found that when people discuss business values openly, the need to impose impersonal and coercive rules disappears.

Some organisations go through lip service. The stated values on the vision and mission statement contradicts with that of the unspoken organisation decision-making centre and behaviour.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Commonly attributed to Aristotle who said that nature requires everything to be filled with something.  A utopia demolished of social constructs and clear norms, be it family, religion or big brother indoctrination, and left to free forces leads to anarchy.



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